Sesame Street is pretty much the same age as me. I watched it throughout my childhood and credit it with my obsession with New York. So when my friend Diane bought me the book Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street by Michael Davis for Christmas I was delighted (thanks, Diane!).
Even though I’ve loved Sesame Street for so long that it only recently occurred to me that there’s a person inside Big Bird, I didn’t know much about it. The book has a lot of background on how Sesame Street was thought up and produced and I’m afraid much of this was a bit of a yawn, but then the good bits – the bits about the creation of the characters, the topics addressed on the show, the actors and actors both in and out of the muppet costumes – was just great. But the absolute best thing was it reminded me of just how incredibly progressive the show was.
In the 70s they featured Buffy Sainte-Marie breastfeeding her son. The photo caption in the book said this “was a first for children’s TV”. I would have thought it was an only, never mind a first, but I looked it up on YouTube and found that they did it again (almost word for word) with Maria and her baby (check out the first comment for a perfect example of just why this is needed). Even having the Native American Buffy Sainte-Marie as a recurring character was revolutionary: “It wasn’t until decades later that Sainte-Marie became aware that during her years on Sesame Street, her name had been listed on White House stationery as someone whose music ‘deserves to be suppressed.'”
The cast was (and remains) mixed – with the creators being particularly keen to show positive black and Latino characters (the show was originally aimed at an “urban” audience). Just to show how ahead of its time it was, a five-member commission voted 3 to 2 to block the show from airing in Mississippi because it was “not yet ready” for a show in which black, Latino and white kids played together.”
Jason Kingsley who has Down’s Syndrome appeared in fifty-five episodes “as his charming, exuberant self“. It wasn’t about him having Down’s, it wasn’t commented on, he was just one of the many children on the show. I remember Jason well and realise now he must have been the first child with Down’s I’d ever seen. The Deaf actress Linda Bove was added as a recurring character in 1979 and I’m pretty sure she was my first experience of sign language (I learned to sing Happy Birthday in sign language thanks to Sesame Street).
Something they did less well was gender equality. They were called out on this by feminists in the 70s, but argued that what they were going for in relation to black and hispanic children was more important. In response to a letter from the National Organisation for Women, who were complaining that Susan was a housewife, Joan Ganz Cooney wrote “I don’t know how useful it is to look at Sesame Street solely through feminist eyes when clearly it is trying to do a number of things for young children… We consider our primary aim of reaching and teaching the disadvantaged child a life and death matter, for education determines whether these disadvantaged youngsters enter the economic mainstream of American life or not.” Why they couldn’t teach disadvantaged children and represent women equally at the same time, she doesn’t explain.
It took the show’s producers a long time to realise all the break-out characters were male and so they created Zoe (I’m not really familiar with Zoe) and then, in 2006, Abby Cadabby. “We wanted a female lead character. If you think about the Mary Tyler Moore Show, some girls relate to Rhoda, who’s our Zoe, and some girls relate to Mary, who’s a girly girl. And we didn’t have that girl.” What I find depressing about that is that the male characters weren’t developed in this way; they were simply allowed to be whole characters. Yes, they have an MO – Elmo is about love, Cookie has his cookie obsession – but they’re not simply archetypes in the way the female characters are (or were – I’ve only seen a bit of Abby Cadabby, but I really like her and think she’s way more than just a girly girl).
I was talking to a friend recently and saying Sesame Street pretty much had everything covered, but then I wondered if they’ve ever had a gay character. I googled and found something I’d forgotten – Bert apparently coming out. I’m not sure about Bert, but this seems positive: “The Los Angeles Times noted: “In its own subtle, perhaps unintentional way, the show’s latest season feels more LGBT-friendly than ever.” It suggested that recent guest appearances by lesbian comedian Wanda Sykes, the gay actor Neil Patrick Harris, who played the “shoe fairy”, and Will.i.am, the frontman of the Black Eyed Peas, who sang What I Am, a gay anthem, indicate the direction the American show has been moving in.” I’d prefer to see a gay relationship represented in the cast, but it’s a start.
When I bought a Sesame Street DVD collection a couple of years ago, I was surprised to find that it came with a warning: “These early Sesame Street episodes are intended for grown-ups, and may not suit the needs of today’s preschool child.” That’s bollocks. They are perfect for today’s preschool child. No, they’re not based on the curriculum, but everything doesn’t have to be about the curriculum, does it? They’re funny (with plenty of jokes for grown-ups, but not the sexist/icky jokes so many modern kids’ films seem to think adults want), clever, inclusive and, frankly, brilliant. If you think I’m exaggerating, just watch the way they dealt with Mr Hooper’s death.