`Sesame Street': Brought To You By The Letters M-A-L-E

A RECENT report released by the American Association of University Women, "How Schools Shortchange Women," finds that teachers, textbooks and tests are, whether intentionally or unintentionally, giving preferential treatment to elementary-school boys. As a result, girls who enter school with equal or better academic potential than their male counterparts lose confidence and do not perform as well.

An earlier study about law students, published in the Journal of Legal Education, found a similar disparity. "Gender Bias in the Classroom" found that male law students are called upon in class more frequently than females, speak for longer periods of time and are given more positive feedback by law professors.

The article raised some disturbing questions about whether women and men receive truly equal education in American law schools.

Unfortunately, this insidious gender bias appears long before our children enter school and pervades even the television show "Sesame Street." Yes, "Sesame Street" is sexist! But, just as in the story of the emperor and his new clothes, many of us do not notice the obvious.

The puppet stars of the show, Bert and Ernie, and all the other major "Sesame Street" animal characters - Big Bird, Cookie Monster, Grover, Oscar the Grouch, Kermit the Frog and Mr. Snuffleupagus - are male. Among the secondary characters, including Elmo, Herry Monster, Count VonCount, Telemonster, Prairie Dawn and Betty Lou, only a very few are girls.

The female Muppets always play children, while the males play adult parts in various scenes. In a recently aired skit "Squeal of Fortune," this disparity is evident when the host of the show introduces the two contestants. Of Count VonCount of Transylvania the host asks, "What do you do for a living?" to which the count responds authoritatively, "I count!" Of Prairie Dawn, he inquires, "And how do you spend your day?" Sure, it would be silly to ask a schoolgirl what she does for a living. But none of the female Muppets on "Sesame Street" are even old enough to earn a living.

Further, almost all the baby puppet characters on "Sesame Street" are girls. For example, Snuffie's sibling is Baby Alice; in books, Grover's baby cousin is a girl, and when Herry Monster's mother brings home the new baby - it's a girl. Since babies are totally dependent and fairly passive, the older (male) relatives take care of them and provide leadership.

Also, the female Muppets almost never interact with each other. In sharp contrast, consequential and caring friendships have been fully developed between male Muppets: Ernie and Bert; Big Bird and Snuffie; even Oscar the Grouch and his (male) worm, Squirmy.

Any parent of toddlers or preschoolers can testify that the "girls" on Sesame Street are not very popular. Children ask their parents for Bert and Ernie dolls, not Baby Alice. Is this just because the girls are not marketed via books, tapes, place mats and toy dolls the same way the boys are? Or is it that the "Sesame Street" writers simply have not developed the girls into the same types of lovable, adorable personalities that belong to the main characters.

Interestingly and peculiarly, the minor "girls" look more human that most of the well-loved animal roles. They are not physically cuddly, colorful or bizarre, as are the more important male characters. Prairie Dawn has ordinary blonde hair and brown eyes - nothing even remotely similar to Big Bird's soft yellow feathers or Cookie Monster's wild, bright blue, mane.

Yes, we believe that "Sesame Street" is one of the best shows on television for small children. Our children - boys and girls - are regular viewers. In addition to its educational value, lack of violence and emphasis on cooperation, the adult characters on the show are admirably balanced in terms of avoiding sexual stereotypes.

But even the best of the bunch has room for improvement. Just as elementary through professional school educators must learn to be more sensitive to subtle and unintentional gender bias, so too should the folks at Children's Television Network. We can stop sexism from seeping into our children's first "formal" educational experience.

The message was brought to you by the letter F: fairness for females.

Diane Heiman is an attorney and public policy consultant and the mother of a 3-year-old girl. Phyllis Bookspan is a law professor at Widener University Law School in Delaware and mother of two young boys.