A rude welcome for Abby, new girl on 'Sesame Street'

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This story is brought to you by the letters G, M and C -- girl, Muppet, controversy -- and the number 13.

Richard Termine
Abby Cadabby is the first new Muppet character on "Sesame Street" in 13 years.
Click photo for larger image.

That's how many years it has been since there has been a new furry face on "Sesame Street."

Her name is Abby Cadabby. She's carnation-pink, a fairy in training, and unmistakably a little girl. Which is what makes her one of the things not like the others.

Go ahead, count.

Bert, Ernie, Cookie Monster, Big Bird, Grover, Elmo, Oscar, Baby Bear, Snuffleupagus and Count Von Count.

Ten boy Muppets.

Zoe, Rosita, Curly Bear, Prairie Dawn. That's four! four! four! girls living on the street where the air is sweet.

And now, Abby -- whose introduction has gone about as smoothly as a welcome party organized by Oscar the Grouch.

The grown-ups who run Sesame Workshop are proud of themselves for coming up with Abby, because they believe boys have ruled the Muppet realm for too long.

"We've been dealing with this issue for many years," says Rosemarie Truglio, vice president for education and research. "'Sesame Street' prides itself in providing a way for all children to see themselves, but among the classic 'Sesame Street' characters there have been very few girls."

Truglio says lots of thought went into every aspect of Abby's appearance and personality. Nine months of research regarding her back story. Interviews with preschoolers. Auditions with dozens of puppeteers.

All of which add up to Abby. She's 3 and talkative but shy around strangers. Sometimes she gets so nervous that she disappears. She's capable of turning things into pumpkins, but not so good at turning them back.

Above all, she is modeling how to make friends and how to fit into a new environment such as kindergarten, Truglio says.

"We wanted her to represent somebody coming from a place where 'Sesame Street' is a new, novel experience for that child," she says. And while Abby is comfortable in the world of fairies and magic (her mom works full time as a fairy godmother), she is astounded by the "magic" in regular things such as the alphabet, numbers, spelling and reading.

The gang at "Sesame" thought it would be a sunny day, and everything would be A-OK when they introduced Abby this month, with her poofy, sparkly pigtails, fluttery lavender wings, a magic wand and a pretty chiffon frock.

But before any of them could spell Aloysius Snuffleupagus, the criticism began.

"Cute, pink, fuzzy and toxic to little girls," groused a headline in the New York Daily News. Columnist Lenore Skenazy called Abby Cadabby "the Gisele Bundchen of the preschool set -- exactly the kind of sugar and spice stereotype you'd hope 'Sesame Street' wouldn't stoop to."

Joel Stein of the Los Angeles Times wrote that Abby has "that creepy, throaty little-girl Lindsay Lohan kind of voice, and a Paris Hilton-esque catchphrase: 'That's so magic.'"

On some Christian Web sites, such as the Rapture Ready Message Board, parents say they're unhappy with Abby's supernatural powers because they imply witchcraft.

And Susan Linn, cofounder of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, calls Abby's introduction a blatant attempt to compete with the gigantic Disney princess market.

"The last thing little girls need is one more pink fairy," she says. "My understanding is that she's a little incompetent with her magic, too. I'm concerned that now even the Sesame Workshop has bought into the girly, girly commercialized image of what it is to be feminine. They could have had an Asian girl, they could have had a girl who's really good at math. They could have had someone who's just more complex."

This has made Carol-Lynn Parente, executive producer of "Sesame Street," sad.

Particularly, she says, because most of the comments were lodged before people even saw Abby in action on the show.

"This is why it's so hard to write female characters," she says. "There's a lot of pressure. I mean, if Cookie Monster was a girl, he'd be accused of being bulimic."

Yes, Abby is pink. Yes, she wears a dress.

"But I find it ironic that people who are complaining about stereotype are judging her based on her appearance," Parente says. "She's smart, she's funny, and her color happened to be the most popular with kids."

Controversy over female Muppets is nothing new. It happened in 1993, when Zoe the tomboy came on board.

"We were trying to write against stereotype with Zoe," says Parente. "We even gave her a ... Zoemobile instead of a doll."

But kids didn't warm up to the orange monster at first. "It took putting her in a tutu to have her resonate better with little girls," Parente says.

She says Abby's addition to the cast also will help real girls deal with "mean girl" syndrome by showing how Zoe and Rosita adjust to having a third girl join their play group.


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