“Sesame Street” has always been political

There is one rule in politics, or at least there should be: never fight Big Bird. You end up spitting feathers and the eight foot fowl pulls away sing the alphabet.

In the 2012 election, Mitt Romney argued several times for cutting subsidies on public television and having the beloved character share the screen with commercials – “I’m afraid Big Bird has to get used to Kellogg’s Corn Flakes” – having opened up to attacks including he cared more about Wall Street than he cared about Wall Street “Sesame Street.”

In November, Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas became the last pol to find the big, irresistible yellow target. After Big Bird’s Twitter account announcement that the character had received a Covid-19 vaccine, following a CNN and “Sesame Street” town hall on vaccines for children, Cruz called the tweet “Government propaganda… for your 5 year old!

Let us leave aside the dubious claim that the promotion of childhood immunizations, a cornerstone of public health and schools, is “propaganda”. Disregard how Cruz ignores Big Bird was promote measles vaccine half a century ago. (Cruz, after all, is the same cultural scholar who once considered a burn to label Democrats “Lisa Simpson’s Party.”) And forget that for decades liberal and conservative parents worshiped “Sesame Street” for its non-commercial wholesomeness.

Cruz was at least on a larger truth: “Sesame Street” is political, and that from the beginning.

It’s political not in a partisan sense, but because the way we teach and protect children – and choose which children to teach and protect – is inevitably tied to politicized ideas.

This, beyond the fond memories of Bert and Ernie and the Count, is at the center of the sweetly engaging documentary “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street,” directed by Marilyn Agrelo, which airs Monday on HBO. Drawing on the book “Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street” by Michael Davis, it uses archival footage and new interviews to detail the early years of a puppet revolution.

“Sesame Street”, which premiered in 1969, was the project of Joan Ganz Cooney, a television executive who was originally more interested in the civil rights movement than education, but came to see the link between the two. “The people who control the system read,” she once said, “and the people who control the system read”. And she believed that the best way to get children of the 1960s to read, paradoxically, was through television.

His children’s television workshop brought together educators and artists, including a puppeteer named Jim Henson and director Jon Stone, an idealist drawn to Cooney’s idea of ​​bridging the literacy gap for black children in inner cities. . “I think what daddy attracted was really about his political vision,” daughter Kate Stone Lucas says in the documentary. (Stone died in 1997.)

As “Street Gang” explains, the very setting of the show – a city street, not a fantasy castle or fenced house – says a lot about the range of children it sought to accommodate. The racially diverse cast of adults and children said something. “Sesame Street” was open, public and real, as real as a block where humans hung out with furry monsters.

“I saw it as a political show,” says Sonia Manzano, who played Maria, because of her cast and her determination to spark conversations that children’s television was not used to having.

Matt Robinson, the first actor to play Gordon, voiced the 70s Muppet Roosevelt Franklin, who was created to portray black children in audiences. Buffy Sainte-Marie singer breastfed a baby while explaining breastfeeding to Big Bird. Reverend Jesse Jackson led the kids in a call and response from “I am someone!”

Big Bird, whose character evolved from a goofy idiot to a curious child at an early age, was often a surrogate for younger audiences, just as he was when he offered a wing to teach children about the vaccine. The most memorable and moving example came when Will Lee, the actor who played the trader Mr. Hooper, passed away. The show wrote death in one episode, in which Big Bird learned that when people die, they don’t come back.

Out of the box, “Sesame Street” was a rara avis: a mainstream hit on public television, a children’s show with savage sophistication and counter-cultural energy. It even surprised the people who did.

“We’re shooting this show, and you see this ugly bird,” the cameraman Franck Biondo said in the documentary. “I remember thinking, ‘Who’s going to watch this [expletive brought to you by the letter S]? ‘”

But he was not universally loved. A Mississippi state television commission refused to broadcast “Sesame Street” after complaints about racially integrated distribution. Local business affiliates picked up the show, being a hit when they saw one, and the board ultimately reversed the vote.

It is easy today to feel superior to this racial story, or to forget it. When Sesame Street presented a Korean-American Muppet this year, Matt Schlapp, the chairman of the Conservative Political Action Committee, called the addition “crazy” on Twitter. “I grew up watching, and it was never about race,” he told Fox News. (Someone informs Roosevelt Franklin.)

Credit…Sesame Workshop / HBO

“Street Gang” ends near the end of the Jim Henson era (Henson died in 1990); Elmo only gets a fleeting glance, and decades of history, including the flagship show’s switch to HBO, go unnoticed. Thus, the documentary does not examine the changes in the show’s cast and format, nor whether it could or could have been premiered today, in an era of many TV options for children (although more commercial).

But like crop war skirmishes like Cruz’s show, more has changed since the start of “Sesame Street” than the number of TV channels. The LBJ-Nixon era that gave us the show was also polarized, but the series at least reflected some 20th century consensus on the role of institutions, from government to medicine to television networks. It was not strange that Washington was playing a role in teaching children through the nation’s most popular mass media. (Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona, a former Conservative presidential candidate, was one of the the most powerful early defenders from “Sesame Street”. )

Now, in an era of media and political divide, characters on an HBO Max show are doing a CNN vaccination special that is zapped to Twitter by a senator looking to score points with the Fox news public. It’s a bigger media universe than when “Sesame Street” first tried to bring the whole world together into one block. But we live in smaller and smaller neighborhoods.

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