Should parents have a moral or emotional stake in the private lives of popular children’s entertainers? I say no.
Big Bird’s undesired Sesame spotlight switched abruptly to Elmo this week when TMZ “broke” a story on Monday about the little red Muppet’s beloved puppeteer, Kevin Clash, being accused of having sex with an underage male.
The allegations set the internet ablaze, turning “Elmo” into a Twitter trending topic and filling Facebook feeds with infinite variations on “say it ain’t so” as every media outlet covered the salacious scandal. By the next day, the now-24-year-old accuser recanted his incendiary claims and, without apologizing, confirmed Clash’s story that it was an “adult consensual relationship.”
But the damage was done.
TMZ initially published the story already knowing that Sesame Workshop’s internal investigation had already determined the accusation was baseless, and then decided to act even more grossly by publishing a slightly dirty email that was sent “well after” the accuser, since identified as Sheldon Stephens, had turned 18. Their goal, I guess, was to rack up some more ill-gotten pageviews by further linking Elmo and sex in paranoid parents’ minds.
This incident has also forced the 52-year-old Clash out of the closet. Though his life story was told in the inspiring documentary, Being Elmo: A Puppeteers Journey, the filmmakers mentioned only that he was a divorced dad. “I am a gay man,” Clash announced in a statement last Monday. “I have never been ashamed of this or tried to hide it, but felt it was a personal and private matter.”
One can understand why Clash kept that secret, as many parents don’t want to imagine children’s entertainers as anything but asexual—and, of course, the homophobic right-wing reaction is already raring. One ChicagoNow mommy-blogger described Clash as “a creepy puppeteer who mesmerizes children with alarming success” in a nasty post after the news broke. She also ended her piece with “sadly, where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Let’s stay tuned to see if other victims come forward. Fry, baby touchers” and felt no remorse for her “opinion” after Clash was cleared. And that’s nothing on the horrific comments currently sullying news sites around the world.
Clash, who took an immediate leave of absence from Sesame Street (where he has operated Elmo since 1984 and is also a co-executive producer), has not commented on when—or if—he will return to the show. His bosses have seemingly supported him while also stressing “Elmo is bigger than any one person.” And there’s a bad precedent for this sort of thing.
Think of Pee-Wee Herman’s downfall. Paul Reubens’ character actually began as a ribald riff on kid’s shows for an adult nightclub audience before being tamed for TV, notwithstanding the innuendo-laden conversations between Miss Yvonne and Laurence Fishburne’s Cowboy Curtis. Little kids, of course, never picked up on that because, well, they are little kids.
They also wouldn’t have ever known about Reubens’ career-ending arrest in a porn theatre. After a half-decade helming one of the best kids shows of all time (and, arguably, Tim Burton’s best film), Reubens was banished from our TV screens because he now made parents uncomfortable. Bill Cosby came to his defense, as did many others who agreed “whatever [Reubens has] done, this is being blown all out of proportion.” But his career was kaput.
At least in Reubens’ case, you could point to an embarrassing arrest as the reason. In 2006, PBS canned Melanie Martinez, host of Sprout Network’s The Good Night Show, after a pair of abstinence-education parody PSAs she shot in the late-’90s found their way onto YouTube. In the “technical virgin” ad, the demurely dressed college student suggests anal sex to avoid pregnancy: “I mean sure, it hurts a little, and I wind up walking funny for a day or two. But I think my future’s worth it.”
Seven years later, that was enough for PBS to fire her because it, somehow, “undermined her character’s credibility with our audience.” Presumably, they meant the adult audience, since pre-schoolers wouldn’t ever be aware of the video. PBS’ ombudsman even said the incident had “too much of a whiff of after-the-fact loyalty oaths and purity checks on performers who do lots of different things,” and thousands of parents did write in and sign petitions in Martinez’s defense, but to no avail.
Of course, that was during the Janet Jackson boobgate era, and one hopes that PBS and parents alike have grown up since then.
Yes, Kevin Clash demonstrated questionable judgment, considering the age gap and Stephens’ shadiness, but his personal life shouldn’t impact his professional career. Now that he’s been vindicated, maybe he can return to embodying the world’s most popular puppet. But if Clash doesn’t, it will be to assuage parents. (All this is not to discount what is going on in Britain, where an underage sex scandal has engulfed the entertainment industry, as the late children’s-TV host Sir Jimmy Saville is being investigated over hundreds of cases of molesting young girls during his decades-long tenure at the BBC. But there’s an incalculable difference between a sexual being and a sexual predator.)
To wit, Gawker made a satirical photo-essay on how to explain the scandal to your kids—Clash’s accuser was portrayed by a Justin Bieber doll while TMZ was represented by a shark, naturally—but nobody really has to, since my kid and yours don’t know who Kevin Clash is. Hell, I only found out recently that Big Bird has been played by the same guy, Carroll Spinney, for four decades—and if you do feel the need to discuss this situation with your children, it should be in the context of a lesson about lying.
A Time magazine columnist wrote that “even if Clash’s accuser were of legal age to be in a relationship, the idea of Elmo’s animator involved in torrid affairs that escalated to the point of one lover accusing another of illicit behavior left many moms and dads conflicted.”
Well, those moms and dads just need to get over it. They’d be the same ones who raised a stink when Elmo sang “Hot N Cold” with Katy Perry because her dress showed too much cleavage. Women have boobs—one of the first things many babies learn—and people have sex, including children’s entertainers and, yes, even “conflicted” parents, too (otherwise they wouldn’t be, y’know, parents).
So let’s hope this puppeteer’s journey brings Clash back to Sesame Street before the kids notice that Elmo’s voice has changed.