Sesame Street, The Power of We, and Trans Visibility

Published: March 26, 2024
Categories: Commentary, Feature

Despite what today’s conservatives might pretend, Sesame Street has always been a show about diversity. In the first season, characters like Gordon, Susan, and Roosevelt Franklin brought interracial communities to the forefront, only one year after Martin Luther King’s assassination. As the show continued, more characters from more minority groups were added, both humans like Linda and Maria and Muppets like Rosita and Julia. Sesame Workshop made itself clear: diversity mattered. 

Nowadays, the show has been further spotlighting diversity with the recent, rapid addition of various Muppet characters of different races, which I often call the “Power of We Club.” You probably know the new main characters Gabrielle, Tamir, and Ji-Young. However, the show has also added minor characters like Marisol, Joey, Lalo, and Yasmin, who appear as puppets and in animated form in the Power of We Club YouTube videos. Each of these characters has a different heritage and realistic skin tone, making them look more like Puzzle Place characters than any previous Sesame Muppet not named Kingston Livingston III. However, they’re clearly very popular with kids and on social media.

But there’s one type of diversity that neither the current Sesame humans nor the new “Power of We” kids are exploring, and that brings me to today’s article. As you may know, we’re a few days away from Trans Day of Visibility, and I’m an extremely vocal trans woman. And so, guess what Becca is thinking about today? Ya-ta-ta-taaaa! I’m thinking: how long is it going to take to expose kids to a transgender Sesame Muppet? 

To some of you, this probably sounds ridiculous. Maybe it sounds ridiculous to Sesame too, since it truly feels LGBTQ+ issues are the one thing Sesame won’t address with its Muppet cast. Sure, it does have some recurring gay humans, namely Nina’s niece Mia’s parents Dave and Frank. (No apparent relation to Dave Goelz and Frank Oz.) If you’re reading this and thinking “who are Nina, Mia, Dave, or Frank?” you’ve kind of hit the problem. Sesame doesn’t talk about its human cast much on social media or in books or merch. While human representation matters on Sesame, we’re far from the era where Gordon and Susan got Little People figurines. Unless you’re religiously watching the episodes, you’d never know they exist.

So a trans Muppet child feels like the way to go, and that’s where people might get resistant. After all, can a child be trans? As a very loud trans woman who works in education, I get this question a lot. Obviously, Republican talking points claim two things: that kids aren’t old enough to know they’re trans unless adults tell them they are and that doctors are cruelly giving kids irreversible surgeries before they’re old enough to understand them. Let’s quickly debunk these before we move on. Firstly, the Mayo Clinic states that children become able to identify their own gender by age 3. Some children are strongly resistant to wearing clothes that match their assigned sex, which is often a sign that their parents should let them express themselves in other ways. Yes, letting a child express themselves is really the full extent of how experts want parents to support trans children. Children do not receive surgeries or irreversible treatments of any kind. What’s most important is that trans children feel supported. Trans youth who are treated as “normal” by their community are so much more likely to be happy and healthy. 

And of course, being trans isn’t rare. In fact, the Pew Research Center suggests that 5% of American youth identify as trans. Which makes being an American trans child less rare than being an Irish-American child.

Some of you have probably figured out where I’m headed, and yes, I’m serious. I think that the Irish-American “Power of We” character, Niamh, should come out as nonbinary.

Who’s Niamh? Well, as of this article’s publication, she is one of the few “Power of We” characters who has yet to appear on Sesame Street proper. What we know about Niamh comes from her animated appearances on the Power of We Club YouTube series. Thanks largely to me, Niamh has become something of a running joke on the ToughPigs Discord and social media, since she’s a character we know next-to-nothing about. She’s got a grandma in Ireland and she loves soccer, and she looks like a typical white girl. Which is why I like making jokes about how she’s the best Sesame character of all time, since that feels like such a silly thing to even say right now regarding a character we know two things about.

But that’s not fully true: we do know one other thing about Niamh, and what we know is crucial. Niamh’s starring role was in the Power of We Club finale, “Dressed-Up Birthday Party.” In this episode, we learn that Niamh wants to get dressed up for her grandma’s birthday, but she isn’t comfortable wearing a dress. She asks her friends to help her decide what to wear, and ultimately opts for a suit jacket, bowtie, shorts, and a pearl necklace. Not fully masculine, not fully feminine, but somewhere in between. What we’re seeing is a child who has been given permission to express herself in different ways from those associated with her assigned sex, which is exactly what the Mayo Clinic stresses is the way that youth may begin to transition.

Now, of course I’m not saying that the only reason a child wouldn’t want to wear a dress is because they’re trans. Some women don’t like to wear dresses! That’s fine! But Sesame Street desperately needs some trans representation, and they’ve already got a character who’s on track to come out. It would be wonderful if Niamh could experiment with more forms of expression, like using they/them pronouns or regularly trying different outfits. Again, trans youth need to see that there are others like them, and they need to see that their cisgender (non-trans) peers can accept and love them. And cisgender youth need to see that trans people are normal people in their neighborhood. So today, for Trans Day of Visibility, I’m asking Sesame Street to consider adding a transgender Muppet to the cast. Trans youth exist, they need to see they belong, and they’re ready to transition in small but meaningful ways. It would be such an important and meaningful move to all of us trans folks if Sesame let a transgender character move in. And hey, if it’s Niamh, I wouldn’t complain.

Click here to celebrate your Irish grandmother’s birthday on the ToughPigs Discord!

by Becca Petunia

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