The Cookie Monster Message

Cookie Monster

We talked about the Cookie Monster controversy and how some people rejoiced when Cookie appeared, extolling the virtues of fruit and vegetables in public service announcements and similar venues. But others felt betrayed. The really fascinating thing is, who would have ever thought there could be so much heated discussion over the eating habits of a fictitious character with googly eyes, who looks like he was made from a shaggy blue throw rug?

And, considering that Cookie Monster is not even human, how did he end up in the pages of Anthropology in Practice? Yet there he was, featured in a piece called “C is for Cookie: Cookie Monster, Network Pressure, and Identity Formation.” The dispute over the larger meaning of Cookie Monster’s personality change is still ongoing. The author is Krystal D’Costa, who writes of the impetus that led to one of Cookie Monster’s televised appearances:

Understandably, the public was outraged, and in response, Cookie felt the need to clarify: He still eats cookies — for dessert — but he likes fruit and vegetables too. Cookie Monster needed to reassert his identity…

Did Cookie Monster do wrong by abandoning his former self to become a spokesmonster for healthy eating? And why did he do that, anyway? D’Costa looks at the Cookie Monster’s moral dilemma in the light of work done by Daniel MacFarland and Heili Pals, in which they “evaluated internal and external motives that inspire change, and determined that change to the network is the driving factor in identity shifts over time.”

Pals and MacFarland considered Cookie’s change of heart in the light of two competing schools of thought. They are social identity theory (SIT) and identity theory (IT) and, frankly, this requires more explanation than we are prepared to go into here. So please do yourself a favor and read the article. Here is a taste:

In the case of Cookie Monster, we have two standards in conflict: Cookie is a monster who eats cookies (internal), and Cookie needs to promote moderation as demanded by his larger network of fans and supporters and in keeping with social trends (external)… Cookie Monster is a monster who likes cookies. He is bound by this identity, and it places an expectation on him that he will behave in particular ways. He strives to be the best Cookie Monster he can be…

Like so many other social critics of the day, D’Costa asked whether it was acceptable for Cookie Monster to change:

And in all seriousness, what kind of message does this send to children? That they should repress who they are in favor of the norm? That there is an ideal to strive toward? That once they’ve established an identity, they can’t change?

We have come to accept that children are shockingly vulnerable to mental and emotional manipulation, and studies have scientifically proven that kids tend to believe what they see on TV. But the most striking point made by D’Costa is echoed by many others who dismiss the idea that young minds are damaged by the daily flood of advertising. Furthermore, they don’t think Cookie Monster was ever a bad example, even back in the days when he ate nothing but cookies.

In D’Costa’s eloquent words,

Now I watched Cookie Monster devour plates of cookies when I was growing up, and I have to tell you […] I don’t tend to devour plates of cookies now as an adult. I learned healthy eating habits from my parents. I understood that Cookie Monster was meant to eat cookies in a way that I wasn’t.

Actually, Cookie Monster’s fondness for fruit and vegetables went way back, showing up in the ’70s and ’80s, but it didn’t become a hot topic until around 2005-2009. For a long time, it just wasn’t a story. And one of the possible objections may not even have occurred to anyone at the time. The message proclaimed by the reformed Cookie Monster was, “Cookies are a sometimes food.”

The implication is that sweets can be enjoyed in moderation, without a person’s entire life going off the rails. That might be true for some people. There are also exceedingly rare people who can limit themselves to one cigarette a day, or one a week. But for the vast majority of smokers, the habit means at least a pack a day.

“Cookies are a sometimes food” is not true for everyone. There is only one way to escape bondage to a problem food, and that is to give it up entirely, just like an alcoholic who can’t drink anymore. If chocolate is a substance that enslaves a person in the same way that liquor enslaves an alcoholic, then total avoidance of chocolate has to be observed. It’s the only thing that works. This is a good place to mention Dr. Pretlow’s strategies for withdrawal from problem foods, available via PDF file from Weigh2Rock.

There is another strange aspect of the tempest in a Cookie Monster teapot, and somebody needs to write a grant proposal to figure this one out. Cookie Monster’s change of heart was accepted by the public, and he was cordially greeted as a healthy-eating spokesmonster. Yet, when Shrek changed his ways, and tried to be a healthy-eating spokesogre, he was denounced as a hypocrite. Shrek was widely criticized, yet Cookie Monster was able to successfully make the transition. Why?

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “C is for Cookie: Cookie Monster, Network Pressure, and Identity Formation,” Anthropology In Practice, 11/04/10
Image by bsabarnowl (Bill McChesney), used under its Creative Commons license.

One Response

  1. This whole controversy is silly. The cookie monster can change! Kids and adults change. Just because I liked cheese doodles, riding horses and monster movies as a kid doesn’t mean I have to like all of them as a teen or an adult. Anything in moderation is okay. Jelly in the book Jelly and the Donuts decided to change. He started to exercise and eat healthy. My kids watched Sesame Street 24/7, yet only one of them eats cookies as an adult. The one who eats cookies, eats them in moderation and so do her children. None are obese. Lots of things contribute to childhood obesity but I don’t really believe the Cookie Monster did.

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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