Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Decline and Fall of...Sesame Street??

I forget now who pointed me to this New York Times article, but if you ever watched Sesame Street in the '60s, '70s or '80s, it sounds like the show is going downhill rapidly.

I wrote the following letter to the article's author and to the current executive producer of Sesame Street:

To: Virginia Heffernan, New York Times
CC: Carol-Lynn Parente, Childrens Television Workshop

What?? TV from 1969 isn't suitable for today's children? Have people who create programming for children lost their minds?

Yes...but...it's happened before.

I was born in 1957, and remember vividly some of the early Warner Brothers cartoons, some with negative racial stereotypes, on frequent rotation on TV by the early '60s. I remember Captain Kangaroo reading "Little Black Sambo." I remember "The Little Rascals" with Buckwheat. These experiences, along with having been raised in a lily-white suburb, should have made me a racist.

But they didn't.

If anything, seeing racism on TV news (lynchings, the white police in the South turning water hoses on black protesters, hearing that black girls around my own age were murdered in a church bombing) made me understand, early on, how wrong racism was. Seeing racial stereotypes treated as "normal" on children's TV made me understand, early on, that these attitudes were ridiculous.

During the '60s, I loved Warner Brothers cartoons because they were always sharper than the other cartoons on TV, even if they sometimes used stereotypes. Early Warner Brothers cartoons were in no way politically correct. But most of them are still funny today, even to adults.

I have a younger brother, who was five the year Sesame Street started. Even though I was twelve, I enjoyed the early Sesame Street episodes. They were wonderfully anarchic. Did we think the fact that the baker carrying the baked goods and falling down the stairs while he was counting objects mean that we should fall downstairs carrying a tray of cakes? Did we think we should all live in trash cans and be grouchy to everyone around? Did we think we should only ever eat cookies? Of course not! I understood that. Even my five year old brother understood that.

The current Sesame Street doesn't sound like it's fun to watch. It sounds way too bland. Older Sesame Street shows had an engaging blend of innocent and more sophisticated characters. That was a little more interesting to the viewers, particularly to the adults who might be watching with their children. Changing with the times is one thing. Many kids shows have had an increase in female and minority characters over the last 20 years, and that's great. But bowdlerizing kids TV to dull any sharpness or originality is a very sad state of affairs.

Laurie D. T. Mann
Pittsburgh, PA

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