The now infamous sketch of singer Katy Perry and red monster puppet Elmo singing an adaptation of her “Hot N Cold” song for the venerable preschooler kids show Sesame Street has been the subject of much discussion, including in my own household, when the bit was put onto YouTube and subsequent complaints caused the show to decide to leave the video on the Internet but not air it on the actual show broadcast. Most of the discussion about this incident has been along the lines of “Why are they being so mean and censoring to Katy Perry? There was nothing wrong with that dress she was wearing!”
Well, yes, there was something very wrong with it. It was not a Sesame Street dress. It was a Katy Perry dress. The dress, which despite being yellow and having a clear mesh top, was supposed to be a sort of wedding dress for dress up, had the opaque material of the outfit cut just 2 inches above Katy Perry’s nipples, with a V cleavage that went all the way to her sternum. It was a great dress for Perry to wear to a music awards show, or even shopping in L.A., but it made utterly no sense for running around with Elmo.
A lot of people argue that 3-4 year old kids aren’t going to realize there’s any problem with the dress, that they aren’t thinking of it as a sexy low cut bodice. And that’s true. Little kids are going to know Katy Perry as the bubbly, pretty singer with funny cupcakes on her breasts who their older siblings listen to, if they know who she is at all. But that’s not the point. It doesn’t matter if little kids see women in barely there clothing on a regular basis in the real world, if they are bombarded with billboard ads and commercials of half-naked ladies sexily draping themselves around perfume or beer bottles. It doesn’t matter because Sesame Street isn’t the real world. Sesame Street is little kids world.
The rule is, when you come on Sesame Street as a guest, that you come as a cuddly, non-threatening, non-sexual eunuch buddy, not that you bring your adult “I will pretend to have sex with you to move product” persona into the world of Big Bird and Grover. When Tina Fey comes onto the show, she doesn’t start making jokes about how long it’s been since she’s had sex, like she does all the time on her show 30 Rock. She talks about being a bookaneer who loves books. Jack Black does not act drunk and show his butt crack while searching for an octagon. Will.i.am does not bring a bevy of sexy back-up dancers in hotpants to sing along with the Muppets on “What I Am.” Because while appearing on Sesame Street is a prestigious gig with some PR value, your appearance is not supposed to really be about you. It’s about the kids and what the show is trying to teach them with your bit. Katy Perry broke the rule.
So the questions aren’t about whether the dress was inappropriate for Sesame Street. (It was.) Or whether the show was right to cancel the video for the broadcast. (They were, although it’s rather sad as the song adaptation was cute. ) The questions are, why did Katy Perry insist on wearing her MTV style dress for a Sesame Street appearance? And why did the Sesame Street people involved with shooting the video let her do it instead of making her change outfits? (And if it was the show that provided that dress, why on earth did the costumer think it was a good idea?) Sesame Street has managed to survive for over 40 years despite a very determined, very powerful cadre of people relentlessly trying to close it down. It’s survived by being a kids first zone. The cut of that dress was most definitely not designed with little kids in mind.
I firmly support Katy Perry’s or any woman’s right to wear a string bikini in public in the middle of winter if she wants. But Sesame Street gets to be Sesame Street. And they get to choose who gets to visit and how.