'Sesame Street' hopes Zoe, the new girl on the block, is a monster hit

September 02, 1993|By Erik Eckholm | Erik Eckholm,New York Times News Service

Will Zoe succeed where Prairie Dawn and Alice, Rosita and Juliet, Grundgetta and many, many others have failed?

Will this orange, furry, bug-eyed, wide-mouthed little monster wearing plastic beads and mismatched pink and red barrettes become a superstar? Will millions of children clutch Zoe dolls as they drop off to sleep each night?

Until she makes her debut on "Sesame Street" this fall, no one can be sure that Zoe will enter the Muppet pantheon -- joining celebrities like Big Bird, Cookie Monster and Oscar the Grouch ++ with that je ne sais quoi that has put them over the top.

But the makers of "Sesame Street" think she has that magic. They certainly hope so, because they are counting on Zoe to fill an embarrassing gap that has dogged the show since its creation in 1969: the lack of a strong female Muppet.

No one suggests that this is the country's most burning feminist issue, or that a remedy will transform the lives of American girls. The human cast of "Sesame Street" is, to be sure, properly diverse, and even with many of the Muppets, gender is hardly the most notable trait. You have to listen to Big Bird for a while to figure out he's a he.

Still, most of the Muppets on "Sesame Street," including all the 10 or so superstars, the ones every child knows by name, are undeniably male. And it is the Muppets, not the humans, that are intended to embody children's emotions and needs on this deeply thought-out program. Children worry neurotically with Telly, crave with Cookie Monster, feel contrary with Oscar.

Over the years, many viewers as well as the staff at the Children's Television Workshop, which produces "Sesame Street," have lamented the sex gap.

"All these little girls need to have role models on the show," said Valeriana Lovelace, a psychologist who directs research for "Sesame Street." "Children love our characters, they see them and say, 'That's like me.' It's important to legitimize the experiences of little girls."

This is, after all, a show on which every sketch and gag has an educational purpose for the 3- to 5-year-old target audience -- purposes codified in a 50-page document listing more than 200 "instructional goals." These range from social ("the child will perceive black as a positive color") to cognitive goals ("the child can recite the alphabet").

The miracle of "Sesame Street" is that it carries so much baggage while remaining one of the most entertaining shows on television, for parents as well as children (that is an official goal too: get parents involved).

In introducing new female characters over the years, though, the show has repeatedly failed to find the right chemistry; one

character after another has somehow stayed one-dimensional, failing to stir the imaginations of children or, importantly, the show's writers. A shortage of skilled female puppeteers has made the quest harder.

"We've had many female characters, it's just that they have not ** emerged as popular as some of the male characters," said Norman Stiles, chief writer for "Sesame Street," sounding a bit exasperated. Viewer surveys show, in fact, that most children can't even remember the female Muppets' names.

"One character I feel a lot of the critics out there won't acknowledge is Grundgetta, a female grouch," Mr. Stiles said of Oscar's trashy friend. "She's been around for years and I think she's the greatest."

(The most famous female Muppet created by Jim Henson Productions, which despite Henson's death in 1990 still supplies and manages the show's puppets, is Miss Piggy, but she does not appear on "Sesame Street" and is not exactly a role model.)

Staff members credit Michael Loman, a former sitcom writer and producer who took over in January as executive producer of "Sesame Street," with making sure the sex problem would be solved this year, as the show marks its 25th season with a major expansion of its set and cast, both Muppet and human.

"At this point, excuses don't count, we have to do it," Mr. Loman said recently of the need for female characters. "It was a priority of mine."

All five new Muppets -- Zoe, Sherry Netherland (owner of a chaotic Muppet hotel called the Furry Arms) and the Squirrelles, a Motown-style trio of singing squirrels -- are female.

But the staff has its highest hopes set for Zoe, who even before taping began last month had achieved a strong persona. "This one somehow feels right," Mr. Stiles said. "She seems funny and full of life the way Elmo and Grover and Telly are. All these characters seem real, and she feels real."

Zoe has been in the making since the beginning of the year, the product of collaboration among producers, writers, Jim Henson Productions and the puppeteer.

When the producers decided they wanted a 3-year-old girl Muppet as a counterpart to the exuberant Elmo, they thought immediately of Fran Brill. She is the voice and hand behind several Muppets, including Prairie Dawn, who is acknowledged to be too much of a Miss Know-It-All for stardom, and Polly Darton, the country singer.

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