Courtesy of PBS

Courtesy of PBS

November 5, 2015

COLLINS | R is for Representation

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By SHAY COLLINS

An autistic muppet joined the Sesame Street crew last month. Julia, a red-haired, green-eyed four-year-old muppet appears in an online book, We’re Amazing 1,2,3!, alongside Elmo and Abby Cadabby. Already, viewers have lauded and criticized Julia on multiple fronts: her gender, her mannerisms and the fact that she is not the narrator of her own story. In his latest New York Times column, Arthur C. Brooks writes, “One of the great intellectual and moral epiphanies of our time is the realization that human diversity is a blessing.” Julia’s introduction and resulting conversations reflect another epiphany: that accurate representation of human diversity in (pop) culture is a moral necessity. Furthermore, accuracy is of the utmost importance; media representations can promote stereotypes just as easily as important stories.

Courtesy of PBS

Courtesy of PBS

The diversity of autistic persons helps to show the difficulty of constructing a single character that is supposed to represent a group. The Autism Society refers to autism as “a ‘spectrum condition’ that affects individuals and to varying degrees,” and people even debate the term “spectrum.” In a Nov. 4 Atlantic article, Rose Eveleth relates a mantra amongst autism experts: “once you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” But creators do not simply shrug and abandon non-neurotypical characters, nor should they. Eveleth argues that the portrayal of autistic persons in fact influences “policy decisions and research choices that affect those people.” Sesame Street’s portrayal of Julia matters greatly, especially in the smallest, seemingly least-important details.

Accordingly, writers quickly described their thoughts about Julia and other Sesame Street materials about autism last month. Joy Resmovits zeroed in on the difficulty of deciding whether a character should seem like the majority of persons in their group, or should be crafted first-and-foremost as an individual. Each approach brings with it advantages and drawbacks. Introducing a character who simply represents the majority of autistic persons with regards to certain characteristics (gender, mannerisms, etc.) is simplistic and reduces autistic people to an amalgam of traits. Conversely, Resmovits notes that viewers questioned why Julia is a girl muppet when “five times as many boys as girls are diagnosed with autism.”

The choice, Resmovits reveals, did not result from a coin toss. “We’re trying to eliminate misconceptions,” Sesame Street’s executive Vice President Sherrie Westin explained in Resmovits’ piece, “And a lot of people think that only boys have autism.” Westin’s argument also speaks to representation’s interplay of individuals and groups that occurs in representation. If the average viewer believes, incorrectly, that there are no autistic girls, what better way to correct them than with an autistic girl muppet?

Sesame Street, however, did not just create content on autism for neurotypical viewers. Rather, the website — autism.sesamestreet.org — contains materials designed for all viewers, whether autistic or not, and “daily routine cards” that are designed to provide daily strategies for autistic children. Yet, in an Oct. 23 post on her blog E is for Erin, Erin Human notes that, stylistically, Sesame Street’s materials seem to barely cater to many autistic viewers. For example, Human writes that in the story book “it’s clearly the neurotypical person as the default narrator, just as it is in ALL of the material on Sesame Street.” Furthermore, Human also notes, “the book is told entirely from Elmo’s point of view, as he explains the things that Julia does and feels.” It is worth asking how We Are Amazing 1,2,3! can be said to treat autism and autistic audiences. Does it seek to portray autistic characters in which autistic readers can see themselves? Does it seek to, in some sense, “explain” autism to neurotypical readers? Does it appropriately do both at once? Human argues, “There’s too much that’s bad tipping the scales towards ableism and stigma” in the website, and implores Sesame Street to allow Julia to narrate her own story rather than “Let autistic kids see their reflection in her.” Interestingly, in an Oct. 27 article for The New York Times’ parenting blog Motherlode, Jennie Bard notes that her autistic son did not even need an autistic character named as such to identify with one muppet.

In “The Other Autistic Muppet,” Bard notes that, following Julia’s introduction, her fourteen year-old son reported that he already believed that Fozzie Bear was autistic.

Bard notes a number of Fozzie’s characteristics that caused her son to see Fozzie as autistic — his connection to his hat and favorite phrase (“waka waka!”), his tendency to “monologue and perseverate,” his interpretation of “figurative language as literal” — before discussing what she calls the “Fozzie Conundrum.” On one hand, Bard argues, viewers do not need any diagnosis to “explain away [Fozzie’s] eccentricities.” Yet, she also asks, “Would knowing Fozzie had autism have made it easier for his parents and friends to understand his behaviors as he grew into himself?” concluding, “Also maybe.” In essence, creators seek a balance between allowing people to tell their stories and express important parts of their identities without reducing them to only those parts.

Hard and fast rules for how to best represent previously excluded characters do not exist. Perhaps our culture’s representation of human diversity in culture should be characterized as an epiphany, like how Brooks treats the importance of diversity, but as a process. Whenever shows, movies and other media reach out into important, but complex, territories, they require us to be attentive and compassionate viewers who ask: For whom was this made? Who’s story is being told and how? Am I noticing specifics or stereotypes?

 

Shay Collins is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at smc377@cornell.edu. Morning Bowl of Surreal appears alternate Fridays this semester.

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