A is for angry. One of the most influential Latinas on social media has called for a change in the way “Sesame Street’s” newest character is portrayed. Angelica Perez-Litwin, a social entrepreneur and clinical psychologist, wants the show to depict Nina, a young Hispanic woman, as a college or graduate student.
In an online petition, Perez-Litwin writes, “In a time when Latino high school students are enrolling in college at a higher rate than non-Latino students … and when there is a Latina Supreme Court justice, and many others who are not only in positions of power, but business owners and accomplished women across the board, it is reasonable that our Latino characters on Sesame Street represent the educated, hard working group we are.”
This is a cause that only Oscar the Grouch could love. “Sesame Street” is one of the most beloved and trusted programs in history because it provides a positive, entertaining learning experience for children. By focusing on one aspect of a character that has only just been introduced, Perez-Litwin is overlooking the importance of context in the depiction of Latinos in media.
In her petition, Perez-Litwin notes that she is writing on behalf of Latinas Think Big, the respected global platform she founded to help Latinas accelerate their careers. Latinas Think Big says it has an online community of 13,000 members, and Perez-Litwin wants the character of Nina to serve as a role model for all children.
But press materials from the Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit that produces “Sesame Street,” describe Nina as “a young bilingual Hispanic woman (who) uses her wit, compassion and charisma to help the furry residents of Sesame Street solve their daily dilemmas.” That sounds like a good role model to me. The fact that Nina works in the bike shop, at the laundromat and as a babysitter, as opposed to being a college student, should not detract from the fact that an iconic program has introduced a Hispanic character.
It is a mistake to judge a character solely on his or her occupation. This television season has brought us several Latinas in lead roles, such as Eva Longoria in “Telenovela” and America Ferrera in “Superstore.” Although their characters have jobs that might seem stereotypical — Longoria plays a sultry novela star, Ferrera a floor manager at a megastore — such diversity on the small screen is welcome nonetheless.
Following the logic of the Nina petition, there would be much to criticize on “Sesame Street.” Consider the character of Alan, who is Asian-American and runs Hooper’s Store, or Susan, who is an African-American nurse. To set a better example, shouldn’t Alan be running a high-tech company, and Susan serving as a hospital administrator?
Yes, this is all as silly as it sounds. A better way to evaluate the portrayal of minorities on television would be to ask whether a character is presented as intelligent, independent and accepted as an equal by peers. By this measure, there is nothing wrong with Nina or any of the other “Sesame Street” characters.
“Having Nina play the role of an ambitious college or graduate student, who also happens to babysit Elmo and works in the community, is a more accurate reflection of today’s millennial Latinas — across the country,” writes Perez-Litwin.
Hang on. The character of Nina was introduced just two weeks ago. The actress Suki Lopez, who plays Nina, has said that she hopes to be with the show for a long time. There is plenty of time for her character to grow and develop, and this may indeed include Nina enrolling in college. Ironically, in real life Lopez is a college student; she is pursuing a degree at the New School in New York City. In response to this controversy, she recently tweeted that “For me, Nina is a college student. She works her side jobs to pay for school and rent.”
True, the way that Latinos are portrayed in the media is important. A 2014 Columbia University study noted that Latinos on television and film are primarily depicted as “criminals, law enforcers, and cheap labor.” However, it seems misguided to go after Sesame Workshop.
Through 46 seasons, “Sesame Street” has demonstrated a commitment to diversity that is unmatched by any other program. From its start, the show has been inclusive and multicultural. It has helped give experience and exposure to many minority performers, such as Sonia Manzano (Maria), who was with the show for 44 years. And out of all the issues facing the Hispanic community, from low levels of college degree attainment to the need for criminal justice reform, is “Sesame Street” really the best focus for our activism?
There is no reason to doubt that the producers of “Sesame Street” would want anything less than the best depiction of their newest character. By criticizing Nina’s occupation, Latinas Think Big is making itself look awfully small.