First Asian American muppet arrives on ‘Sesame Street’
By Amanda Holpuch
“Sesame Street” is welcoming its first Asian American muppet to the neighborhood. Ji-Young, a Korean American 7-year-old who loves playing her electric guitar and skateboarding, will make her debut next week.
Ji-Young won’t just be sharing her love for rock music and tteokbokki, or Korean rice cakes, on the show. She will also play a role in countering anti-Asian bias and harassment at a time of heightened awareness around the issue.
Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit that produces “Sesame Street,” said it created Ji-Young to support families of Asian and Pacific Islander heritage as part of its racial justice initiative, Coming Together. Sesame Workshop introduced the initiative in the summer of 2020, after the murder of George Floyd and as racism and violence targeting Asians and Asian Americans surged during the pandemic.
“Sesame Street” has been on air for more than 50 years, but Ji-Young is its first Asian American muppet.
The show has had human characters and guests of Asian descent, including Alan Muraoka, who is Japanese American and owns the fictional Hooper’s Store. In June, “Sesame Street” released a video called “Proud of Your Eyes,” in which Muraoka helped Analyn, a Filipino American girl, after she was teased about the shape of her eyes. Muraoka and Wes, a muppet, told Analyn that her eyes were beautiful and part of what made her who she was.
Nancy Wang Yuen, a sociology professor at Biola University in La Mirada, California, and an expert on race and racism in Hollywood, said that when she first immigrated to the United States from Taiwan at age 5, she learned more English from “Sesame Street” than from the English as a second language classes at her school.
The show was more diverse than most children’s programming of the time, but Yuen said it was missing characters who looked like her when she was growing up in the 1980s and early 1990s.
“I think having this muppet who is more culturally specific and is able to speak another language, especially in the current time of rising anti-Asian hate, is so essential to representation,” she said.
Ji-Young made her television debut on the “Today” show on NBC on Monday. “You know what’s really cool about ‘Sesame Street’ is that no matter what you look like, or how you play or where you come from, you belong, and that’s really cool,” Ji-Young said.
She will be introduced on “Sesame Street” during a special episode on Thanksgiving Day on HBO Max and on local PBS stations. The show, “See Us Coming Together: A Sesame Street Special,” will also feature Simu Liu and Naomi Osaka.
Liu, who plays the title character in “Shang-Chi and the Legend of Ten Rings,” welcomed Ji-Young to “Sesame Street” on Twitter on Monday, after The Associated Press reported on the new muppet’s debut.
“I’ve had the privilege of experiencing so many incredible things over the past couple of years, but this definitely sticks out,” Liu said. “Welcome to Sesame Street, Ji-Young! I’m so glad I got to hang out with you.”
In the special episode, the residents of Sesame Street celebrate Neighbor Day, a community event with food, music and games. Someone off screen tells Ji-Young to “go back home,” and then the other residents, guest stars and friends, including Elmo, offer her support.
Ji-Young’s puppeteer is Kathleen Kim, who is Korean American. “My one hope, obviously, is to actually help teach what racism is, help teach kids to be able to recognize it and then speak out against it,” Kim, 41, told the AP. “But then my other hope for Ji-Young is that she just normalizes seeing different kinds of looking kids on TV.”