NPR logo Of Cookie Monster and Other Bad Guys


Of Cookie Monster and Other Bad Guys

Well that didn't take long. What are we, three days into this, and we've already got a little backlash? Commenter Steve Petersen writes:

"Cookie Monster unfortunately represents too many Americans, both the obese and [the] deeply indebted ... "

Now, I'm not sure I know how the C-Monster got himself in hock, or what evidence there is to suggest that he's living beyond his means. (Come to think of it, how many Muppets have a visible source of income? I seem to recall Kermit anchoring a newscast, but aside from that ...)

Still, Steve's comment raises a question: Need an intriguing character be a good role model?

I'd answer with a resounding no.

In fact, you'll meet more than one thoroughly disagreeable villain in this series. And as Elizabeth suggested in her on-air introduction to the series, the wicked may well have more to teach us about ourselves than the good.

While we're on the topic, commenter Callie Kimball asks:

"The characters need to be American, but the author does not? Any genre — drama, fiction, poetry, visual art, and, I assume, television — is fair fodder?"

Yes to the last bit. But on the first, we were thinking the other way around, actually: characters from American culture, high or low.

Now that you ask, though, we're intrigued: Outsiders have been known to contribute to our sense of ourselves; de Tocqueville (he said, insufferably) certainly told us a few things about the American body politic.

So if someone wants to make a case for an American character created by a non-American author/director/whatever, by all means submit an essay.

And as for that American thing, since I know some of you are probably wondering why we're being all xenophobic: It's just a frame, a way of defining the question in a manageable way.

Six millennia (at least) of human civilization is an awfully big field, after all. Taking stock of 232 years' worth of one culture's characters was hurdle enough, we thought.



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Honestly the comment earlier about Cookie Monster irked me a bit. One of the reasons I love PBS and "Sesame Street" in particular is that it adapts and evolves. Though they still have many of the same characters that I watched when I was my daughter's age, they change in little ways to reflect today's modern society in order to better relate to today's youth and what they are exposed to.

For example, Cookie Monster eats healthy foods along with his much beloved cookies. Elmo has a computer and is perfectly comfortable with using e-mail and video cameras. Grover regularly globe trots and brings back footage of his trips in various different countries.

But as much as they change, the cores of the characters remain the same. Oscar is still very much a Grouch. Grover still works odd jobs and moonlights as Super Grover. Big Bird is still big and yellow and loves his bird seed cookies.

For many children, "Sesame Street" offers them some of their first experiences with fictional characters that they will undoubtedly remember as they grow older, even in this day and age of Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, and Disney Channel. I also imagine that in a few more decades, you'll be hard pressed to find a grown adult on any American street of any age who doesn't have a favorite "Sesame Street" character from their childhood.

Sent by Christina Rivera | 4:47 PM | 1-3-2008

In defense of my assertion that Cookie Monster represents America's vast appetite, it is his phrase -- "C is for cookie..." -- that represents the desire within us all for easy justification to consume (both orally and with the wallet). Granted, sometimes the fact that C is for cookies is sufficient to justify consumption, but not always. We must weigh (no pun intended) our choices much more than we collectively do.

Trey, I agree. Intriguing characters aren't just the benevolent ones.

Sent by Steve Petersen | 6:56 PM | 1-3-2008

Oh yeah, as a twenty something, I don't recall the Cookie Monster of my childhood eating healthy like he does now. Sesame Street characters do evolve, but such changes don't affect all of us. I won't get significant exposure to Big Bird and his friends again until I have children of my own. They'll probably change between now and then anyways...

Either way, here's an interesting question: How does the fact that different generations relate to a character in varied ways affect his or her influence on society?

Sent by Steve Petersen | 7:30 PM | 1-3-2008

Cookie Monster was and still is, at the core of its being, the impulsive and gratification-seeking id of every child. But unlike Freud's purely amoral psychological construct, Cookie Monster shows deep empathy for the creatures and people around him, often sharing what he loves most and even forsaking it for the sake of another.

Thus, while children immediately identify with Cookie Monster's single-minded desire for instant gratification, they learn also to balance their selfish needs with the needs of others, reinforcing the natural empathy inherent in the young of our species, a trait which, unfortunately, later atrophies into frightened and ignorant xenophobia and tribalism as the young age and become closed-minded adults.

We would all do well to emulate the Cookie Monster, as precious few of the current, popular role models offer anything nearly as hopeful or humanistic.

Sent by John Brown | 1:09 PM | 1-6-2008