Street politics

by Henry Farrell on April 8, 2008

The “FT”: has a story on the political sensitivities involved in transplanting Sesame Street to divided societies such as Northern Ireland.

Today, BBC2 Northern Ireland will air its first local version of Sesame Street … the show has been renamed Sesame Tree because, well, it’s easier to have children hanging around a tree than decide if the street is in a Catholic or Protestant neighbourhood. … The scenes are, indeed, charming: one tells the story of a five-year-old boy learning to play the drum with his older brother at an Orange march, traditionally seen as a Protestant event. Another focuses on a young boy who must wait until he is old enough to join a hurling team, a game associated with nationalist Catholics. But the question remains … Can taking Northern Irish children on a TV tour of the lives of their peers really help to reverse decades of entrenched sentiment? … Or is this the latest version of a sentimentally idealistic American icon spreading its mission of social morality around the world while creating new licensing opportunities at every conflict?

The co-production movement really took off after the highly ambitious Israeli-Palestinian joint production of 1998, five years after the Oslo Accords. …The show was called Rechov Sumsum and Shara’a Simsim , and featured separate Israeli and Palestinian streets because it was improbable to have a shared street. … But as the region’s fragile peace crumbled, so too did the project. … So, in 2003, Sesame Stories , which allowed Israeli, Palestinian and now Jordanian versions of the show to be produced using segments “humanising the other” from a communal library, was born. … A 2001 report found that children who had watched the Israeli-Palestinian co-production were more likely to provide positive descriptions of people from other cultures.

what effect, the executives wondered, might Sesame Street have in Kosovo, where challenges include Serbian and Albanian schools with classes conducted in different languages? … Kami, a Muppet Aids orphan, made her debut on the South African Takalani Sesame . Intended to reduce the stigma of HIV in a country where one in nine children is infected, plotlines involving Kami have been used to explain complicated subjects such as Aids transmission and the death of parents. ….But the programme has its limits. Rosenfeld rejected the Kosovo producers’ idea of tackling the topic of landmines, saying it was hard to avoid making children more curious about them.

We try to facilitate, not dictate,” says Rosenfeld, as she talks about the problems that arose with another Palestinian segment in which a boy looking for a gardening container picks up a discarded can by the side of the road. Rosenfeld said it was too dangerous to show a child picking up random objects. The next suggestion was to use a clear plastic bottle with the top cut off, but she didn’t want to encourage pre-schoolers using scissors. Finally, they all agreed that his mother could cut it and tape over the rough edges, and the boy planted and grew a flower. But then the Jordanians objected, asking if planting a garden symbolised giving up the right of return to contested land. The Palestinians stood by their storyline, insisting it was [a] story about creating beauty and self- empowerment.

(as an aside, although the FT doesn’t mention it, I believe that the main guy developing _Sesame Tree_ is Ian McDonald, whose SF books have previously received “some”: “attention”: here on CT)

I imagine that some people might find an extended discussion of the heated politics of children’s TV a little ridiculous. But what struck me was the contrast between what these various spin-off shows are trying to do, doubtless with varying degrees of success, and what the American original has become. Like many Irish people of my generation, I grew up watching the original American Sesame Street. Seeing the original episodes again on DVD has reinforced my perception that it was was a very good show, in part because it dealt with at least some of the complexities of the American urban experience (most of this was lost on me and my cohort, growing up in a small agrarian country on the edge of beyond, but probably not all).

Not only did it touch implicitly on issues of race, class and (Ernie and Bert) sexual orientation, but the original Sesame Street was at least as much about adults as about children. Most of the important puppets – Ernie, Bert, Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch – seemed to be grown up, even if they were sometimes a little silly. The actual adults sometimes behaved in ways that children aren’t likely to understand, flirting with each other etc just like real adults do. The world of the original Sesame Street was obviously simplified – but it felt like a real world, with adults who had different personal quirks, so that some of them were boring (Bert’s monomania about pigeons) and others (Oscar) difficult to get along with, and proud of it.

The latter-day US _Sesame Street_, in contrast, seems to me (“and”: “others”: ) to be very weak brew. Not only does it not discuss anything that is even faintly politically controversial, but there aren’t any real people on it – all the old stalwarts of the original show have been Elmo-ized. It’s relentlessly, horribly, bland. I suspect that this is the result of institutional imperatives – like other PBS flagship products it’s simultaneously subject to market constraints (not wanting to do anything that would endanger the colossal franchising operation attached to the show) and political ones (not wanting to hurt PBS’s funding from Congress and donations). Whatever the cause, the result is a hideous abomination – the various international spin-offs, for all of their difficulties, seem to me to be much closer to what the original show was trying to do at its outset, than the original itself as it has developed over time.



Demon 04.08.08 at 9:04 pm

The Jena, La. incident shows that, even after 30 years of Sesame Street promoting tolerance and understanding between the races, black and white American students still can’t stand under the same tree.

The school board cut the tree down in the end.


Bloix 04.08.08 at 9:25 pm

The changes in Sesame Street are the result, first of all, of the fact that the audience today is younger than the original target audience. At first a show for 3-5 year olds, it is now a show for 2-4 year-olds. This makes a huge difference in the appeal of the show to adults.

Second, when Sesame Street began, its producers were attempting to attract an adult audience. The hope was that a parent and child would watch together. To make the show adult-friendly, the show was heavy on celebrity appearances, relationships between adult characters, catchy songs with sophisticated lyrics and orchestration, and humor and suspense that would hold an adult’s attention. But adults almost never watch the show with their children, and accordingly the producers have eliminated most of the elements that go over the child audience’s head. Not surprisingly, you find it bland. But the producers no longer care about you – they are shooting for 3-year olds, whose interests are different from yours.

One more thing – you’re just wrong about Bert and Ernie. It is in imaginative play for children to imagine characters who are emotionally children – ie like themselves – but who live in a world without paretnts or other adults. Watch a child play with dolls or action figures, or with Playmobile or Lego. The play may be cooperative or it may be violent, but in either case the characters are adult in body but child-like in mind. Bert and Ernie are modeled on this sort of children’s play. When you impute a sexual relationship to them, you are missing the point entirely. They are six-year olds in terms of their emotional development and they live in a pre-schooler’s imaginary world – a world that does not encompass adult sexual relationships.

Why are they both male? Well, when you look at the original Sesame Street you’ll notice that ALL the muppet characters are male. It was a signal failing of the original show that girls were simply ignored. Since then, Sesame Street has tried but more often than not failed to create satisfying female characters.


Grand Moff Texan 04.08.08 at 9:29 pm

black and white American students still can’t stand under the same tree.

In some neighborhoods. Sesame Street is/was overwhelmingly urban, and therefore alien to the rural/suburban south.

off topic: iirc there was an attempt to create an alternative to Sesame Street that would teach capitalist values. One million quatloos to the first person to produce a link. One brazillion quatloos to anyone discovering actual video.


Brett Bellmore 04.08.08 at 9:32 pm

Is there some rule that the word “Sesame” had to appear in the title? “Sesame Street” was at least alliterative, but “Sesame Tree” isn’t. And are a generation of Britons going to grow up thinking sesame seeds grow on trees?

And, yeah, describing Bert and Ernie as a same sex couple is just sexually obsessive.


shub-negrorath 04.08.08 at 9:32 pm

demon, I would dispute the notion that a single vivid anecdote, by itself, can “show” anything about broader national trends in race relations.


mikey 04.08.08 at 9:46 pm

Henry you will remember the time the irish soldier in the guard of honour was docked a week’s pay for saying to his comrade as Mary Robinson came off the plane in a bright yellow suit – Here comes Big Bird. So right with her particular way of pecking off her points precisely.


Kieran Healy 04.08.08 at 10:14 pm

most of this was lost on me and my cohort, growing up in a small agrarian country on the edge of beyond, but probably not all

But everyone in Ireland between the ages of 28 and 40 knows what “abierto” and “cerrado” mean.

As for Bert & Ernie, bloix is right: they are children, not adults, and all the main early muppets were male.

Meanwhile, here is the awesome Roosevelt Franklin. Don’t tell me I can’t teach!


KCinDC 04.08.08 at 10:22 pm

Big Bird seems more childlike than the other three mentioned.


mollymooly 04.08.08 at 11:16 pm

For a second I thought Ian McDonald’s “SF books” were about Sinn Fein. And yes, Kieran, we all know know “serrado” is Irish for “closed”.


P O'Neill 04.08.08 at 11:47 pm

At least the new one sometimes runs an old clip so one gets to see, for example, classic Kermit in his beat reporter mode — still funny decades later. The main concession to adults now seems to be with the musical guests e.g. an Elmo duet with Alicia Keys. But too often there’s a sense that they see Barney as the competition.


Matt McIrvin 04.08.08 at 11:53 pm

I grew up watching Sesame Street from (my mom tells me) the first episode. When I was very little, I (mis)read the Bert/Ernie relationship as father/son. Bert’s stodginess came across as the behavior of an adult authority figure, and I think I had a tie-in book in which Bert colloquially refers to Ernie as “son” at one point. Later, I identified with Bert to some degree; his weird tastes and aversions were as off-the-wall as mine.

It’s true that they were presented as quasi-children, and sexuality really wasn’t an issue, but I think they were also to some extent based on Felix and Oscar from The Odd Couple—and people were always wondering if they were gay lovers, too; the show had to go out of its way to present them as straight.

I agree about what’s happened to the US show. It’s inoffensive kids’ TV but it’s not the same.


The Modesto Kid 04.09.08 at 1:55 am

I always thought Big Bird was female. Not sure why; the character isn’t very obviously gendered, and I think the actor who played BB was a guy.


Joshua W. Burton 04.09.08 at 2:13 am

Rechov Sumsum dates back to the early 1980s, and had essentially no geopolitical content. Moishe Ufnik was an Ufnik, just like his cousin Oscar in New York; Kipi Ben-Kipod was a kipod (hedgehog) the size of Big Bird, and the show was about Israeli kids and adults on a street in Tel Aviv. When multicultural issues were touched upon, they mostly concerned the varied immigrant experience of Jewish Israelis, and were served with a light and sophisticated hand, in the spirit of the original US show.

The heavy-handed Oslo and post-Oslo revivals of the show have been low-budget affairs, with massive use of pre-intifadeh reruns to keep the show marginally watchable.


Josh in Philly 04.09.08 at 4:30 am

The Ross Douthat link is surprisingly informative: that whole excessive concern over what might “model bad behavior for kids,” mentioned by RD, is part of what led to the elimination of the wisearse Roosevelt Franklin and the toning down of Oscar’s antisocial behavior. But what happened to giving kids in the target demo that Douthat mentions a view of neighborhoods on an economic level more like their own? There’s no litter on Sesame Street any longer, and everything’s yuppified –the Fix-It Shop has become a packaging store and the “O” dealer is nowhere to be seen.


sharon 04.09.08 at 7:01 am

bloix, I don’t see how you can say that a programme was intended at least in part for adults and then immediately insist that characters’ relationships were written for children only.

(Not that I have a dog in this fight, personally. Can I be the only person in the world who has never seen an episode of Sesame Street?)


ejh 04.09.08 at 7:24 am

the show has been renamed Sesame Tree

What’s the point? Kids in NI are going to have heard of Sesame Street already.


Dave 04.09.08 at 7:45 am

Bert? Ernie? Bert/Ernie!!!

You may just have ruined my whole day with that imputation…

Brits will fondly remember the days when Morecambe and Wise could share a double bed for comic effect, and that’s exactly what it was taken for… [While Terry and June had twin singles, as I recall – what was that about?]


~~~~ 04.09.08 at 9:25 am

Not only does it not discuss anything that is even faintly politically controversial…

After Bert appeared with bin Laden, they toned the controversial stuff down a little.


Buck Theorem 04.09.08 at 10:32 am

Didn’t I read somewhere that Sesame Street was/used to be the most researched programme on TV? And that, because of its format, it refused to be aired featuring commercials (here in the UK at least)?

In my twenties, on my days off, my girl and I used to love watching Sesame Street; we found it hilarious for all the right reasons. The Count’s obsessive compulsive penchant for counting everything was hysterical… one of my favourites being when he convinced some gorgeous actress to continue knocking at the door of a castle without telling her it was his, just so he could count the knocks. I remember some hilarious skit with Bert and Ernie counting sheep to combat insomnia too.

Gently smarter and funnier and goofier than many comedies aimed at the adult market, I thought at the time.


ejh 04.09.08 at 11:30 am

And that, because of its format, it refused to be aired featuring commercials (here in the UK at least)?

I think it was on Channel Four and I’m sure it didn’t run for a whole hour without advertisements.

It was, though, really worth waiting for, especially given the morning television that preceded it.


Seth Finkelstein 04.09.08 at 12:34 pm

Seems to be some sort of projection of social anxiety.

Often the first season or so of anything is when the creators have the relative freedom to push a little, because the corporate types aren’t watching as closely (e.g. _The Simpsons_).


bicycle Hussein paladin 04.09.08 at 1:25 pm

Sesame Street is a public TV show and only runs on public TV stations in the US, which don’t have commercials in the traditional sense. They do have breaks at the beginning and end and possibly middle of shows that advertise the stations other programs and name their larger corporate donors.


Buck Theorem 04.09.08 at 3:22 pm

Ejh – ah, it was Channel4 (I couldn’t recall if it was CH4 or ITV). I remember a really good article on Sesame Street in The Times Sunday supplement, or magazine, I think, in the late 90s: it was there I distictly recall it stating that the owners wouldn’t distribute the show if it was broken down with commercials, because the short skit format could be mistaken as one and the same with ads by young viewers. I remember being very impressed with this, which is why I remember it, as I was with its stating that the show as the most heavily researched in terms of its impact and interpretation by its young target audience. My inclination was to think the same as you – surely they wouldn’t have run a whole hour without? But I really don’t have a sure enough memory to remember the show with or without.

That the show has such an international presence still is a real surprise to me.


Frances 04.09.08 at 4:03 pm

Just because: being deprived of good Flemish/Belgian television I grew up on Dutch Sesamstraat.

I adored Pino (a big blue bird — years later I discovered the yellow Big Bird, next to Pino he’s just lame) and Ieniemienie (a mouse and female!) and Tommie (a cuddly bear). The other muppets referenced in the link weren’t around when I watched in the 80s.

This version of Sesame Street was so very Dutch that it took me a bit of adjusting when I realised that Bert and Ernie were American and that Pino had a yellow cousin. I still prefer “our” version with the stories of Dikkie Dik and Sien and Meneer Aart.


Bloix 04.09.08 at 4:27 pm

Sharon #15- good question. The answer is that parents are familiar with the way that imaginative play works and enter into it with their children all the time, so that they have no difficulty accepting a world in which characters who are mental and emotional children also live without parents and take care of their own needs.

The problem arises when viewers who are not parents or children watch the show and see two characters who live together, share a bedroom and a bathroom (although not a bed), and have no parents or other adult supervision. What, no parents? They must be adult men. Share a bedroom? They must be gay.

But that’s not how a child’s mind works. The shared bedroom for a child implies a sibling relationship. And the interaction between Bert and Ernie is like the interaction between a self-important first-born child with his impish younger brother.

Bert and Ernie are not presented as actual brothers, presumably because the show does not want the audience to think about the specifics of the relationship – if they are brothers, where is the mommy? But the emotional connection between the two is a sibling connection, not a sexual or romantic one.


Spoon 04.09.08 at 4:44 pm

I read a report last year on Canadian Sesame Street (called Sesame Place), which attempted to teach kids Canadian values. That meant replacing any segments where American money was used, teaching French words instead of Spanish words, etc. (Report’s online here.

Additionally, there’s an interesting documentary that came out in 2006 called “The World According to Sesame Street” that deals with the glocalization of Sesame.


Dave 04.09.08 at 6:05 pm

It is an interesting question whether the imputation of homosexuality is an expression of laudable openness to the variability of sexualities, or an indication that the public mind has developed a [perhaps unhealthily?] sexualised interpretation of ALL close relationships in the last 30-odd years…


mikesdak 04.09.08 at 6:35 pm

I worked in the control room at a PBS station for 7 years, and got to sit through Sesame Street every day. For me the big decline was when they turned half the show over to Elmo, although the general sanitizing of the show over the years was disappointing as well. It seemed to coincide with Jim Henson’s Muppets going more mainstream with their own show and movies. Henson always had a mischievious edge that I think they lack on the current Sesame Street. #10 p.o’neiil’s reference to Kermit as a reporter is a prime example. That was a Henson bit that was used extensively on The Muppet Show.
Ah,the Muppet Show. The episode with Peter Sellers is just about as good as TV comedy ever gets.


Adrock 04.09.08 at 8:16 pm

Yep, its the Elmo factor. Half the damn show now.


Russell Arben Fox 04.09.08 at 8:42 pm

Absolutely. For many reasons already mentioned, Sesame Street had been looking for a way to hook into the barely-past-toddler crowd for a while, but the emergence of Elmo surpassed even I think their own wildest dreams in that regard. He’s taken over the show, draining it of so much that used to make it fun (and, I would insist, better for kids than the pedagogical monotomy it has become).


Mrs Tilton 04.09.08 at 9:43 pm

For German-speakers who enjoy really tasteless humour, here are Bernie & Ert.


Russell Arben Fox 04.09.08 at 10:42 pm

More Sesame Street thoughts and links here.


vivian 04.10.08 at 1:45 am

Those Bernie und Ert videos are hilarious, and I only know the occasional German word. Creepily good impressions of Frank Oz and Jim Henson’s gestures though.


Shelby 04.10.08 at 4:42 pm

So here I am, scrolling down CT past posts on transplants, and on Sesame Street, and I find one on transplanting Sesame Street. Is this deconstructionist blogging?


yugenue 04.10.08 at 5:49 pm

A friend of mine took her kid to Sesame Street Live, maybe 10 years ago now, and while the kid had a great time, my friend spent a good deal of the show crying.

When we talked about it later on, she said that she just couldn’t handle how vivid the change in the show had become and how old that made her feel.

“Elmo was everywhere. Everywhere! And Grover, whom I used to love, was just one more background character!”

Grover (the hapless and hilarious– the singing telegrams! upstairs downstairs!), cookie monster, Oscar, and Ernie were definitely my favorites when I watched SS as a kid. I remember being sad when everyone could see the Snuffleupagus, too. I was so intrigued when only Big Bird could see him.

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