The TV I watched when I was a kid was all the stuff that the Children’s Television Workshop was designed to combat: cartoon violence, constant advertisement, a totally un-diverse reality–ethnically and economically. And I turned out okay, right? I still love Warner Bros. cartoons, and much of the for-kids TV of my childhood (okay, I outgrew Romper Room in a hot minute, and no one I knew actually liked Bozo the Clown). I also lived in the sort of unsupervised TV household where I watched whatever was on TV when I wasn’t playing or reading or doing chores or whatever. I didn’t look at the TV I saw as a way to make sense of my world. And a lot of the TV I watched as a kid was not just non-diverse, but actively soaking in stereotypes. It says something that the first time I encountered something that registered as an effort at diversity was an ad campaign in New York City for Levy’s rye bread. It had its own issues with stereotyping (and it was totally in service of commerce), but it was about inclusion. And it had roughly the same effect on me as Sesame Street singing about the people in my neighborhood. Recognition and delight.
So not only did I miss Sesame Street (I was a teenager when the show premiered), but I was not the target audience. Until I had kids.
My older daughter, in particular (born in 1990) was a Sesame Street kid. Not only did she get to watch Sesame Street broadcast in the morning, but we had a slew of tapes for weekends and other “watch something” moments. And I became a convert. Up to that point I’d been, frankly, a little dubious about the show, which seemed so… slow, and unanarchic, and maybe a little pandering (both to the values of parents, and to the childishness of children). But that was because I had never seen Sesame Street.
I was working at Tor Books at the time my daughter was a Sesame Street kid, and my co-worker Claire (whose son was born about a year after my daughter) would meet up every morning and sync Sesame Street ear-worms. Once you’ve heard “Put Down the Duckie” or “Ladybug’s Picnic” a couple of times it gets knit into your DNA. And I had had no idea the breadth of genres that the Street embraced, musically, from a Fred-and-Ginger style number about how to say Hello in Spanish (“Hola!“) to the Alphabet sung by Ladysmith Black Mambazo. And the parodies of every TV show, film, and broadway musical (Big Bird deciding not to migrate, lip syncing to Lin Manual Miranda!). And every performer and athlete and even Supreme Court Justices dropping by in the service of teaching about words and numbers and life. Funny and smart and way more far-roaming than I had ever imagined.
Sesame Street was created to solve problems that my kids never had: poverty, literacy, exclusion. But it was one of the forces that made them kinder, more inclusive, more generous people. The song “Who Are the People In Your Neighborhood” included teachers, elevator operators, doctors, mechanics–basically anyone and everyone. For a while my younger daughter, in particular, took to looking at everyone we encountered, trying to suss out who they might be. And in pre-school this led to her being a “poor person” when her class was role-playing People in the Neighborhood. Aside from her own empathic nature, I credit Sesame Street with making her look at all the people that she encountered with a sharper eye.
Sesame Street turned 50 this year, and is a recipient at the Kennedy Honors. Given that Ronald Grump once attempted to demolish Sesame Street to build a new Grump Tower, that may be considered a triumph of art over commerce. I don’t see the need for Sesame Street diminishing any time soon, alas. And I’m very glad indeed that it’s here with us.