Continuing to Champion Diversity, ‘Sesame Street’ Debuts first Asian-American Muppet
AP PHOTO/NOREEN NASIR
“Sesame Street” is in the news again; this time, it is making history as it introduces Ji-Young, the first Asian American Muppet to live on “Sesame Street”. Ji-Young is a 7-year-old, Korean American girl, who is passionate about electric guitar and skateboarding.
Helping children learn, understand and cope with current affairs is a longstanding tradition for the iconic show, and this recent addition is no different. There were many internal discussions at “Sesame Street” about how to address the events of 2020, most notably, George Floyd’s death and the increase in anti-Asian hate crimes. Kay Stalling, the Executive Vice President of Creative and Production for Sesame Workshop, the non-profit behind Sesame Street, wondered how “Sesame Street,” “could meet the moment?”
The internal discussions led to Sesame Workshop creating two task forces. The first task force was created to review Sesame Workshop’s diversity and the second’s purpose was to examine its content. Out of the task forces, a multi-year initiative, called Coming Together, was developed to address the questions surrounding how to discuss race, ethnicity, and culture.
Ji-Young’s character was a direct result of those discussions and queries.
Also feeling a heavy responsibility to meet the moment, is Kathleen Kim, the puppeteer for Ji-Young. Kim, who is also Korean American, has expressed the importance of the role, noting “I feel like I have a lot of weight…to teach these lessons and to be this representative that I did not have as a kid.” A dream realized for Kim, she grew up watching the show that has now accepted her as part of its team; providing her with the opportunity and a storied platform, to shape an original Muppet in an historic and timely moment.
Ji-Young’s entry into the world of “Sesame Street” was ostensibly a necessity, given the types of subjects the Sesame Workshop wants to continue to explore and the fact that representation surrounding those subjects of racism and discrimination is important. This was a realization clear to “Sesame Street” as it made a point in the past, to develop new Muppets like 8-year old Tamir, not the first Black muppet, but one of the first to talk about subjects like racism.
Ji-Young will make her debut in “See Us Coming Together: A Sesame Street Special,” which premieres Thanksgiving Day on HBO Max, “Sesame Street” social media platforms, and on local PBS stations. The special will also feature Asian-American celebrities, Simu Liu, Padma Lakshmi and Naomi Osaka. Ji-Young’s appearance directly addresses the anti-Asian sentiment that has, unfortunately, become increasingly common in recent years.
Ji-Young’s name follows Korean tradition, including two syllables with different meanings. “Ji” means “smart or wise” and “Young”, means brave, courageous or strong. Auspiciously, “Ji” also means Sesame; a fitting coincidence for a ground-breaking muppet.
While Ji-Young’s character will help usher in some serious topics and she will be used heavily in the 53rd season of “Sesame Street,” she will not be relegated to content focused only on racial justice. Ji-Young will be sharing with her new neighbors and friends different aspects of Korean culture and participating in the many things typical of 7-year-olds when they get to “Sesame Street.”