Is Katy Perry a Sesame Streetwalker, or Do Viewers Just Want Her to Be?

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REUTERS/Mike Cassese

After a barrage of complaints, a video of Katy Perry playing tag with Elmo has been pulled from Sesame Street. Parents took exception to the revealing cut of her outfit, which, considering what she usually wears in videos, probably felt to Perry like wearing a chador.

In announcing the decision not to air the clip, which had previously been leaked onto YouTube, Sesame Street‘s producers exposed the filament-wide tightrope they walk as they try to stay relevant, while still being a program for smaller kids.

Sesame Street has always been written on two levels, for the child and adult,” the show said in a statement. “We use parodies and celebrity segments to interest adults in the show because we know that a child learns best when co-viewing with a parent or caregiver.”

That is, there’s less likelihood of the TV becoming a big blue blinking babysitter if parents can be enticed to watch. They can talk about it with their children — help them figure out what the heck Elmo is saying or try to ascertain the root cause of Oscar the Grouch’s substandard housing. (More on Top 10 Songs of Summer)

But to be willing to do this, parents and caregivers have to believe in the possibility that Sesame Street might have something for them, so it’s important to surprise viewers occasionally. Plus, let’s face it, casting the not-at-all-PG Perry is also a stunt — the dissonance of the pairing brings media attention and therefore viewers.

One of the problems parents face with family TV viewing is that older children reject anything they perceive as babyish. So the more pliable younger kids tend to end up watching what their bigger siblings want to watch. Kids who have moved on from Elmo might be enticed to hang around Sesame Street a little longer if there’s another chance of seeing Katy Perry, who, despite (or, um, because of) her phenomenally sexualized persona, is a tween favorite.

So, one can understand the casting. But the question, as so aptly put elsewhere on, remains: why not put Perry in something a little less, um, hoochie-coochie? Yes, this dress is actually high-collared, with a mesh panel like an ice-skaters outfit, but that doesn’t really help.  Unless producers said to Perry, “Just come in your most chaste dress,” and that’s what she turned up in, it’s hard to imagine why this outfit didn’t elicit a code-red alarm from Sesame Street‘s appropriateness monitor. (More on Lindsay Lohan’s Relapse and Court-Mandated AA)

The fact that it didn’t reflects the confusion that surrounds the media’s role in the sexualization of kids. Does showing young girls Katy Perry’s cleavage make them think that showing cleavage is a good thing? Does it make them more likely to seek out sexual experiences before they’re psychologically ready to have them? Does it make boys think Pamela Anderson would be a great president one day? Some studies suggest that children who watch a lot of TV with sexual themes have sex earlier than those who don’t.

But there’s another school of thought that suggests that children as young as Sesame Street viewers are too young to notice Katy’s Perry cleavage at all. To them, she’s  just wearing a pretty bride dress. In this instance, it’s the big brothers and sisters — and probably the parents — we need to be worried about. Teens who watch sexualized TV, these studies suggest, do so, because they are already interested in sex, not the other way around.

In any case, if Sesame Street wanted more attention from parents and the media, it certainly got its wish. Pretty much everyone remembers now how to get to Sesame Street — you just go through the red light district.

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