Tuned In

Don’t Take It Out on Elmo

Parents, as grown-ups, should be able to distinguish between actor and character, reality and fiction, just as we do all the time with movie actors.

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Neilson Barnard / Getty Images

Just when you thought it was safe to look at children’s-TV news again, here comes this: Kevin Clash, the puppeteer who has animated Elmo on Sesame Street for 28 years, has resigned from Sesame Workshop because of the “distraction” of underage-sex charges against him.

This comes a week after one young man made, then recanted, accusations that Clash began a sexual relationship with him when he was 16. (Clash acknowledged the relationship but said it took place later, when his accuser was of the age of consent.) Now a second accuser has reportedly come forth, saying Clash had sex with him in the early ’90s when he was 15.

Sesame Workshop released a statement Tuesday:

Sesame Workshop’s mission is to harness the educational power of media to help all children the world over reach their highest potential. Kevin Clash has helped us achieve that mission for 28 years, and none of us, especially Kevin, want anything to divert our attention from our focus on serving as a leading educational organization. Unfortunately, the controversy surrounding Kevin’s personal life has become a distraction that none of us want, and he has concluded that he can no longer be effective in his job and has resigned from Sesame Street. This is a sad day for Sesame Street.

With the charges last week, I wrote that the case “is, as sex scandals sometimes are, poised on the cusp of legally actionable and none of our damn business… If his lover was under the age of consent, that’s a matter for the law. If he was over—whatever you personally think of middle-aged guys dating young men (or women)—it’s between them.” With another accusation in the news, I can only say that the same goes double.  Someone who’s been having illegal sex with underage lovers shouldn’t be working on a children’s program (and can’t reasonably expect to keep any job as a public TV figure). And for someone who’s innocent to have to resign because the accusations are just too “distracting”–or damaging for p.r. and business–is an injustice.

Not knowing which is the truth, I can only say that this is, for certain, really depressing.

Well, that, and one more thing: Elmo, unsurprisingly, will continue on as a Sesame Street character (Clash was not the first Elmo and replacing puppet or animation voices is not a new practice). But I’ve already been seeing speculation that sales of Elmo-related merchandise may suffer from the controversy. That idea only makes this more depressing.

As a parent, I get that the connection between a small child and the voice and image of a beloved character is intimate. (Conversely, I know from experience there are many, many reasons to avoid the loud, baby-talking furball that have nothing to do with anyone’s sex life.) But the operative word here is character. Small kids have a relationship with Elmo, not his unseen puppeteer. And parents, as grown-ups, should be able to distinguish between actor and character, reality and fiction, just as we do all the time with movie actors. The idea that parents would deprive their kids of a character because it now makes them feel icky—anymore than they would boycott Alice in Wonderland because of past allegations about Lewis Carroll, say—boggles my mind. (Likewise the idea that an Elmo toy or video suddenly becomes more or less wholesome depending on the employment status of the person moving his mouth.)

Think what you want about this whole sordid, sad situation. But come on, people; let’s leave the Muppet out of it.