Many people grew up waving hello to Elmo on PBS, but starting last week, they’ll see a new face for kids to giggle with on Sesame Street─Ji-Young, the first Asian-American muppet.
A TV diversity report released last month confirmed that America’s steady increase in diversity is reflected in the racial and ethnic representation people want to see on-screen. The team at Sesame Street is doing just that with the newest member of the muppet family.
In a statement to the Associated Press, executive vice-president of Creative and Production for Sesame Workshop, Kay Wilson Stallings, confirmed the incidents of 2020 caused Sesame Street to reflect on how they could “meet the moment.” Then came Ji-Young and Tamir, the first Black muppet to actively address racism on television.
According to Matt Oflas, co-president of the USC Asian Pacific Cinema Association, the timing of Ji-Young’s character indicates careful consideration of the social changes during the past year.
“I feel like they really took their time with it rather than just making a big gesture in the moment at the height of all the protests,” Oflas said. “Instead of responding immediately to capitalize off the moment, they took the time to reflect and see how they could change their programming in a meaningful way.”
Another thing Oflas said he appreciates is the intentionality behind the ethnicity of Ji-Young. Instead of just labeling her as “Asian,” a term that is non-specific and can overlook particular cultural experiences, there is an emphasis on the muppet being Korean American.
“One of the points that the creator made was that they wanted the muppet to be specifically Koren American, not just Pan Asian, not general Korean, but Korean American,” Oflas said. “I think that specificity is exactly what we’ve been asking for because these identities are nuanced. For decades, especially in entertainment and media, Asian Americans have been put under this one umbrella.”
Kathleen Kim, the Korean American puppeteer behind Ji-Young’s character, told NPR that part of the importance of the new muppet is to normalize different cultural identities.
“My one hope is to have Ji-Young help teach what racism is, help teach kids to be able to recognize it and speak against it,” Kim said. “But then my other hope for Ji-Young is that she just normalizes seeing different kinds of looking kids on TV.”
As an activist who has organized multiple rallies in support of Asian-Americans and stopping AAPI hate, local teen Ashlyn So said she is excited to see the added representation on PBS.
“I feel like we made a huge accomplishment and took a huge step in making a difference,” she said. “It is especially important to learn about different cultures at a young age and being able to see Asian American representation in sesame street in such a positive and non-stereotypical way is so exciting. It helps kids not to be afraid of others who look different from themselves.”
Ji-Young has taken the internet by storm. On Twitter, one user said: “The whole point of this is to teach kids that peoples’ differences make them special,” while another posted a photo of one of Sesame Street’s original picture books along with the caption, “always (try to) remember.”
Ji-Young’s skateboarding and guitar-playing character will premiere on Thanksgiving Day as part of the episode, “See Us Coming Together: A Sesame Street Special.”