Sesame Street welcomes first Asian American muppet

A Korean-American 7-year old who loves skateboarding and electric guitar is Sesame Street’s newest muppet? Where was she when I was a kid? On November 25, the “See Us Coming Together” special aired, revolving around “Neighbour Day” on Sesame Street, mirroring the air date of American Thanksgiving, and introducing the newest muppet character: Ji Young.

Ji Young is a character to be celebrated. While it seems like the bare minimum, she is not a collection of stereotypes and monoliths of Asian identity. She is specifically Korean American, created in collaboration with a Korean puppeteer. The individuality of identity is emphasized throughout the episode, with celebrity guest appearances of tennis player Naomi Osaka, actors Simu Liu and Anna Cathcart, chefs Padma Lakshmi and Melissa King, and comic book artist Jim Lee. Each celebrity guest shares a part of their culture or their experience as an Asian American as they interact with Ji Young. It is wholesome and adorable and a lovely celebration of Asian achievement. In interviews, Ji Young uplifts other young artists, like the half Asian, half Latine, all-girl teen punk rock band The Linda Lindas, who rose to popularity earlier this year with their song “Racist, Sexist Boy.” She is the embodiment of the rise in Asian American media and art that is coming to be celebrated by Western audiences.

The “See Us Coming Together” special revolves around the preparation of Sesame Street for Neighbour Day, an event where everyone shares a part of their culture. Ji Young has to live up to her name, which means smart, brave, and strong, but a few minutes into the special, she experiences off screen racism from a kid telling her “to go back home.” The plotline is handled well and serves to teach children about racism and empowering others. Elmo is baffled by the racism Ji Young faces in a childlike innocence that gives me hope, yet is a bit somber.

Ji Young is a character created out of hate. She is a direct response to the anti-Asian hate crimes that have risen astronomically over the past two years. The Sesame Street team does a great job in the creation of this character, but it is difficult to work through the fact that the only reason there is now an Asian muppet character is to tell little white children to not be racist. It reminds me of the “kill your gays” trope, where queer characters end up being killed off or suddenly realize they were straight all along; the complaint has often been raised that queer characters are only allowed to exist in media if they are suffering. I believe that there is a lot of overlap between that trope and characters of colour. However, this isn’t really Sesame Street’s fault.

While some might ask why it took this long to include an Asian character, many of the puppet characters of Sesame Street are not really racially coded, and Sesame Street has included Asian human characters in the past. Additionally, while Ji Young’s introduction is steeped in the racist climate she originates from, Sesame Street has promised that Ji Young will hang around beyond this episode. The episode is available for free to watch on the Sesame Street YouTube page.

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