Something’s rotten on Sesame Street. The particular putrefaction of which I write is not one borne of organic decay; rather, it arises from a constellation of things which would seem prima facie to signify otherwise: rosy-cheeked health, hygienic propriety, balanced-meals, and proper exercise. Yet the modern scourge of nutrition – truly a custom “more honoured in the breach than in the observance” – is deployed under precisely these images to devastating effect in the case of Sesame Street.
Imagine my disgust and anger to read in the Associated Press that the dietary freedom of one of my childhood heroes had been radically curtailed and his lifestyle forcibly altered. As his popular appellation testifies, “cookie-monster” really likes cookies; he was wont to explain in his frank, merry, unabashed way, “C is for cookie. That’s good enough for me.”
Indeed, it was good enough for him. Who would suppose otherwise? Who would contravene the simple wish of this gentle creature? Who would gainsay his Epicurean logic?
Apparently the producers of Sesame Street, alarmed by the high and rising rates of youth-obesity, have mandated a reduction in cookie-monster’s cookie-consumption, a retrenchment of the trencher, so to speak. Is nothing sacred? Cookie-monster without a monstrous quantity of cookies? To deprive cookie-monster of his signature sustenance is nothing less than existential murder, and the unreflective perpetration of such a crime is a symptom of the soullessness of our age. Why stop with cookies? Why don’t they just neuter cookie-monster? Why not give animal some Ritalin and teach him to write cursive? Let’s defang the Count and clip his bat-wings. Let him sip V8 and think on better days. Let’s prescribe antidepressants to Snuffaluffagus. He’ll soon show a sunny disposition. Let’s relocate Oscar to a homeless shelter, give him a suit and shave, and he’ll be selling insurance policies door-to-door in no time at all.
Better eject Big Bird altogether – birds carry disease. Why not encage the whole congeries? After all, animals roaming the street are definitely unsanitary.
In Shakespeare’s play Henry IV Part 1, Falstaff admonishes Prince Hal, “Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.” What Falstaff means is that the well-intentioned excision of all human follies, vanities, and vices leads to the amputation of all it means to be human, the removal and banishment of the world in its imperfect and sinful glory. Sanitizing cookie-monster amounts to banishing the world.
What is cookie-monster himself but a sort of Falstaff muted into the forms of childhood? Both manifest a brand of hedonism wise in its folly. If Falstaff tipples, cookie-monster gobbles. Falstaff remains one of Shakespeare’s greatest characters, and cookie-monster remains a genuine and imaginative contribution to the vivid world of childhood simplicity.
Does anyone still censure Auguste Rodin for daring to sculpt a fat Balzac? Yet early critics leveled just such a charge at the sculptor. Today we praise Rodin’s statue and trope the sculpted girth of Balzac as symbolic of the profundity and vastness of his soul – a soul from which emerged all forty-seven magnificent volumes of La Comedie Humaine, the literary reproduction from top to bottom of the entire French social cosmos. A thin Balzac would have been a jejune Balzac. What a sorry figure in life and in letters he would have cut!
Likewise, cookie-monster’s edacity – a physical trait we view no less pejoratively than Balzac’s rotundity – supplies the riddle of his persona, and to reform the characteristic would be to deform the character. It is infinitely preferable that cookie-monster should persist as a pure and authentic character, as a monster, than be tailored and modified to suit the whims, tastes, and health-crises of today.
Even Caliban was allowed to dream.
Karl Marx once wrote that history happens as tragedy the first time and farce the second time. Although some would deny the status of farce to cookie-monster’s plight, citing the immanent tragedy and preponderant gravity of his predicament, it seems reasonable to conclude that if the Terri Schiavo debacle served as antecedent tragedy, cookie-monster performs the consequent farce.
Let’s review the similarities. Both figures manifest a type of dyspepsia which society christens a disorder: an inability to chew and swallow food in the case of Schiavo, and an inability to eat food which doesn’t start with the letter ‘C’ in the case of cookie-monster (Persistent Cookie Disorder is the technical name I believe). Both are beholden to higher bodies either de jure (Schiavo) or de facto (cookie-monster): Schiavo must suffer the dictates of the hospital and the courts, and cookie-monster must suffer those of the show’s producers.
Both are sentenced to a technical or selective starvation: Schiavo is forbidden the feeding-tube, and cookie-monster is forbidden an unrestricted diet of cookies. Both intercessors claim to have the victim’s benefit in mind: Michael Schiavo claims to be the belated executor of his wife’s wishes, and the nutritionists invoke the specter of a cookie-monster grown obese and sickly from a surfeit of cookies. Both cases involve a marginalized group whose rights must be safeguarded: cookie-monster’s status as “monster” no more renders him unfit to choose his diet than does Schiavo’s vegetative status.
There is only one man who can save cookie-monster, and his name is Tom Delay.
A recent photo shows cookie-monster haphazardly embracing an armful of fruit and vegetables, a mighty smile across his blue, furry face. I nearly cried. Who could do otherwise in the face of such a living contradictio in adjecto? The same vacant stare, the same soulful, abundant goggle eyes, the same askew, goofy smile – is there any visage whose sameness and unchangedness could more shock and affront?
Cookie-monster doesn’t know! He doesn’t know what those bastards have done to him.
The quality of pathos recalls Charlie Gordon at the end of Daniel Keyes’ short story, Flowers for Algernon: Gordon has traversed the full arc of human intelligence and awareness, from retardation to geniushood and back to retardation, and in the end he lapses into his former role as the butt of others’ jokes, pathetically oblivious to the insults he dimwittedly interprets as compliments.
It is as if cookie-monster (forgive me the outrageousness of this observation) were not a living thing at all but some kind of puppet animated for our weekly amusement. In Ken Kesey’s marvelous book, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the main character, McMurphy, having been lobotomized and electroshocked into a pitiful subhumanity, is mercifully euthanized with a pillow by another character. Indeed, the only remaining aesthetically-satisfactory result would be for some kind of good Samaritan Cherokee Indian to perform a like service for cookie-monster…
Sesame Street officials explain that cookie-monster must learn the difference between “anytime” and “sometime” foods. Apparently cookies have been demoted from the former to the latter category.
This is simply unacceptable. It is highly unlikely that the group which authored this atrocity – a gaggle of milquetoasts, bureaucrats, biofascists, and nutritionists, as I imagine them – had any idea that the sometime/anytime distinction is not in fact the latest excrescence of their own vapid invention and insipid phrasemaking, but actually goes back to the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates who wrote compellingly about the essential moment of medical intervention, the sometime, the right time, the kairos.
It is also highly unlikely that the show’s producers realize just how well their decision vis-à-vis cookie-monster plays into the disciplinary programme of biopower (here I follow the opinions of a certain Frenchman) which was initiated from a dozen locales across Europe and America about two hundred years ago; rapidly disseminating, it seeped into the soul of our culture. Where Hippocrates referenced a qualitative idea of time suited to the organic craft of healing, modernity installs a quantitative idea suited to the assaults and measures of medicine and nutrition.
First, the sometime/anytime decree is significant as a corporal technology which quantitizes, maps, normalizes, and schedulizes the body and its rhythms by means of diet and regimen governed by the science of nutrition and “health.” The producers wish to reform and train cookie-monster into an ideal and healthy worker, a model denizen of the utopian Sesame Street.
Second, cookie-monster, by dint of his position on a leading children’s show, serves as a model and public example for the greater population of kids. He enables a biopolitical action whose effects proceed through the medium of television directly to the waiting and receptive eyes of five- to eight-year olds.
The Norse idea of the superabundant smorgasbord and the Homeric idea of the replete daitos, those heroic feasts of festive plenitude, are vanished. Likewise has faded the decadent Roman echo, the convivium beloved of Trimalchio. And what has come to occupy their place?
The Food Pyramid, that familiar icon of the war on obesity escutcheoned across countless classroom-posters, nutrition-guides, and cereal boxes, levitates in its own geometrical space, an abstract scaffold of lines bracketing and enclosing the various food-groups in their recommended proportions – a sort of well-stocked Platonic larder, a dinnertime Panopticon peering out from its diagram.
If there is a group to blame for all this, it is the current crop of little munchkins whose epidemic obesity prompted the change in Sesame Street’s time-honored formula. Indeed, I myself have a little brother, and I vow to make his life hell in retribution for this outrage; I promise to hound and hassle him until the end of my days for this act of intergenerational treachery. (Just kidding….or am I?)