Sharon November 18th, 2009
There was a lot of attention last week to Sesame Street’s 40th birthday. For Eric and me, 39 and 37, well, we just can’t remember a time when Sesame Street didn’t exist. My family didn’t always have a television, but Sesame Street is one of my enduring childhood memories – and my parents liked it too. My father sang the number songs to us – the Alligator King and his 7 sons, the 8 penny candy man, the 12 Ladybug picnic. It was an often-present part of my childhood in all the places we lived – the apartment in New Haven, the housing project in Naugatuck, CT, the apartment in Lynn, MA.
None of these were affluent places, and one of the things I remember best about Sesame Street is that it looked like home – the stoops were a little worn looking, the people looked more or less like my neighbors, and did the same things urban, working class people seemed to do, except of course, for their strange obsession with the alphabet and the presence of muppets.
Sesame Street tracked me even after I got too old for it. My youngest sister, 7 years my junior, still watched, and I would pass by and find myself stopped in front of the “D” song again. Then I went to college, and our Sesame Street memories would come up in conversation – there was something foundational about it for many of the people I knew. One friend remembered how she learned english, a new immigrant child, from Sesame Street, heartened by the fact that there were people with accents on the program.
I know there’s a lot to be said against television, and I can agree with almost all of it – but I have a hard time thinking that Sesame Street did me any harm. In fact, I think it was the opposite – and I admit, while we went into parenthood wanting to minimize television exposure, Sesame Street was a single exception. Both Eric and I loved it, and we wanted our children to know Cookie Monster and have the same sense of familiar comfort. Our debate about whether to allow the occasional video was ended when Eli, autistic, responded to television in ways he could not respond to human teaching – he learned to read from Sesame Street and Between the Lions. The judicious application of Kermit was in.
The problem was that the Sesame Street we’d loved was gone. By the time Eli was old enough to watch, Sesame Street had responded to pressure from cable and other sources of television and dumbed down. Faced with more competition and pressure on public television, Sesame Street responded by choosing a much younger audience, shortening the required attention span, cutting back on real content and replacing it with a lengthy “Elmo’s Room” segment – and it had switched from telling kids “it is ok to live an ordinary, lower-class or lower-middle class lifestyle, that lifestyle has a culture that is valuable” and had started telling them, along with everyone else “it is good to be affluent.”
The first Sesame Street had begun with Stevie Wonder singing “Superstitition” and had encouraged, with in-jokes and smart material, parents to watch with their kids. My father recounts sitting with my sister and I and hearing the Count tell children “I am the finest counter since formica!” That’s gone from contemporary Sesame Street, which talks down to kids, and is intolerable to every adult I know.
Now it is not wholly Sesame Street’s fault that these changes came about. There are a lot fewer parents home to watch tv with their kids, so why spend time writing scripts that are compelling to adults? Now kids as aged as four or five are “far too old” for something as slow paced as Sesame Street, and have long since graduated to more advanced material. And the culture has suburbanized as well – now more than half of the world’s poor live in the suburbs.
But some of this was Sesame Street’s fault. Consider the rise of Elmo as an example. Consider Elmo, if you can bear it. Fully 1/3 of Sesame Street’s content was at one point devoted to the happenings in Elmo’s bedroom. What do we see in Elmo’s room? Well, first of all, he has a lot of private media – he has both a television and a computer in his own bedroom. The drawn landscape outside his window is resolutely suburban. His room is full of possessions, and Elmo rarely goes out of it in these segments – instead, he watches people demonstrate things on his tv, or through his computer. When he wants to learn more about something, he doesn’t go to the library, but back to the computer – that is, his is a multiply-mediated experience. By now, I’m sure he has a blackberry too.
There’s something really troubling about setting your three year old to watch a muppet watching something on tv. What does that teach? What was valuable about Sesame Street to millions of children was that it mirrored their own material reality, and validated it, and said that they could learn in that context. It said that your real home, small, not wealthy, often ethnic, not shiny, clean “American” but a mix, somewhat gritty, filled with people like you and unlike you in close proximity, hanging on stoops and out windows, was ok, and good, and a wonderful place to learn and grow. It reminded us that community was more important than affluence – I knew suburban kids growing up in the 80s who envied Sesame Street. It was one of the most powerfully formative counter-balances to the growing culture of white flight, suburbanization and the valorization of affluence.
Contrast the indoor sequences of Bert and Ernie with the indoor sequences of Elmo. First, and most importantly, Bert and Ernie had each other – it is implied that Elmo lives with his parents, but the experience he offers is primarily solitary (with the occasional exception of a guest that comes out of the closet) – people mostly appear through screens. Bert and Ernie read books and interact, and Ernie drives Bert crazy – but they also care for each other. Elmo interacts with a variety of animated household objects – lots of furniture and machinery, but no people – he loves his blankie, and his tv and his computer.
It is true that many low income children do have tvs in their rooms – but Sesame Street presumably sets out to validate not pernicious trends, but good ones. And we know from every sort of research that one of the worst possible things for children is for them to be left unsupervised with lots of media. Ideally, no one would watch tv, perhaps. But in a world where most people do, Sesame Street can at least be minimally expected to respond to that trend by emphasizing community – instead, they gave us Elmo and his room, and his private intimacy with the screen.
And that’s the big loss from Sesame Street over the years (we’ll skip over the depressing Abby Kadavy entirely here) – is that there’s no there there anymore. As Sesame Street became more suburbanized – it added a playground, spiffed up and reduced the communal elements of its programming, it gave us a vision of childhood that is probably accurate, but empty of the culture that Sesame Street once offered. And since by sticking to its past, Sesame Street had the chance to offer a vision of what we could get back – but instead, it accepted the emptying of culture into an affluent blank. Moreover, we got the dumbing down of everything.
It is true that most neighborhoods don’t have as many people hanging out on stoops anymore. It is true that more parents are gone during the day, and more kids are alone with their media. It is true that community isn’t something we value anymore. It is true that parents don’t let their kids out into the neighborhood as much anymore. It is true that we hate anything that smacks of being poor, and we have a harder time imagining validating it. And it is true that in some small respects, the actors and writers of Sesame Street have truly tried to make it possible for children to imagine a place where you play outside, where people talk to one another and help one another out.
But in the main, Sesame Street gave up on its most basic message – which is “here are the things you need to know – that these numbers and letters are important – but also, that people are important, and how they live together are important, and how they get along is important, but stuff isn’t important.” The culture of low-income urban life was a communal culture at its root – people needed each other. I grew up in that culture – my mother babysat for the neighbors’ kids, they babysat for us, the big kids walked with the little ones to school, the parents shared tips and gave each other rides. It wasn’t perfect or idyllic, but it was valuable and worth having – and the only way to live a good life in a place where no one had enough money – the community compensated.
The culture shift that overtook our society overtook Sesame Street. It wasn’t acceptable to be poor – the backgrounds got shined up, and Elmo got rich. The community stopped being the center of things – and an hour of fairly sustained, repeating narrative that covered a theme got shifted to short segments with a letter here and a number here, but no overarching context for the child’s mind to return to. Elmo got his own spot, and so two and three year olds got to spend their time watching Elmo, in his room, a priveleged little boy with talking tv, watching more tv, so that things were happening only very faintly and far away.
The friendly neighbors, there, that’s where you meet – you don’t meet them as much anymore. I admire Sesame Street for its ability to continue, and to preserve it’s cast – there’s a part of me that is pleased that the Maria of my childhood is still the Maria of my children’s childhood. But as we head back to a time when then neighbors are more important than anything, when learning in community, and the ordinary acts of every day, low income life are more normative, I wish that Sesame Street had been able to continue in the courage of its own convictions – but maybe that’s asking too much. Asking Sesame Street to keep valuing things that we as a society have not valued may be unfair. And yet, that’s how it started.