Sesame Street’s Success through a Dark Past of Racism, War and Pandemics

Society has trouble taking media for children seriously. Even simply respecting it seems like a daunting task for some critics. While works that target all ages have not escaped the stigma (especially due to kid-centric marketing), the films, television shows, and books exclusively made for children are more often than not outright dismissed by adults.

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It is understandable for an adult to dismiss these works as simplistic, apart, perhaps, from the ones they grew up — nostalgia, after all, can be a bolstering force. However, there lies an issue in the belief that even the most educational children’s media is seen as a free babysitter for frequently busy parents.

Sesame Street, however, was the pioneer of televised edutainment, and would change kids’ shows forever and challenge that way of thinking.

How Did Sesame Street Start and Why Did It Get So Popular?

Black and white Sesame Street cast picture from 1960s

When Sesame Street first premiered in 1969, television was a fairly recent addition to American households, having been on the market for less than two decades. The medium was still relatively in its infancy, even if classics like The Honeymooners, Bewitched, Gilligan’s Island, and the televised versions of cartoons made during the Golden Age of Animation had already entered the public consciousness.

Staple genres like the sitcom were blossoming, but there wasn’t a lot of programming at the time that specifically catered to kids. Shows that are ostensibly for children now, like The Flintstones, were actually considered to be for adults at the time. Fred, Wilma, and Barney were even famously featured in commercials for Winston cigarettes.

Even then, these family-friendly works, including several of the animated ones, emulated the sitcoms that dominated the small screen. Hanna-Barbera, the top studio in TV animation at the time, was almost sued by Jackie Gleason for The Flintstones’ blatant similarities with The Honeymooners, but Gleason did not want to tarnish his legacy for “ruining” such a popular program, so he backed out.

Before Sesame Street, most popular shows on television were primarily for adults that can be enjoyed by kids. Thus, Sesame Street’s debut was the first of many examples of the show adapting to its surroundings. If children’s programming were to remain on television, it had to be enjoyable for its target audience without patronizing them. Due to TV’s offerings in the late ’60s, it could not afford alienating adults either. Thus, its famous formula and lengthy production cycle were born.

Sesame Street Was a Big Part of America’s Civil Rights Movement

Jim Henson and Frank Oz performing Ernie and Bert for one of the duo’s earliest sketches.

Sesame Street was conceived in the aftermath of the now lauded, but at the time, intensely controversial and often derided American civil rights movement. When the crew at Sesame Street decided to have a diverse cast, it was not just a case of artists being allowed to do the bare minimum, nor was it a Disney-like cynical marketing ploy. It boldly defied what was the norm in the United States for most, if not the entirety of the country’s existence.

Having the show take place in an inner-city New York neighborhood reflects the optimistic side of the theoretical end to one of the most shameful parts of American history. The civil rights movement is remembered for tackling racism, but class inequality was just as relevant. After all, race, as a concept, was often used to rationalize the oppression of marginalized groups who had the “temerity” to be different from the ruling class. It is thus unsurprising that non-white Americans are disproportionally poor, and said poverty is fueled by centuries-long racism.

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Having Sesame Street feature an ethnically diverse cast was already enough for the more reactionary state governments, such as Mississippi (ironically, Jim Henson’s home state), to ban the show, but having them live in an impoverished, yet tight community was revolutionary at the time. The underdog was no longer a disgruntled, rugged individualist as if they were in a John Ford flick.

This time, the regular Joe was a collective of ordinary people just living their lives. It was baffling, but fascinating, both for children who would otherwise never interact with poorer people, and the very poor kids who never got a chance to see their lives reflected on television — or pop culture in general.

Sesame Street was created to educate kids, especially poor kids with a lack of available educational resources, in an entertaining way. From the very beginning, it sought to amplify the positive effects of the civil rights movement, such as the end of legal, enforced racial segregation, to provide a hopeful asset for American children as well as their parents. The next two decades would be even better for the street.

The Golden Age of Sesame Street: The 1970s

Anyone even remotely familiar with Sesame Street knows about Jim Henson’s involvement with the show, and most likely fondly remembers the program’s Muppet characters most of all. There is a common misconception that Henson created Sesame Street, but the show was actually the brainchild of Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett. That being said, it would be completely different without the Muppets, so it’s an understandable misunderstanding.

The Muppets were there from the beginning, but the 1970s, especially the second half that saw the premiere of The Muppet Show, are the foundational years of Sesame Street’s identity. In a decade renowned for its songs, several iconic Sesame Street tunes that people remember to this day were written in this decade.

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The puppets were more polished (Oscar went from an orange grouch to a green one), and the characters’ personalities were more refined. By the end of the decade, most of Sesame Street’s core Muppet cast, barring a few glaring omissions, became a cornerstone of American childhood. They personified well-researched juvenile behavior and the various relationships children have with the people and world surrounding them.

By the time the fourth season aired, the human characters were as inseparable from the Street as the Muppets themselves. Gordon, Maria, Luis, Bob, Linda, Susan, and the other countless members of the ensemble partook in the show’s mission to educate children by successfully sustaining their attention. Additionally, there were sequences featuring ordinary children that were not actors, leading to several unscripted moments, and contributing to the show’s humanity and relatability.

Sesame Street Changed in the Darker 1980s but Kept Its Soul

After a decade, Sesame Street’s success established certain standards for kids’ shows, particularly educational programming. Slowly, but surely, PBS became one of the go-to channels for American edutainment. The reruns of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and the creation of Reading Rainbow indicated that the Street would not monopolize this section of television, but rather introduce new possibilities for education and entertainment.

Sesame Street saw some changes in ‘80s, such as the introductions of mainstays Elmo and Telly, but it was in 1983 that the show had one of its most pivotal moments. Will Lee, the actor who played Mr. Hooper, passed away in late 1982. Rather than recasting the beloved owner of Hooper’s Store, or coming up with a reassuring explanation for his absence like retiring or moving away, the crew decided to tackle the issue head-on and simply have Mr. Hooper die alongside Will Lee.

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The famous scene with the adults having to tell a confused Big Bird that Mr. Hooper is never coming back, shot in one take due to the overwhelming emotions felt by everyone involved, is considered a landmark moment in television history.  

Providing an example of how to help children understand and cope with death was a rarity in television, or even family-friendly cinema. Sure, there were already Disney films that killed off characters, but the movies treated these deaths in a relatively indifferent way. Sesame Street directly told its viewers that Mr. Hooper died, with that exact word, and through Big Bird and the adults’ grief, showed millions of families that the pain from a loved one’s death is normal, even for adults, and the best thing to do is to preserve the memories with said loved one.

This was especially poignant in a decade with issues like the war on drugs and the AIDS panic killing thousands of people, mostly from the same marginalized backgrounds that Sesame Street has been reaching since its inception.

The year 1985 was a big one for Big Bird, who became the protagonist of Follow that Bird, Sesame Street’s first movie. Additionally, an arc/running gag about Big Bird finally ended that same year. Snuffy finally revealing himself to the adults, who have been spending the entire show not believing Big Bird’s claims about Snuffy’s existence, was a pivotal moment.

Not only could one of the major Muppet characters finally get more variety in his screentime, the scene also showed Sesame Street’s willingness to rectify past mistakes. The running gag with Snuffy led to fears of children being unable to trust adults to talk about problems, especially after the exposition of graphic pedophilia stories on 60 Minutes at the time. Understandably, the crew addressed these concerns through Big Bird, once again.

How Elmo and the ’90s Caused a Sesame Street Shift

A triumphant battle for the ultimate prize.

The 1990s were a mixed bag for The Muppets franchise as a whole. Sesame Street was not as affected, as Jim Henson’s only major characters were Ernie and Guy Smiley, whereas Richard Hunt’s characters were recurring at best, and mostly retired by the time he also died. That being said, Sesame Street did go through other drastic changes, polarizing people in the process.

One main criticism of The Muppets as a franchise is its status as a boys’ club, which included the performers. The only female members of the “core” Muppets gang are Miss Piggy, Janice, and Camilla (who, as a chicken, only clucks). Sesame Street was no better, with Prairie Dawn being the only major girl Muppet character. The show addressed this by introducing two new female Muppet monsters, Rosita and Zoe. Both characters instantly became part of the main cast.

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Rosita was well-received for being the first major Sesame Street Muppet to be bilingual, speaking her native Spanish and English with a pronounced Mexican accent, showcasing the main example of linguistic diversity in American society.

Unlike Rosita, Zoe got more flack for being a female answer to the increasingly more popular Elmo. Her color scheme is even a palette swap of his own. While Zoe is well-liked by those nostalgic for ‘90s Sesame Street, her inclusion showed that the already profitable Sesame Street’s adaptability would potentially include more emphasis on marketability.

Elmo from Sesame Street looking at the viewer

On the topic of the little red menace and marketability, the 1990s is when Elmo’s popularity truly skyrocketed. The “Tickle-Me Elmo” was the source of many consumerist struggles during the 1996 holiday season.

From that point on, Elmo would just take over Sesame Street, forever changing the show. He became the show’s main Muppet, even getting his own segment, “Elmo’s World.” While the educational aspect of Sesame Street will never leave, neither will Elmo, who turned into a mascot at the expense of the classic cast.

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Elmo’s popularity might have played a role in the shaping of modern Sesame Street’s identity, but so did the arrival of other preschool shows that began airing and rivalling Sesame Street. From Blue’s Clues, which was directly influenced by Sesame Street, to the likes of Arthur and Teletubbies, the show’s influence was finally catching up to it.

It was still the “king” of its turf, but the crew will have to study what other preschool shows are doing and how they became part of the same zeitgeist as Sesame Street.

How Sesame Street Handled 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, Autism and Pandemics

The early 2000s were fairly similar to the ‘90s in regards to themes, characters, and tone when it comes to Sesame Street. Obviously, the series did not see the need to change much due to its spot in pop culture being virtually identical to what it was in 1996. The first couple of years in the millennium were indeed not that different, but certain events quickly changed that.

In the public consciousness, at least from a North American perspective, the 2000s were much gloomier than the generally optimistic 1990s. The United States’ foreign policy became more openly aggressive, edgier ideas and aesthetics were being adopted, and the contradictions developed by neoliberalism were amplifying, leading to the infamous crash of 2008. This depressing time was reflected in pop culture, which was generally more violent and cynical.

Obviously, Sesame Street never ceased being a hopeful program, but the 2000s episodes were particular due to specific issues being tackled rather than a general topic that children must learn to process and understand.

September 11th became a very personal tragedy for Sesame Street considering it happened in New York, and was depicted as a fire targeting Hooper’s Store, traumatizing Elmo in the process. PBS aired a rerun of an arc about the community recovering Big Bird’s belongings and rebuilding his nest after a hurricane destroyed it whenever a hurricane, such as Katrina, devastated real communities.

Will Lee’s death prepared Sesame Street to address more complicated issues with the same lack of sanitation as its way to handle death as a topic. At the international level, the show’s South African version introduced the first HIV-positive Muppet. As open xenophobia was on the rise, Sesame Street made an episode about accents, where Rosita, who is from Mexico, gets teased for the way she pronounces certain words with the letter “I”, like “pigeon,” in English. The bullies specifically make fun of her accent, depicting bigotry in a way as straightforward as the way Mr. Hooper’s death was handled.

Of course, not all of Sesame Street’s current attempts at educating kids are related to gloom. The female cast was expanded in 2006 with Abby Cadabby, now a character of the same caliber as Cookie Monster, Big Bird, and even Elmo. The 2010s began focusing on teaching scientific research, a topic usually reserved for shows that specialize in it, like Bill Nye the Science Guy. The show integrated into the Internet with the first non-profit YouTube channel. A Muppet with autism was introduced to the cast. It keeps expanding its boundaries and covering new topics, enriching its run in the process.

Today’s Sesame Street is not the same as the classic seasons from the 1970s. To any adult that grew up with it, anything past the episodes that are familiar to them might feel odd, but this is to the show’s advantage. The intensive research that goes into the production of each episode provides an interactive, charming, and easygoing experience. Sesame Street has successfully brightened the days of children and adults for over fifty years. Its run is likely far from over, but what is nearly guaranteed is the show continuing to morph itself to accommodate modern times.


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