As Sesame Street turns 40, the media is brimming with think pieces about the groundbreaking show. From its educational impact to its unprecedented portrayal of racially diverse urban life, the show changed the face of not just children’s TV, but the medium of television in general.
There’s a lot to talk about when we talk about Sesame Street, and people are doing just that. Time magazine postulated that Barack Obama is the first “Sesame Street president,” writing that “The Obama presidency is a wholly American fusion of optimism, enterprise and earnestness — rather like the far-fetched proposal of 40 years ago to create a TV show that would prove that educational television need not be an oxymoron.” (The show’s creator, Joan Ganz Cooney, is happy to support this theory, saying “I like to think that we had something to do with Obama’s election). Newsweek pondered Sesame Street’s global reach, reporting that among the world’s Sesame-friendly regions are Kosovo and the Palestinian territories; the South African SS features an HIV-positive character. And New York magazine revealed that 75-year-old Carroll Spinney, who has played Big Bird for all 40 seasons, spends his days with one arm raised above his head, manipulating the puppet’s eyes and beak and not even once grumbling that he could be playing shuffleboard on a Carnival cruise ship.
And then there are the videos – like “Women Can Be,” a hilarious feminist ode to the world of beyond-nurses-and-ballerinas careers that I was reminded of this morning, courtesy of my friend Tina. (Rita Moreno, voicing the surgeon, is especially awesome.)
But at the risk of getting all Oscar the Grouch about the feel-good reminiscing, the thing that strikes me in watching this video on the eve of the show’s birthday is that, well, it probably wouldn’t be produced today. For all Sesame Street’s forward-thinking construction of a racially-mixed, intergenerational, monster-friendly city neighborhood, the show has repeatedly failed to foreground its females. (That sentence was brought to you by the letter F, by the way.) It’s astonishing to think that Sesame Street didn’t have a lead female Muppet until its 37th season, but the debut of Abby Cadabby in 2006 was a milestone for the show, finally offering a female character with as much personality (and, it must be said, as many marketing opportunities) as Cookie Monster, Big Bird, and Elmo.
But Abby Cadabby isn’t a surgeon, or a lumberjack, or a chef, or any of the other possibilities celebrated in “Women Can Be.” She’s a fairy. And fairies are great, but as a 2006 New York Times article pointed out, entrenched sexism—yes, even on Sesame Street—makes female characters far trickier to make relatable and acceptable to kids and their parents. (Elmo, the article reasons, would read as flaky if he were a she; Cookie Monster would be even more problematic—”she’d be accused of being anorexic or bulimic,” said SS executive producer Carol-Lynn Parente.)
And that’s the paradox of Sesame Street’s feministory. Girls growing up today may well take for granted every lyric in “Women Can Be,” and never doubt for a minute that they have the rights, the smarts, and the freedom to grow up and be whatever they want to be. Yet the very cultural product that taught them that—or, more accurately, taught their parents to teach them that—seems increasingly bogged down in stereotypes and market imperatives, concerned more about the size of a female Muppet’s nose than about what message she sends.
The show’s new season offers up plenty of evidence that Sesame Street is dedicated to staying relevant to its audience. A new science initiative will focus on the environment (with special guests like Michelle Obama, who enlists Elmo to help plant a vegetable garden); the show’s timely, adult-friendly references include parodies of Mad Men, True Blood and, as you may already have read, Fox news. Hopefully the show will also look to its past in the new season and beyond, and offer up new—and just as charming—ways for girls to realize that Women Can Be…anything.