A new Muppet named Ji-Young will make history as the first Asian American muppet to join the cast of the iconic children’s television show “Sesame Street.”
The 7-year-old Korean American girl is slated to debut Thanksgiving Day as part of a special titled “See Us Coming Together.” Like many Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, her identity will straddle two cultures, says Alan Muraoka, who plays the owner of Hooper’s Store on the show and is also Asian American.
“She’s a musician, she plays electric guitar, she’s a girl of the very modern American fabric,” he told NBC Asian America. “She recognizes the culture through her relatives — her grandmother, through her mother — and through the food she eats and loves.”
Ji-Young, who will be performed by puppeteer Kathleen Kim, is also an avid skateboarder with a penchant for eating spicy Korean rice cakes known as tteokboki, among her many qualities. Muraoka, who has helped incorporate more Asian American representation into the show, said that Sesame Street doesn’t shy away from the serious, yet very real issues that come with Ji-Young’s identity either.
In the special — that centers around a "Neighbor Day" celebration and features celebrities ranging from actor Simu Liu to Japanese tennis pro Naomi Osaka — another child tells Ji-Young to “go home” in an offscreen incident. She subsequently seeks out friends and adults who, together, help her understand she’s “exactly where she belongs,” according to a press release on the episode.
The moment serves as an entryway into discussions around anti-Asian racism, as the show provides a viewing guide and resources to conduct those conversations, the release said. Muraoka explained that the nationwide racial reckoning, spurred by events like the killing of eight people in Atlanta-area spas, most of them Asian women, and the heightened anti-Asian bias and attacks due to racist Covid-related stereotypes, pushed the show to further address racism and discrimination.
“People are seeing the need for it now, especially with the rise in American violence,” Muraoka said. “I think it’s absolutely because the nation as a whole woke up.”
In June, the show tackled anti-Asian discrimination through an episode featuring a Filipino American girl, Analyn, who had been teased about the shape of her eyes. Muraoka, along with Muppet friend Wes, help Analyn embrace her features.
“Your eyes tell the story of your family. They show where you came from, and how you came to be,” they sing in a song together in the episode. “The color, the shape and the size should always make you proud of your eyes.”
Muraoka said that “Sesame Street” has had a history of dealing with difficult topics, including the death of his predecessor, Mr. Hooper, and Hurricane Katrina and how to help those affected by disasters. While there’s been debate across the U.S. over whether parents should be exposing children to topics like racism, the longtime "Sesame Street" cast member said such difficult subjects are essential to discuss.
“Especially in the last two years with the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement, we’re at a very critical time that we need to talk about these issues that are both sensitive and hard at times,” he said. “It’s necessary for the next generation of kids to understand these issues because they’re real issues and they’re issues that I don’t see going away in the foreseeable future.”
Muraoka said he’s already received positive feedback from Asian Americans of all ages, who see themselves in the show.
“I had a guy in his 20s who was interviewing me, an Asian American guy, who said ‘I totally bawled when I watched the segment because of stuff that has happened in my past,” Muraoka said of Analyn’s episode.
Research shows that media has a powerful influence on how children perceive themselves, as well as those from other races. A 2012 study published in academic journal Communication Research examined the effect of long-term television watching in 400 white and Black preadolescent boys and girls. It found that television exposure significantly impacted their self-esteem, with white and Black girls and Black boys experiencing a decrease in self-esteem. White boys were the only group that experienced an increase after watching television. Another study showed, however, Black children who identified with popular characters of color had a higher self-esteem.