Viewers who tune in to Sesame Street this season may notice the addition of a new Muppet, the precocious, four-year-old Julia. Julia is different from other Muppet children in that she sometimes responds to inquires with shouts of, “Play?” and sometimes seems more absorbed with playing with her doll than with experiencing her surroundings.
That’s because Julia has autism.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in 68 children are diagnosed with autism, but there are few representations in the media for those in the autism spectrum. Representation can be important, if only for the fact that it may make one child stand up, point to the TV and say, “That kid’s just like me!”
That’s not to say that entertainment companies need to “cater” to particular groups by cramming representational characters into every bit of media targeted to them. This can lead to embarrassing moments of cultural appropriation or trying too hard, such as when TV shows or novels feature “magic” Native American characters or characters with OCD who suffer from compulsive actions — washing their hands hundreds of times — but no obsessive thoughts, which can result in the romanticization of a debilitating mental illness.
Characters like Marvel’s Riri Williams — a geeky black female teenager who temporarily took up Tony Stark’s Iron Man mantle last year and who has recently taken up her own superhero moniker, Ironheart — can inspire groups who aren’t used to seeing themselves in roles like that. Seeing Riri Williams soar through the sky in a metal exosuit she built herself could inspire the next black female Bill Gates or Elon Musk.
There’s a tendency to treat one group of people or one person as “other,” or to dehumanize what we don’t understand. After all, it’s easy to pick somebody and label them as the enemy. Every school had that one “weird” kid that everyone made fun of, embodied by Screech from “Saved by the Bell” or Steve Urkel from “Family Matters.” But that “weird” kid in school didn’t ask for the attention.
LGTBQIA characters in media like LeFou in Disney’s live-action adaption of “Beauty and the Beast” or the acting career of Laverne Cox can also show LGBTQIA youth that their sexual preference or gender identity are the new societal norm. JAMA Pediatrics, a child and adolescent health journal, recently reported that there is a link between the adoption of same sex marriage and a decrease in high school LGTB youth suicide. Clearly, representation and acceptance can save lives.
Native Americans, Hawaiian tribesmen, black youths, Muslim Americans, LGTBQIA individuals — all have been demonized at one point in history or another. Instead of stripping people of their humanity we should instead celebrate what we all have in common and give children of these groups characters to look up to.
For children like Julia, places like Sesame Street where they can see representation may be places where “every door will open wide to people like you,” to quote the theme song.
UP managing editor