Elmo: Cuddly or Harmful?

September 9, 2006

Joel Stein of the Los Angeles Times wrote a laugh-out-loud column about how much he hates Elmo. In a screed reminiscent of those when-I-was-a-kid lecture by our parents, Stein said the self-absorbed three-year-old Elmo was a setback from the “quirky adults” who personified the Muppet characters in his day.

When I watched “Sesame Street” in the ’70s, the human cast and the Muppets were quirky adults who didn’t talk down to me with baby voices. Now the human cast gets almost no airtime, and the show is dominated by Elmo, Baby Bear and, now, Abby Cadabby — preschoolers enamored by their own adorable stupidity.

The lesson they teach — in opposition to Oscar, Big Bird, Grover or Bert — is that bland neediness gets you stuff much more easily than character. We are breeding a nation of Anna Nicole Smiths.

Now, I agree that Baby Bear is annoying. Then again, I am just as averse to change as Stein is. But Elmo has grown on me: My son adores him and often pretends he is talking on the phone to him. Seeing that we have so much adult programming on TV, it must be nice for toddlers like Ari to have at least one character to relate to.

But this is why Stein thinks Elmo is dangerous:

(Creator of MTV’s dark “Sesame Street” parody Vernon) Chatman, who refers to Elmo as the Jar Jar Binks of “Sesame Street,” worries that Elmo teaches kids to care only about themselves.

“Elmo is just a baby-voiced, self-obsessed character who is only concerned with Elmo,” says (“Sesame Street” parody co-creator) Lee. “He just passively observes things: ‘Elmo is looking at a sandwich. Elmo is eating a sandwich. Elmo is crapping out the sandwich and writing his name on the wall with it.’ ” The last celebrity to so obsessively refer to himself in the third person was Richard Nixon.

Whereas Count Von Count markets math and Oscar markets the acceptability of negative emotions, Elmo, brilliantly, just markets Elmo, leading him to be the show’s cash cow, or whatever misshapen animal he’s supposed to be.

The former point has been a sore spot between my husband and I. Ari does talk about himself in the third person and I tend to reinforce it by referring to myself in the third person. My husband talks to our son as if he were an adult and has repeatedly asked me to use pronouns with him.

The third-person talk started about a year and a half ago — when Ari started saying his first words — and my pediatrician as well as some books I consulted recommended describing my every day activities to him to build his vocabulary: “Mommy is cooking an egg for Ari. Mommy is pouring the juice.”

I saw this talk as appropriate for a toddler — who by nature is self-centered — and not a harmful task that would set him up for an adulthood of self-absorption. What do you think, fellow MotherTalkers? Is Elmo selfish? Should he be banished from Sesame Street?