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You Are What You Play With: How SESAME STREET and Legos Generated a Generation

You Are What You Play With: How Sesame Street and Legos Generated a Generation

For a man or woman of a certain age, it’s hard to imagine a
single commercial or non-profit venture having had more of an impact on one’s
psychological maturation than Legos or Sesame
Street
. Yet even today’s youth might say the same thing: In 2013, we have
Lego-based television shows (Ninjago: Masters of Spinjitzu and Legends
of Chima, 
both on the Cartoon Network), Lego-based video games (more
than forty-six so far, including sequences based on Lego Star Wars, Harry
Potter
, and Indiana Jones sets), and even a forthcoming
feature-length film (The Lego Movie, due out in 2014 and starring the
voice-acting talents of Will Ferrell, Liam Neeson, Morgan Freeman, and Will Arnett).
Meanwhile, Sesame Street, now in its forty-fifth year of broadcasting,
remains ubiquitous in the lives of millions of American children. In short, it
would be difficult to name two cultural touchstones more worthy of being
written about by pop-culture critics, yet less often discussed in the
mainstream media. I’m thirty-six, and like many my age I spent much of my
childhood amongst the friendly monsters of Sesame Street, and another
significant percentage of my child’s play amongst store-bought and self-modeled
creations from Lego’s City, Space, and Castle lines of building bricks. So when
The Lego Group, now in its sixty-fourth year of operation, suddenly sat front
and center in the news last week due to a new report on design changes to its
building blocks, I paid closer attention than I would have anticipated. 

A recent study urges
parents to consider, when purchasing toys for their children, the indisputable
fact that Lego minifigures are substantially more likely today than twenty
years ago to feature angry or otherwise non-smiling plastic faces. Meanwhile,
anxious parents continue fretting publicly today, as they have for decades,
about the entertainment options available for their kids on television and at
the movies, meaning Sesame Street remains ever at the border of
conversations about American child-rearing, just as The Lego Group is right
now. And certainly there’s good reason for parents to worry about both toys and
television: Children are sponges, often noticing stimuli adults don’t. In
internalizing certain stimuli and ignoring others, they decide, by themselves,
the sort of adults they’ll become. The question, then, is a simple one for many
of today’s most anxious parental units: Does the anger painted on the face of a
toy make it more difficult for a child to access happiness? Would the gradual
loss of children’s programming of the caliber of Sesame Street—which is
increasingly likely, as each year it seems a greater and greater percentage of
children’s entertainment is provided by the Disney Channel rather than Jim Henson’s
heirs and successors—contribute to a generation incapable of growing up? And a
larger question: Isn’t one of American culture’s most unsettling blind spots
that it takes us longer to mature emotionally than seems to be the case in
other cultures? And isn’t this at least partially attributable to how we spend
our playtime as children and young adults?

The answer to the above questions may well be
“yes,” but it may also be that these are the wrong questions. When I
was a Lego-obsessed child, the thing about every Lego minifigure featuring the
same smiling, yellow-plastic face—and they did; it wasn’t until 1989 that
additional facial features got added to Lego minifigures, and it took until
2003 for Lego to introduce lifelike skin tones—was that you quickly learned to
ignore your Lego minifigures’ facial expressions in imagining your own
Lego-based melodramas. Children instinctively (and from hard experience) know
that not every moment is a happy one. If their toys seem to be selling a
different story, they opt for empiricism over marketing and ignore the false
positives in their midst. If, however, as is now the case, Lego minifigures are
carefully painted to represent a series of distinct ethnicities, facial
expressions, and emotional attitudes, it’s much more difficult for a child to
impose their imaginative will upon their playthings. The same is true for the
feature of modern-day Legos most children and AFOLs (Adult Fans of Lego)
complain about, which is that increasingly Lego sets feature stickers to
portray complicated bits like engines or headlights or chassis details. This means
that once again children are denied the authority (and discouraged from
exercising their capacity) to imagine these features on their own.

If store-bought Lego sets represent, more and more, a
predetermined endpoint rather than a beginning, it says much for the
opportunities today’s kids do or don’t have to engage in imaginative play. That
said, the fact that Lego now regularly uses flesh-toned hues for its
minifigures rather than stock yellow headpieces is a far more significant
development than the one that made the news last week, at least from the
standpoint of child psychology. What happens when the cartoonishly fantastical
World of Lego begins to look significantly more lifelike, with minifigures that
are (variously) white, black, Latino, pale, tanned, young, old, et cetera? The
study states that what happens—as I’d suggest has been the case with Sesame
Street
from the very beginning—is that children begin to make decisions
about which faces and temperaments are most relatable to their own experiences,
and it’s in those decisions that juvenile psychologies may well get formed, or
so instinct and common sense tell us. It’s all to the good that children can
now play with toys featuring faces that don’t look like their own, and perhaps
it’s even to the good that children can now play with toys whose facial expressions
better match the range of expressions present in kids’ real-time environs; the
question is whether it would be even better if Lego minifigures were configured
abstractly enough to encourage children toward entirely-homespun playtime
narratives.

When Sesame Street was testing its pilot episodes
before audiences in 1969, social scientists told Henson and his collaborators
that children would be confused if puppets and human beings appeared on-screen
together. Yet the juxtaposition of Henson’s friendly puppet
“monsters,” who individually represented dramatically different
emotional and intellectual archetypes, and human beings, who generally
exhibited the full range of homo sapiens’ complexity, scored much better
among young test audiences and so—just like that—the social scientists’
objections were pushed aside. The result, of course, is one of the most
celebrated television programs in American history. It’s also a cultural
phenomenon that tells us much about how Generations X and Y learned to understand
themselves.

Each of the “Muppets” featured on early episodes
of Sesame Street could credibly be said to have represented a discrete
set of emotional and intellectual characteristics; some of these were
“positive” traits, some “negative,” though of course this
is a gross over-simplification (one popular theory
holds
that it’s more useful to think in terms of “Chaos Muppets” versus
“Order Muppets”). In the broadest terms, however, each of the
“major” Muppets of the early years of Sesame Street
represented a personality portfolio a child could instinctively choose to
relate to or be repelled by. Because these bundled archetypes were commingled
on-screen with human actors, it seemed reasonable for children to see Henson’s
friendly monsters as worthy not only of sympathy but empathy. Sesame Street
thus featured a pantheon of Muppetry ranging from the generally admirable
(e.g., Big Bird, Elmo, Kermit, and Grover) to the generally undesirable (e.g.,
Oscar, Bert, and Cookie Monster). Yet each Muppet was just three-dimensional
enough for any child to find them at least partially relatable.
 

Given all this, we might posit here a personality test, in
the mold of the Meyers-Briggs assessment, that uses Muppets instead of
readily-definable character traits as its primary touchstones. It seems a
worthwhile hypothesis, given that so many of the Muppets of the 1970s and 1980s
simultaneously exhibited positive and negative characteristics that were
essentially symmetrical. That is, each “positive” trait had a
“negative” corollary, and vice versa. For instance, Big Bird, and
later Elmo, were both naive and oversensitive, but also—on the other side of
the same coin—friendly and empathetic. Perennial fan-favorite Grover was unwise
and impetuous, but also courageous and self-confident. Telly was neurotic and
anxious, but also kind-hearted and sympathetic. Ernie was irresponsible and
flippant, but also jovial and extroverted. Cookie Monster, like The Count,
could equally be seen as harrowingly obsessive and admirably passionate. Bert
was often tense, irritable, and impatient, but he was also intelligent,
motivated, and a self-starter. Oscar the Grouch, like Kermit the Frog, sat more
steadfastly at one of the spectrum than the other: If Oscar was generally
undesirable for his ill temper, pessimism, and reclusiveness, the Kermit of Sesame
Street
was consistently admirable for his intelligence, wisdom, and
emotional acumen. Other high-visibility monsters on Sesame Street also contained
important dichotomies, albeit more subtle ones: Herry Monster, for instance,
was, like so many of our fathers, equal parts imposing/unapproachable and
powerful/comforting.

As a child I most admired Ernie, Grover, and Cookie Monster,
which sounds suspiciously like my own psychological profile. I imagine some readers
will likewise be able to see themselves in some triangulation of Reagan-era
Muppetry. Are you a BCE (Big Bird, Cookie Monster, Ernie)? A COG (Cookie
Monster, Oscar, Grover)? Whatever one’s predilections, the point is that we can
understand, now, why parenting advocates are constantly mindful of what their
children are watching, and why social scientists are so skeptical of Legos’
recent evolution. Still, the question for both parents and social scientists
remains the same: Are we really considering, in our activism and our science,
how children consume entertainment, or do our anxieties merely underscore what
building blocks and puppets mean to us now, as adults? When I consider my own
history with Legos, for instance, I’m reminded that up until the age of
fourteen I wanted to be an architect, as it was somehow kept from me until that
time that architects have to do a lot of math; likewise, up until my
mid-twenties I carried with me the sort of childlike naivety about the ways of
the world that would be familiar to anyone who’s spent any time on Sesame
Street. It wasn’t, in either case, that either my toys or my television were
too constricting, but rather that just enough imaginative freedom was provided
me by them to make my playtime either a danger or, depending on my luck and my
instincts, a boon.

Seth Abramson is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently Thievery (University of Akron Press, 2013). He has published work in numerous magazines and anthologies, including Best New Poets, American Poetry Review, Boston Review, New American Writing, Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, and The Southern Review.
A graduate of Dartmouth College, Harvard Law School, and the Iowa
Writers’ Workshop, he was a public defender from 2001 to 2007 and is
presently a doctoral candidate in English Literature at University of
Wisconsin-Madison. He runs a contemporary poetry review series for
The Huffington Post and has covered graduate creative writing programs for Poets & Writers magazine since 2008.

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