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My 2-year-old Max demands to wear his Elmo hat while I try to make him wear one shaped like a frog’s head with googly eyes.
“Come on, this one is much cuter,” I say, pushing the green one over his head while his little, chubby hands push against mine. What I don’t say during this wrestling match is this: At least this frog isn’t a licensed character whose owner may or may not have done inappropriate things with underage boys.
Max doesn’t care. He’s at an age where Elmo is king, a friendly monster who talks at his level and is funny, too.
What’s not funny is the dilemma facing parents of Elmo fans this holiday season. Should the Kevin Clash sex scandal put an end to the ubiquity of Elmo in their house, the T-shirts, the talking and giggling dolls, the books and the bath toys? Even when the proceeds go to a good cause? Should Elmo be punished for something his puppeteer allegedly did?
Surprisingly, there hasn’t been more of an uproar over the scandal, possibly because Clash, beloved by parents who once fantasized about becoming Jim Henson, fairly swiftly stepped down and also because we want to believe in Elmo’s innocence. It was a different reaction when Pee-wee Herman’s creator, Paul Reubens, was literally caught with his pants down and an uproar ensued in the 90s, crushing Reubens’ career and bringing an end to the Pee-wee character. In that case, however, it involved one person and not, as in the allegations against Clash, younger people who may not have been mature enough to make adult decisions. Plus, Pee-wee was always a bit creepy.
I’m not suggesting "Sesame Street" should be banned. It’s a great show. Still, I feel like I’m endorsing the person who perfected Elmo when I let Max wear the hat. Max is completely oblivious, of course, and so are his friends. But does letting him walk around with a smiling, waving Elmo on his head somehow imply I’m okay with looking the other way?
Analysts have predicted his character will prevail even during this holiday season, but I suspect some relatives contemplating whether to buy yet another Elmo toy will opt for something else, afraid to offend parents.
I’m not sure we could have gotten away with banning Elmo just a couple of years ago.
When my 4-year-old daughter was Max’s age, she was convinced her name was Elmo. She even dressed up as him for Halloween. We got the Elmo talking doll, the Elmo non-talking doll when the talking one scared her, and later "Elmo’s Potty Time" DVD, hoping it would inspire her.
Unlike the boys who will break her heart in years to come, Elmo was devoted, singing to her through the TV and teaching her things, like the alphabet and sharing. Eventually her obsession died down, but she still holds a soft spot for him.
As once-devoted fans of the Muppets, my husband and I had had our own share of Kermit dolls, Bert and Ernie posters, and fantasies of moving to the Big Apple after watching "The Muppets Take Manhattan." I think my husband wanted children just so he could have an excuse to watch "Sesame Street" again.
And like others of our generation, we mourned Henson’s death. In Clash, we could admire what seemed like a surefire legacy à la his mentor. But as parents, we at first frowned upon Elmo, equating him to an annoying character like Barney and feeling a fondness for Grover, who long ago was shunted out of the spotlight. We didn’t have Elmo growing up, and his existence made us feel old.
Over time –- and repeated viewings -– we ended up finding the red guy harmless, even endearing. We overlooked the fact he always talks in the third person (which seems dumb but works for the pre-tots who don’t yet talk), and we grew to put up with his high-pitched voice. We have enjoyed watching the wonder and pure love that came over our kids when he entered a scene.
The accusations against Clash don’t have to do with the preschool generation, but it’s upsetting to think that one younger person or more could have been manipulated by someone who should know better. I still hold out hope the allegations aren’t true even as they multiply.
But for now, I’ll continue my futile attempts to convince Max that the frog hat -– a generic, non-licensed animal –- is cooler than Elmo.