By Courtney Suciu
When Sesame Street made its debut on American television in 1969, it revolutionized children’s programming. Not only was it phenomenally successful in teaching preschoolers about letters and numbers; it was the first TV show for young people to feature minority actors including African American and Hispanic cast members, as well as differently-abled human and puppet characters.
Now, 50 years later, Sesame Street is on the air around the world, in 70 languages and 150 countries.
In The Strait News1 of Singapore, where Sesame Street first appeared on television in 1971, Assistant Professor Liew Kai Khiun from Nanyang Technological University shared his thoughts about the show’s ongoing popularity. He noted that by featuring such diverse characters, the show “[brings] alive the sense of the neighborhood and community.”
“Sesame Street,” the professor continued, “is still one of the more accessible and less contentious platforms to help kids deal with issues of difference and identity."
That intention, it turns out, was baked into the original vision of the show. According to a documentary2 about Muppet-creator Jim Henson (who called his boisterous creatures “Muppets” because they are a cross between puppets and marionettes), Sesame Street producers were responding to current events.
“Martin Luther King was killed, Robert Kennedy was killed, the Vietnam War protests were reaching a crescendo. It was a really scary time,” said Joan Ganz Cooney, founder of the Children’s Television Network. Sesame Street, they realized, could serve as a source of comfort and support for young people coping with a changing society.
In honor of 50 years of Cookie Monster, Big Bird and the rest of the beloved Muppet gang, we take a closer look at the social and moral influence of Sesame Street, and its enduring appeal to children around the world.
In her 2014 dissertation, Julia Palm3 examined the increased globalization in all aspects of our lives and how Sesame Street responded to a more interdependent world. As the “management of diversity” became a “key contemporary challenge,” she noted that “the American Sesame Street consciously placed special importance on diversity in the cast of ‘real’ people in terms of age, gender, race and even disability.”
Additionally, Palm pointed out how the show’s Muppets “appear in un-naturalistic colors” which “blurs any attempt to categorize them into specific groups, opening the door to individual interpretation the identity of the majority of characters on the screen.”
Perhaps, because Bert, Ernie and the rest can’t be categorized according to age, ethnicity or even as human or animal, it might be easier for children to relate to the Muppets’ situations and personality traits. This could enable preschoolers to personally identify and empathize with aspects of these characters (after all, who can’t occasionally relate to Oscar the Grouch or Cookie Monster?), while not attaching unpleasant characteristics like grumpiness or greed to any group of actual people.
Palm noted that the resulting viewing experience, which allows children to “‘find themselves’ in the program and situate themselves in relation to an ‘Other,’” encourages them to explore issues of identity and belonging, both as individuals and as a part of a culture, as well as people sharing a larger world.
Around the world, Sesame Street producers (the Sesame Workshop) have teamed up with local television producers to create versions of Sesame Street relevant to challenges and issues in different countries.
These co-productions make “efforts to keep content and references culturally specific” through “the setting, characters and language used by the characters.” Despite these variations, what remains consistent across all versions of the program is “the use of a consciously diverse cast, Muppets as the majority of the show and an idealized setting.”
The French co-production of Sesame Street, Rue Sesame, debuted in 2004 after more than a year of planning, reported Doreen Carajal of The New York Times4. Programming director Alexandre Michelin told her that the challenge was in “adapt[ing] it to keep Sesame Street values and ours, finding a way to make it work with French issues.”
Rue Sesame features a “tidy village bakery stocked with baguettes,” and in place of Big Bird, there is Nac, a giant yellow character with a trumpet nose. Additionally, Michelin said “We had the feeling that [the American Sesame Street] was a little bit too sweet, too nice. We need some irony…we have the feeling that in France we can be a little edgier.”
Carajal also noted a Sesame Street co-production for India was then in the works, where Big Bird would be replaced with Boomah, a seven-foot, Hindi-speaking lion; and rather than a French bakery, the street would be home to an internet café.
“If it is to work in India, the Indian kid watching it must not feel it is American or foreign,” said producer Niret Alva.
Prior to the development of this co-production, a version of the American Sesame Street dubbed in Hindi aired in India, but only ever reached a small, niche audience. However, Carajal explained, a dubbing is far less expensive than creating co-productions of the show, so many parts of the world continue to air the American version in different languages.
But in the early 2000s, when globalized media was generating a lot of buzz, more countries were interested in collaborating with Sesame Workshop to create unique versions designed specifically for the issues and customs of their cultures. By 2005, Sesame Street aired in more than 120 countries; about 25 of those countries aired co-productions.
In addition to France and India, there was an Arabic Egyptian version called Alam Simsim and one in South Africa called Takalani Sesame which featured an HIV-positive Muppet to encourage conversation about the country’s AIDS crisis.
But what does all of this tell us about why, after 50 years, Sesame Street remains so popular?
In their book G Is for Growing: Thirty Years of Sesame Street5, authors Shalom Fisch and Rosemarie Truglio delved into research that demonstrates the educational impact of the show on children in the U.S. and around the world. They also examined how its focus on diversity contributes to this impact.
According to the authors, studies have shown “significant differences between the academic performance of preschool Sesame Street views and non-viewers have appeared as late as high school.”
Fisch and Truglio pointed out several examples of Sesame Street accomplishing this. For one, the show’s writers and producers work closely with experts in childhood education to ensure the content is appropriate for preschool-aged learners. Another element the show gets right is taking care to introduce children to “new places and cultures that they would otherwise not have the opportunity to experience” by linking it to their existing knowledge and experiences for relevant context.
But perhaps the most significant way Sesame Street appeals to its young audience is through what the authors call “modeling and identification.” From its American debut in 1969, its cast featured minority characters, enabling many children to see people “like them” represented in the media for the first time. Fisch and Truglio cited research that’s shown “children sometimes attend more to models who are similar to themselves” and as result are able to learn more from such characters.
“Modeling and identification” on Sesame Street is also remarkable in how, by having an inclusive cast, children gain role models who don’t look like them, according to Fisch and Truglio. This encourages young learners to relate to and develop positive associations with people of different ethnicities, cultural backgrounds, genders and physical abilities.
Finally, “all of the characters on Sesame Street are shown as enjoying the process of learning,” the authors explained. “Viewers’ exposure to role models who enjoy learning can promote a general love of learning themselves,” they continued. Rather than making a distinction between activities that are fun and those which are educational, Sesame Street inspires children to grow up thinking of learning as a form of play and entertainment.
For this writer who spent her preschool years in the company of the gang on Sesame Street, that certainly rings true.
Courtney Suciu is ProQuest’s lead blog writer. Her loves include libraries, literacy and researching extraordinary stories related to the arts and humanities. She has a Master’s Degree in English literature and a background in teaching, journalism and marketing. Follow her @QuirkySuciu