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

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by Seth Abramson
June 18, 2013 8:35 AM
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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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