[20 November 2009]
Forty years on, where has Sesame Street taken us?
As most of my Readistas know, I rather enjoy my role as a contrarian. When Ronald Reagan and Ray Charles died within a few months of each other a few years back, I told every one that Ray made a much more positive impact on society than Ronnie. A few months back, after the deaths of Ted Kennedy and Eunice Shriver, I told every one that Eunice made a much more positive impact on society than any of her siblings.
I will go to the mat for these opinions.
And I will go to the mat for this opinion as well: the two individuals most responsible for the Democrats return to power are George Bush and Jim Henson.
George Bush, through sheer incompetence and boastful ignorance, managed to single-handedly erase the momentum the modern conservative movement made over 40 years in just one presidential term. Jerry Lewis couldn’t create a figure of such ineptitude.
On election night, Americans wrapped themselves in the absolving blanket of racial tolerance. Well, we can all stop slapping each other on the back. Bush lost the election much more than my former Senator from Illinois won it.
In the 2008 presidential election, America crossed the Henson Point—the point where we are a post-Baby Boomer society. The median age of the the electorate was 45. The age itself is not significant. What the number signifies is that for the first time half of the American electorate grew up with Sesame Street.
The 2008 race was the first Sesame Street election. Just look at the major candidates. A senior citizen. A woman. A man of mixed racial ancestry. And I’m sure Kermit the Frog earned a few write-in votes, too.
Forty years ago this month, PBS first broadcast Jim Henson’s gift to mankind. Sesame Street continues to chase the clouds away each weekday morning all over the world. Now that we all know how to get there, how has this discovery changed us? And where does Sesame Street lead?
When Sesame Street first aired in 1969, America appeared to be on the eve of destruction. Our Macbeth, Richard Nixon, took the oath of office and introduced the illusion of a ‘silent majority’ that stood behind conservative policies. For the first time since the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, an American people silenced were assumed content.
Meanwhile, veterans of the Battle for Hue returned to inner cities as burnt-out as the ones in which they had just fought. The hedonistic optimism of the hippies, yippies, and the young-at-heart dissipated under the strains of government repression, drug-fueled paranoia, and petty selfishness. With the arrival of the gay-rights movement, liberals couldn’t see the forest through all the competing picket signs.
Over the next 40 years, successive Republican administrations (and spineless Democratic ones) loaded the Great Society in a crate and readied it for storage. Equality? Dead. Non-corporate welfare? Dead. Voting rights? Dead.
But wait. An unexpected seedling of LBJ’s Great Society took root and, despite the forbidding political climate, miraculously thrived. The Children’s Television Workshop, funded in part by (LBJ’s) the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, founded itself around a television show that would educate children while also closely reflecting the urban environment of those most at risk. In order to draw children’s attention, they turned to an American Geppetto eager to breathe life into his creations. Jim Henson’s Muppets would go on to become the dominant children’s characters of the ‘70s and ‘80s.
Many of our generation think of Kermit, Ms. Piggy, and ‘It’s time to put on make-up’ when we think Muppet. Yes, most of us still fiercely love Henson’s later (The Muppet Show and movies) work. We forget the Muppets started out living in the real world right from the start. The spirit and direction of all Henson’s later work never strayed very far from the world he created with the Children Television Workshop.
The Children’s Television Workshop imagined a world much better than the one outside their studio. On Sesame Street, the fear and loathing, so evidenced by the bombings, ambushes, and covert surveillance, never existed. What did exist was a community of neighbors who cared about one another.
Each Muppet had a distinct personality and each of them was as real to the target audience as Mr. Hooper. Maybe even more real. You remember the Muppet-kid interviews? A child stares in awe of an eight-foot bird. An adults sees a man inside a costume.
The Workshop’s message was simple-trust the intelligence of children because they accept everything. Fear existed on Sesame Street, but it was never the fear of the Other.
Sesame Street is all about message. Each season, the show addresses for children many of the social issues adults either suffer or ignore. There is no ‘silent majority’ on Sesame Street, no old white man speaking for everyone. Muppet or child, Big Bird or Gordon, everyone learns together.
They learn that at our cores, we’re all a lot more similar to each other than maybe we’d like to admit. Instead of painting people in red or blue, Sesame Street paints people in bright yellows, sky blues, and lime greens.
Sesame Street‘s ratings have gone down over the last decade or so. With five or six cable channels dedicated to children’s programming now, the decline was inevitable. In all of these shows, though, you can see the Television Workshop’s fingerprints. They may turn the lights off someday, but Sesame Street‘s legacy won’t fade away anytime soon.
Go ahead and call me naïve. Sure, life’s not a children’s show. But before you knock me off my cloud, ask yourself: What are you afraid of? Whatever it is, I’m sure Sesame Street has a place for that fear, a safe place where you can maybe understand it.
Of course, the Republican party does not want to understand anything. It knows what’s good for us. And what’s not good for us, and that is PBS and, especially, Sesame Street. Yes, Bill O’Riley fears Elmo.
Why wouldn’t the Republican party want to kill Sesame Street‘s funding? The program has stayed true to its liberal message, even while the country around it went about changing liberal into a pejorative. The program teaches children to treat others like they would like to be treated (hmm… where does that sound familiar. Mel Gibson? Nah. It’ll come to me). Meanwhile, the adults won’t even grant their neighbors access to health care.
Laura Bush was the first First Lady to ignore Sesame Street since Republican Godmother Nancy Reagan visited in the ‘80s. I’m sure Sarah Palin won’t be stopping by either, while she promotes a book written by her staff. And there’s the rub for the Republican party. They can ignore Sesame Street all they want. Their problem is that with each passing election, America will begin to resemble more and more the attitudes and diversity of Sesame Street. And the Republicans don’t move the needle with that America at all.
Of course, they could reach out to the most attractive conservative of the last 40 years for 2012. Oscar, I’m working on your platform as we speak.
The two of us have a lot in common.