You Can’t Do That On Television: An Examination of Muppet/Sesame Style

Since New York legalized gay marriage this past summer, longtime roommates Bert and Ernie have been under pressure to tie the knot.  Eight thousand people signed a petition urging Sesame Street to let Bert and Ernie get married, but the Sesame Workshop has refused to satisfy their plea.
Considering the show’s history of tackling controversial topics, Sesame Street’s recent declaration that Bert and Ernie are “just friends” comes as a surprise.  Along with its lessons in spelling and arithmetic, Sesame Street is famous for covering social issues like poverty, divorce, and even AIDS.  Apparently, despite the show’s willingness to confront viewers with the horrors of autoimmune diseases and family dysfunction, puppets will not know the joys of (same)sex.

But Sesame Street can’t blame us for writing our own romantic subtext into Bert and Ernie’s relationship. The ever-quibbling puppet pair has made a home in a basement apartment on Sesame Street since 1969, and their late-night chats and matching clothes (evidence of the “urge to merge”) easily suggest romantic involvement.  But how we interpret Bert and Ernie–or any of the characters on Sesame Street–tells us less about the intentions of Sesame Street creators and more about ourselves.

That goes for our interpretations of their style, too.

Most Sesame Street characters and other Jim Henson creations don’t wear clothes,  shattering any assumptions we might have about the characters before they start.  But those few memorable characters who don clothing and accessories do so with purpose.  That purpose, however, remains highly contested among fans who take their style advice from the same furry folks who taught them the ABC’s.

Sesame Style Lesson #1: Practicality vs. Innovation
Let’s start with Bert and Ernie.  Their static wardrobes of striped shirts are often used as evidence of their homosexuality (apparently, some viewers think gay fashion is always “neat and tidy”).  Sure, stripes are timeless, but by “playing it safe” when it comes fashion, are Bert and Ernie always on the cutting edge, or have they fallen into a boring routine?  I’m in favor of adopting the Bert and Ernie look as long as it isn’t done in pairs.

Sesame Style Lesson #2: Subverting vs. Embracing Femme Fashion and Stereotypes

Femmey folks didn’t have a relatable style icon on Sesame Street until decades after the show’s debut.  While Big Bird, Elmo, and the Cookie Monster were established household names, a lead female character didn’t stroll down Sesame Street until the program’s 37th season.

In 2006, Abby Cadabby made her debut with a commanding presence that matched the personalities of her male counterparts. But she wasn’t an astronaut, a rocket scientist, or any of the other possibilities mentioned in the “Women Can Be” anthem from the show’s early years—she was a fairy.

Some feminist critics questioned whether Abby was powerless or empowered in her pink tutu and pigtails.  Liz Nealon, executive vice president and creative director of Sesame Workshop, responded to complaints about Abby’s ultra-feminine aesthetic by explaining that the show needed a character who embraced her femininity while maintaining independence and attitude. I’d say Abby pulls it off–she teaches spelling, rescues elephants, and encourages other characters to break gender stereotypes (like in this episode when she gives Elmo a dolly).   Her success encourages empowered femmes everywhere to break out the fairy skirts and start kicking ass.

Muppet Style Lesson #3: High Maintenance or High Fashion?
Just off Sesame Street in Jim Henson’s world of the Muppets, style plays a more major role in creating the characters, most obviously Miss Piggy.  Kermit’s divalicious other half often complements her outlandish outfits with grand hats and feather boas.  But is her fashion sense indicative of obnoxious high-maintainance or fashion forwardness?  Those who scoff at this pig’s style might want to take a hint from her.  Miss Piggy appeared at New York Fashion Week and was interviewed about her style adventures.

Muppet Style Lesson #2: Gay or Just ‘A Theatre Person?’

With his little hat, polka-dotted scarf and frequent pairing with Rolf the Dog, is the stand-up comic Fozzie Bear gay or just “a theatre person?”  We may never know.  But we can definitely give Fozzie props for crafting a signature style.

Muppet Style Lesson #3: Mick Jagger or Donatella?
 Janice, the lead guitarist of Muppet band Electric Mayhem, was originally based on Mick Jagger.  But do her big lips and fantastic wardrobe point to her origins, or is she morphing into Donatella Versace?
When Muppet Style Goes Too Far… (something for PETA to get upset about)

Some designers have taken “Muppet-inspired” fashion a little too far.  While the furry skirt might be fun, a jacket sporting Kermit hides might be a little offensive.  Apparently, Lady Gaga doesn’t think so.
How many Kermits had to die for this outfit?
For more puppet style, check out The Muppets, opening this fall:

About Malic White

After surviving a childhood in musical theatre, Malic White appreciates hyperbole and maintains a strict regimen of diva worship. At 5'2", he scours thrifts stores and Chicago sidewalks for anything that might be Malic-sized. His writings will cover glam rock, zombie fashion, the art of cheapskatery, and whatever the angsty teen boys are wearing these days.

2 comments

  1. Michael von Braithwaite

    I’m so glad somebody finally pointed out the Donatella/Janice relationship!

  2. Wow! I had no idea Sesame Street talked about AIDS.

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