She Is Woman
Dismiss dead-white-male stereotypes: Although she wears barrettes and beads and seems a bit dizzy, Zoe is independent, resourceful and smart—in fact, she thinks so fast that she occasionally leaves out the O when spelling her name. "Zoe is filling a need," says Cheryl Henson, daughter of the late Jim Henson and a vice president of Jim Henson Productions, the Muppet makers. "There aren't enough girl role models in preschool programming." (One problem for Sesame Street: a dearth of female puppeteers out there.)
Crashing the old boys club of Bert, Ernie and Cookie Monster, and fortifying the circle of long-standing female characters such as Prairie Dawn and Rosita (a Mexican-American Muppet), Zoe makes her debut Nov. 22, as Sesame Street begins its 25th season on PBS. Executive producer Michael Loman thinks she'll hold her own. Says Loman: "She's strong and has her own ideas about things."
The show's chief Muppet designer, Ed Christie, created Zoe, aided by a focus group of 2-to 5-year-olds who rated different cut-out features. In development, Zoe grew more feminine, with lashes and girlish accoutrements. "It wasn't sexist," says Valeria Lovelace, Sesame Street's director of research. "It's just that bows and barrettes are cultural markers for kids." Next came the high-pitched voice, provided by 23-year Sesame Street vet Fran Brill, who works Zoe (she's also the voice of Prairie Dawn, Roxy Marie and Wanda the Fish). As for the name, says Christie, "She's electric, like zzzzzzz. She just looked like a Zoe."
In rehearsals, the creators were surprised to see a budding rivalry between Zoe and her male counterpart, precocious Elmo. "She's the new kid in town," says Brill. "Elmo's a little confused." Well, if he or any other insensitive clod—rather, unenlightened earthen formation—has any doubt about Zoe's gender-positive place in this world, the feisty young female will set them straight. "We had a little boy on the set, and he was calling Zoe 'him,' " recalls Brill. "And you know Zoe. She screamed, 'I'm a GIRRRLL!!' "
CYNTHIA WANG in New York City