Saying “No” to Elmo: The Superego vs. the red monster

May 12, 2016

I regularly ask myself about the motives of whoever created Elmo. The little red monster from Sesame Street may be a friend to every toddler and just wants to be tickled. Or Elmo (he/she/it) might be a plot by pint-sized aliens to undermine the very socialization that makes us a civilized race that cares about important things like what to wear to a job interview and/or Tinder date.

I’ve written plenty about how, according to Dr. Freud, kids get a full two years for being raging little monsters, driven by their impulsive Ids, before the expectations of society kick in in the form of the Superego. This is represented by the shift from the oral phase to the anal phase. What goes in must come out and potty training represents (perhaps too figuratively) the collective restraint on the individual pleasure-seeking principle. Basically, it’s time to stop being a selfish little prick.

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Cozy is turning 21 months-old in a few days and you can really see the superego arriving. The theme song at the moment is the Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” Cozy is learning that just because you want it, you can’t have ice cream for every meal (or any meal). You can’t always play with crayons (or mom’s make up). You can’t always put your hands on mom’s boobs. (That one is a bitter fucking pill.) And soon she’ll learn that you can’t always crap in your pants (unless you are Ted Nugent trying to get out of serving in the military).

This news has not been welcomed by our precious daughter. The first time I tried to stop her from hitting the cat she looked me like, “What the fuck, Dad? What else is this cat good for?” A valid question, but still. Often her response will be a complete meltdown, banging her head against the wall. Or on her hands and knees, banging her head on the floor, yelling “No! No! No!” I just laugh. Is that wrong?

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Where this really plays out is with her worship of Elmo. Now that she can actually say, “Elmo,” it’s clear how important this muppet is to her. (Why couldn’t it be the ever emo Mr. Snuffleupagus?) When the “Elmo’s World” theme song comes on Sesame Street her absolute joy is contagious. It’s hard to not smile as she dances and claps and shouts hosannahs to her little god. But part of me wonders if Jonestown started this way.

Like Elvis, Elmo is everywhere; on the TV, the laptop, the iPad, the smartphone. There are two Elmos in her room and one on her toothbrush. She knows with a swipe or a voice command, she can call up a YouTube video like a prophet calling upon a burning bush. Actually it’s much easier than being a prophet. If only Abraham had had Siri. You don’t have to patiently wait for your god to return “some day.” It’s instant gratification with Lord Elmo.

That’s why it’s even harder to say no. “Elmo is sleeping, dear.” “Elmo will be back later, honey.” “Elmo is off with The Count, tallying broken dreams, pumpkin.” “Elmo has childhood leukemia and can’t get better until you take a fucking nap, sweet pea.” Oh, the holy hell when Elmo is briefly banished. But Cozy gets it. After the obligatory #toddlerlivesmatter protest, she’s on to something else, like taking the peaches out of the peach yogurt.

Freud urged great caution in this transition. Without enough superego training (the “You can’t do that” admonishment), you end up with a little psychopath who will become a serial killer or a Trump supporter. But too much superego training and you end up with a kid who has a neurotic personality. (I see Woody Allen is back in the news.) Since Cozy’s dad has a touch of this affliction, I hope to spare her the worry.

The other day Cozy spilled something and put her hands on her face and yelled, “Oh, no! Oh, no! Oh, no!” like she had just accidentally deleted her dissertation. The look of horror on her face. Andrea turned to me and asked, “Gee, where did she learn that from?” Being slightly neurotic, I felt slightly guilty.

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So maybe I should give her a bit more Elmo time for now. We’ve got three months before the anal phase officially starts. That should be a real joy.

Gender: Nature vs. Nurture 5: Elmo is queer

December 15, 2015

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It’s funny how we look for gender clues in toddlers. When Cozy wears my old baby clothes or the Atlanta Falcons gear my dad bought her, people don’t hesitate to make her male (although he did also buy a Falcons cheerleader outfit for her). When she’s pretty in pink, it’s all good in the Ladyland hood. As a sociologist of gender, I keep looking for it and wonder what, if anything, is innate about gender. She watches her dad cook and clean house. Will she see those as male activities? I’m the nurturer, wiping her butt and a face every five minutes. Her Mexican mom is much sterner so there’s the authority in the house.

Cozy turns 16-months-old in a few days and she’s fully into imitating behavior now (which means I need to watch my fucking mouth). The three-year-old girl on a flight to Atlanta taught her Peek-a-boo and that’s her jam now. She imitates me washing dishes (that’s a good hobby), but she really loves to imitate her mother. Especially when it comes to make-up. Maybe it’s the just the feel of the brushes on her face, but when mom is at her make-up table, Cozy is wrapped up in a lesson from the master.

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The other night Andrea was at an art gallery, hanging out with some beatniks and Cozy and I were home. Cozy climbed up on to mom’s vanity and looked at herself in the mirrors. She picked up different lipsticks and brushes and I could see it starting. “This what I do to be like mom.” Now, first of all Andrea doesn’t have to do any of that but she’s an artist and has really created an amazing look for herself. And secondly, a little boy of the same age could also find his way to mom’s make-up table and be as fascinated by all the candy-colored treats.

I found myself wanting to pull her down and shove her beloved Elmo doll under her arm. Say what you will about Sesame Street going to HBO and PBS running only the too-short 30 minute versions of the show (Abby’s Flying Fairy School just got gentrified the fuck out of this neighborhood), there is salvation in Elmo. Elmo is my daughter’s security blanket and a link to something close to baby bliss.

Elmo first stumbled on to Sesame Street in the early 1970s as “baby monster,” so the little red thing should be firmly in its 40s by now, instead of perpetually 3-and-a-half. But the one thing that’s consistent about Elmo is Elmo’s non-gender (and maybe the fact that Elmo bizarrely is unable to refer to himself or herself in the first person). Most see Elmo as a boy monster but there are plenty of little girls who see Elmo as a girl monster. Elmo is gender-queer. I was just in New York City and saw four Elmos in Times Square. Were there males or females in those costumes? It really doesn’t matter as long as they were fairly sober.

Elmo is a blank slate that we write gender scripts on to. In a patriarchy, the fallback assumption is male and Sesame Street exists in patriarchy so there are some who refer to Elmo as “he,” but are you really sure about Elmo? He/She doesn’t wear pants so there should be some extra red fur down there. Yeah, you might see Elmo dressed like Indiana Jones but also wearing a tutu. Singing hard with Elvis Costello and later singing softly with Norah Jones. Elmo doesn’t expect Elmo to be masculine or feminine. Elmo is just Elmo, free of gendered norms.

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So, even though her Elmo doll is probably made in a Chinese sweatshop, I’m happy Cozy feels a connection to the little red monster. Her Elmo is not a baby doll with lessons about mothering or a Barbie Doll with a dozen problematic messages about body image and heteronormativity. Elmo comes with one message, Elmo loves you. Elmo’s like Jesus but a lot cuter. Maybe if Jesus was a genderless furry monster baby, some of his followers would stop shooting up women’s health clinics and closing doors on refugee families and just being, in general, dicks. Elmo would never do that shit.

Cozy imitates her mother in many wonderful ways. She likes to draw and cuddle and she’ll take off my mopey music and put something Latin on so she can dance. And she knows when I’m trying to BS her. Her hat obsession comes from me, but her love of boots comes from mom. And someday Cozy and Andrea will have long discussions about how to do your eye liner like Amy Winehouse.

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For now I’m just gonna try to keep her in the Elmo zone for a little bit longer, though, if that’s okay.

Gender: Nature vs. Nurture, Round 1

Gender: Nature vs. Nurture 2: Ain’t I a Black Girl?

Gender: Nature vs. Nurture 3: How babies queer gender

Gender: Nature vs. Nurture 4: She’s gotta be free!