Ji-Young, who will be formally introduced in “See Us Coming Together: A Sesame Street Special” on November 25, is a Korean American muppet whose hobbies include playing the electric guitar and skateboarding.
This new character addition comes after a steep rise in anti-Asian hate crime in 2020 and “Sesame Street’s” concern to “meet the moment”.
Since the show’s inception, “Sesame Street” has had the goal of representing a New York neighbourhood of poorer inner-city kids. Its aim was to provide a stepping stone towards school for underprivileged children. Sonia Manzano who played Maria for over 40 years recalled her feeling that “Sesame Street” was “going to save the world and we were going to eradicate racism”.
This mission for creating an equal footing between poorer inner-city kids and middle-class kids has stuck with the show for 52 years. Last year’s introduction of the Black Muppet, Tamir and now the announcement of the arrival of Ji-Young to specifically discuss issues of race and cultural difference on the show, extend “Sesame Street’s” mission.
I am so excited, thrilled and honored to announce that I’ll be appearing on @sesamestreet this Thanksgiving day, welcoming its newest resident, a 7-year-old Korean-American girl named Ji-Young! It’s crazy and surreal to even write these words but as a young immigrant boy… pic.twitter.com/CA1yFtm1VW
— Jim Lee (@JimLee) November 15, 2021
In an interview with Associated Press, Ji-Young’s puppeteer, Korean American Kathleen Kim says she is putting a lot of pressure on herself “to teach these lessons and to be this representation that [she] did not have as a kid”.
Kim also discussed the “Atlanta shootings and how terrifying that was for [her]”. On March 16, 2021, eight people were killed in a shooting spree at three spas in the Metropolitan area of Atlanta, Georgia. Eight people were killed, six of whom were Asian women.
How Sesame Street wants to “meet the moment”
The Atlanta shootings are just one example of anti-Asian hate crimes which sharply increased last year. “Sesame Street” wanted to respond to this as well as most recent wave of the Black Lives Matter Movement following the murder of George Floyd.
Executive vice-president of Creative and Production for Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit organisation behind “Sesame Street” Kay Wilson Stallings, said that like a lot of companies, “Sesame Street” reflected on how it could “meet the moment” and address these huge societal problems.
Sesame Workshop examined its content and its own diversity and developed Coming Together, a multi-year initiative addressing how to talk to children about race, ethnicity and culture.
The introduction of Tamir last year and Ji-Young next week are the result of Coming Together’s discussions. Vanessa Leung, co-executive director of Coalition for Asian American Children and Families says “it sparks curiosity and early understanding of the diversity of our community”.
But, what about the other Muppets’ race?
The introduction to Tamir and Ji-Young hasn’t come without backlash. Many are asking what this means for the racial backgrounds of the other muppets. Until relatively recently, the muppets were believed to be fictional characters that did not represent any particular race at all, that any child could relate to equally.
Indeed, in capturing the world of New York’s poorer inner city kids, many had assumed that the characters were from diverse backgrounds, including many characters from racial minorities.
Waleed Aly has even suggested that by including these two new characters, the show is asking audiences to racialise the other characters. Perhaps in the attempt to specifically identify the races of two of the new characters, the ability of any child to relate equally to any of the characters, is lost.
But “Sesame Street” must have felt that the new characters needed to be included in order to specifically target the issue of racism. Kathleen Kim wants Ji-Young to teach children how to be a good “upstander”. Stallings explains that as an “upstander”, “you point out things that are wrong or something that someone does or says that is based on their negative attitude towards the person because of the colour of their skin or the language they speak”.
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Identities are always represented on screen
Characters on screen, regardless of whether they are human or not, are continuously representing multiple identities as they perform. These identities might be connected to ideas of race, a country of origin, language or even a hobby.
Therefore, the identity of one character may resonate with audiences in different ways depending on their own background. If “Sesame Street” has chosen to include specific racial identities, then they specifically would like the characters to be relatable to people of those ethnicities. But also as Ji-Young and Tamir discuss issues of race, the characters will become relatable to audiences who have suffered from racism or other forms of marginalisation.
By intentionally diversifying the muppets on screen, not only will more people be able to identify with the show, but more people, especially children, will become aware of the existence of real cultures outside of their own, like the Korean one.
In order to take action in the wake of the death of George Floyd and the spike in anti-Asian hate crimes, “Sesame Street” must have felt that it was no longer enough to allude to diversity on screen; they must “meet the moment” by actively showcasing and discussing the issue.
Stay tuned for more as Ji-Young is introduced to audiences next week.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by Impakter.com columnists are their own, not those of Impakter.com. — In the Featured Photo: Sesame Street’s new Asian American muppet Ji-Young with Erni on AP video. Featured Photo Credit: AP YouTube Channel