No sane adult would ever pick Elmo as their favorite Sesame Street character. This is a simple fact, but profound given the character’s relentless ubiquity. I know a few dads who dig Burt and Ernie. Me, I love the Count. And you have to be a real piece of shit not to love Big Bird. But Elmo? He’s as polarizing as he is positive, a fan favorite with the kids and a pox upon American parents, an internet-enabled thirst monster sliding into the subconscious DMs of American tykes.
My daughter — who has never seen one single episode of Sesame Street in her 19-month-old-life — loves Elmo. There’s a giant Elmo at the library and she can say his name. She gets Elmo even though she doesn’t really know anything about him. Why? He’s part of the cultural firmament. Also, Elmo traffics in Elmo-ness. He is famous for being famous. Elmo Elmos everywhere, all the time. He’s like Paris Hilton in the early 2000s or any of the Kardashians right now (minus the baby daddies, sex tapes, and tenuous connection to O.J. Simpson).
Most of the characters of Sesame Street have a defining characteristic or trait. Oscar is a Grouch who lives in a trash can. Big Bird is a large bird who has a friendly and humble disposition. The Count is an arithmetic-obsessed Eastern European immigrant. And on and on. Notably, these characters are consistent because they come across as mature. (Even though Big Bird is technically a 6-year-old.) Before Elmo hit the Street, most of the reoccurring Sesame Street characters felt more mature. Elmo, on the other hand, has been three-and-a-half years old since the early eighties. That’s his thing. That’s the nature of the trap.
First introduced in 1972 as “baby monster,” Elmo started becoming a regular Sesame character in-print in 1981 and then on screen as Elmo in 1985. It’s hard to believe he’s been around that long, because in contrast to the other “classic” characters, Elmo feels more contemporary. His permanent youth is probably part of why that’s true, but his ability to sell toys is the real reason.
No one really needs to be reminded of the 1996 “Tickle Me Elmo” craze, but it’s worth bringing up here because you can’t really imagine toy versions of the Sesame Street characters without Elmo’s money-making power. The Sesame Workshop may be a non-profit group, but the toy companies that make Elmo stuff (Tyco/Mattel in the ’80s and ’90s, Fisher-Price and Hasbro now) are for-profit enterprises. Elmo isn’t a businessman, but Elmo is a business, man. His character may not have been designed to be monetized, but he remains relentlessly monetizable. Like the Kardashians, he seems so obtuse and unaware that he can be a pitchman without experiencing blowback.
Elmo could sell lip kits to kids. My daughter would buy them. She wouldn’t understand why she wanted them, but she’d buy them anyway.
Is Elmo a sell-out? Yeah, kinda. This isn’t to say Elmo is bad for our kids — that would be a truly burning hot take — he’s not, but his disproportionate popularity relative to other great Sesame Street muppets is a little troubling. The character that sells stuff has a gravitational pull. The character that talks in third person has a gravitational pull. The character that oversimplifies has a gravitational pull. And, no, that’s not the set up for a cutting political zinger; I’m merely pointing out that Elmo is, uniquely, a three-and-a-half year old who commands attention and leverages it. He operates at scale.
All that said, Elmo speaks in the third person for a reason. The effect allows toddlers to see themselves in him. This is such a big deal that the Sesame Workshop addresses this issue in their official FAQ, stating “Elmo mimics the behavior of many preschoolers. Like 3-year-olds, he doesn’t always have the skills or knowledge to speak proper English. Cast members and many of the other Muppets, however, do demonstrate proper usage of the English language.”
This scans as a lazy answer to me. I’m not a language snob, but the idea that Elmo needs to normalize illeism is absurd. Toddlers can say the word “I” or, barring that, “Me.” I believe that the real reason why Elmo talks that way is because doing so allows the character to constantly seem bewildered and relatable. Elmo needs to seem guileless in the same way that Kim Kardashian does, balancing a personal brand on the razor’s edge of her husband’s bizarre rhetoric. Kim Kardashian seems fake. Elmo doesn’t, but if you compare him to the other Sesame Street cast members, he doesn’t benefit from the contrast. He’s superficially “cute,” makes a ton of money, and behaves in a highly studied way that seems to keep an attention cycle spinning.
We live in an age where parents have to casually accept a million moral compromises linked to commercialism and money and marketing. In return, we get some decent stuff and a lot of plastic. Our kids smile. Elmo is a moral compromise. He’s not the worst, but he’s also not the best. He’s the most. And that’s what makes him a Kardashian.
If it seems like I’m splitting red hairs about this, I’m not. I’m on the verge of accepting Elmo into my family life and I’m torn up about it. I’m not sure that I’m ready to go toe-to-toe with the little red monster and I’m not sure that I entirely understand what he wants. Money? Tickles? Likes? All of the above probably. But should my daughter be allowed to give him all that and her attention? I’m not sure it’s ultimately going to be my decision.
Correction: An earlier version of this piece suggested that Elmo was the only Sesame Street muppet that was supposed to be depicted as a child. This is incorrect. Various Sesame Street characters (like Big Bird) are meant to have fixed childhood ages.