I am a child of Sesame Street. My afternoons in daycare began with “Sunny days. Sweepin’ the clouds away. On my way to where the air is sweet. Can you tell me how to get, how to get to Sesame Street?” I had my favorite characters. Oscar the Grouch made me giggle as he told everyone to “scram!” Grover’s silly antics brought smiles to my face on the gloomiest days and I always counted along with the Count. I cannot say I was ever a huge fan of Bert and Ernie, but I did like it when Ernie got on Bert’s last nerve. I was a fan when Mr. Hooper and Kermit the Frog were regulars, and I became a fan again, when Elmo’s cuteness made my kids’ eyes light up. But there was one character who was always a favorite and that was Big Bird. His gigantic proportions never overshadowed his kindness So, when Mitt Romney said during the first debate, “I’m sorry Jim. I’m gonna stop the subsidy to PBS. I’m gonna stop other things,…I like PBS, I like Big Bird, I actually like you too,” I instantly thought I had heard it wrong, but then I quickly realized that Romney did indeed say Big Bird was on menu for Thanksgiving. Romney’s comments are incredibly sad because Big Bird, and everything he stands for, such as kindness, honesty, toleration, sharing, generosity, hope, and curiosity, are all the qualities that we, as Americans, supposedly value. So, in many ways, we all are Big Bird because he represents the best of America and by making him a political target, Romney essentially places the bull’s-eye on the backs of most Americans.
Openness, Toleration, and Kindness
We all are Big Bird because when Sesame Street began in 1969, it represented a changing America, one on the precipice of accepting its diversity. It was not a street you found in the middle of suburban American, but an urban landscape where children, adults, and Muppets interacted, regardless of race, gender, creed, disability, size, and shape. The show’s creators believed that to engage urban children, they had to create a world to which these children could identify. However, Sesame Street never alienated suburban children who found as much enjoyment in this one show as did their urban counterparts. Every child was welcomed to watch Grover fly through the air, to laugh as Cookie Monster stuffed a gazillion cookies in his mouth, and to sing or goof around with one of the many special guests who visited 123 Sesame Street.
We all are Big Bird because when the creators painstakingly developed the show’s curriculum and outcomes, it was geared toward the millions of children unable to go to preschool, while at the same time reinforced the lessons learned by the children who did attend. Sesame Street’s main goal was to educate future generations, but to do so in an intelligent, fun manner that respected and fostered children’s curiosity. The incorporation of Jim Henson’s Muppets engaged children by bridging fantasy with reality. Its popularity for over 40 years, as well as its global reach, reflected the show’s ability to shape children’s perspectives and insights. Children may have been learning their ABCs and 123s, but little did they know that they also learned the meaning of friendship and compassion, even from the very cranky, but lovable Oscar the Grouch.
We all are Big Bird because when Mr. Hooper (Will Lee) passed away and Maria (Sonia Manzano) married and became pregnant, producers took each event to expand the show’s storyline. Real life presented an opportunity to teach children about about death, love, and family. By incorporating and addressing real life circumstances, Sesame Street expressed a willingness to deal with issues that were not always “child-friendly.” Like with all of their other educational content, they took an age-appropriate, honest approach that ended up teaching millions of children about the realities of life.
Sharing, Generosity, and Trust
We all are Big Bird because on Sesame Street, sharing is what friends, neighbors, and good people do. Throughout the past 40+ years, numerous characters learned the lessons of sharing and generosity. But at the same time, human and Muppet characters shared their feelings and learned that honesty was the best policy and that also trust was just as important. Jim Henson’s Muppets were able to garner a child’s trust and they taught children that they could trust their feelings and be honest about them. So when they introduced Mr. Snuffleupagus (Snuffy), Big Bird instantly wanted to share his best friend with everyone on Sesame Street. The problem was of course, he was invisible, and adults did not believe he existed, particularly when something went wrong. I’ll be honest, I loved the episodes with Snuffy because I had imaginary friends. Snuffy and Big Bird’s friendship was endearing to a young girl like myself, but by the 1980s, his invisibility and the adults’ disbelief in his existence raised some concerns. During this time, the rise in awareness of sexual abuse (and all child abuse) influenced the show’s producers to admit that children might be learning the wrong lesson with Snuffy’s invisibility. Big Bird’s frustration over the adults disbelief regarding Snuffy’s existence mirrored many children’s exasperations when adults do not believe them, especially when it is about something like abuse, which does not always leave visible marks. It was not a message that they wanted to send, because Sesame Street always encouraged (and still does) children to speak out and to silence the littlest of voices was unacceptable.
We all are Big Bird because Sesame Street has always implied hope as a message. Hope in our children, our community, and in our world. I learned from Sesame Street that all children, regardless of their situations, were very much like me. They were curious, playful, kind, tolerant, and liked to share. It is probably why I packed my bags one night and announced to my mother that I was running away to Sesame Street because I wanted to live in a place of hope, tolerance, sharing, honesty, and openness. (I was crushed when I learned it was not real. I mean really crushed). Sesame Street gave (and gives) millions of children hope that the world could be a better place if they lived like the characters on 123 Sesame Street.
Romney’s plans to cut off PBS is very much like his “those people” remark. It demonstrates greed, selfishness, arrogance, pride, and ignorance – values that are the antithesis of what Sesame Street espouses. If Romney wins and Big Bird is indeed silenced, then who else is silenced?
Romney’s contempt for the 47% (and really for most Americans) is why I choose to stand for Big Bird, because I am Big Bird.
For more on the history of Sesame Street: Michael Davis, Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street (New York: Viking Press, 2008)