The Weirdly Racist History of Oscar the Grouch

If you haven't taken a deep dive into the Sesame Street canon lately, you'd be forgiven for thinking Oscar the Grouch earned his nickname by being a huge, cranky jerk. 

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Unfortunately, as is so often the case, it's not only much weirder than that but also more racist. Yep, it turns out that "grouch" is his race. According to the movie Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland, he hails from a rich culture of grouches who have their own city somewhere in the United States. Is that segregation? Arguably. Does that make it racist to call him "Oscar the Grouch"? Maybe? It's not clear how all of this works -- like, there are human grouches? -- but race is a construct anyway, and we're coming down on the side of not calling people "(Name) the (Race)."

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What about his shitty attitude and habit of rolling around in garbage? Is that a grouch stereotype? It sure seems like an exaggeration of racist cultural misunderstandings: It's against the law in Grouchland to ask for help, suggesting that they simply value independence to the degree that's confusing to the broader Muppet culture. They're not jerks -- you're the jerk for being all up in their business. Okay, so they're not as obsessed with cleanliness as the other Muppets. Is that a crime?

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None of this is unintentional: The whole reason Oscar was created was to use differences in personal "manners and tastes" as a metaphor for promoting racial and ethnic diversity. That's nice and all, but did the stand-in for racial minorities really have to be an asshole who lives in the garbage? Couldn't he have just been a guy who puts ketchup on too many things or something? They claim they didn't intend him to be a direct representation of "urban minorities," but black viewers sure saw it that way. Alas, it was the '60s, so they got away with 60 years of having a character who is basically Oscar the Filthy Minority.

Top image: Sesame Workshop

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