Monday, July 22, 2002

This just in from the PBS newsroom: The new HIV-positive Muppet on “Sesame Street” will not be introduced on the U.S. version of the program, and will remain in South Africa.
That’s a relief to parents of tykes addicted to singing along with the Muppets. Learning certain letters, to say nothing of “concepts,” might be more than a two-year-old could abide so early in the morning.
One of these things is not like the others.
One of these things just doesn’t belong
Can you tell which thing is not like the others
By the time I finish my song:
Herpes/ Syphilis/ HIV/ Measles.

The HIV-positive Muppet in South Africa will be a girl. The boys may have a discrimination suit. The shape and color of the Muppet has not yet been determined, but we’re told the character will be an orphan with high “self-esteem.” Muppets often have “famous friends,” and Magic Johnson, who is famously dealing with the disease, has the perfect name. On the other hand, explaining how Magic, with his thousands of girlfriends, acquired the disease might be more than a tyke wants to know.
“Not every show will deal explicitly with HIV/AIDS,” Joel Schneider, vice president of Sesame Workshop, explains. “We want to show that here is an HIV-positive member of our community who you can touch and interact with.” Interacting without the usual precautions, however, might be risky, and the creators of the show insist there will be no talk about how the new character became HIV positive, nor will there be any discussion about how the disease is spread. But don’t inquiring minds want to know? Isn’t that what “Sesame Street” is supposed to be about, developing curiosity in children?
We can only imagine the jokes about the games that can be (and no doubt will be) constructed around the new character. In my small focus group of friends, the episodes imagined were not printable in a family newspaper. Tiny fans of Big Bird and Cookie Monster wouldn’t understand (at least parents hope they wouldn’t).
More than 4.7 million South Africans one in nine are thought to be afflicted with the HIV virus. Although tots between the ages of two and four watch “Sesame Street” in this country, older children are presumed to watch it in South Africa. Even so, it seems an unlikely venue to deal with sexually transmitted diseases. Will Cathy Chlamydia and Herm Herpes soon be joining a chorus of dancing STDs? “Mr. Rogers,” who often followed “Sesame Street” on PBS stations, can be glad that he is no longer around. This would be difficult stuff for the boys and girls in the neighborhood. It’s not exactly like teaching them to wear their rubbers when it rains.
The producers of “Sesame Street” create specific topics for 20 different countries, some of which sound downright subversive, given the demands of the multicultural approach. For example, “Sesame Street” claims to teach “self-esteem” to oppressed girls in Egypt and to help Russian children cope with life in a more open society. In Israel, it even attempts to counter the bigotries the Palestinian Authority pipes into Arab homes by addressing “the need in Israel and the Palestinian Territories to demystify differences among children and foster appreciation and respect for one another.” No Muppet with a hook nose or a Shylockian sensibility need apply.
Since these shows haven’t been seen in the West, I can’t be sure, but it sounds to me that “Sesame Street” either exaggerates exactly what it hopes to accomplish or they’re imposing heavy-duty politics on tiny tots. In one episode in America, which teaches children what to do if their clothes catch on fire, there’s a catchy tune with lyrics “Stop, drop and roll.” Would their creative workshop develop a character as a suicide bomber, or to tell an Israeli kid what to do when confronting one?
“Sesame Street” delights little children, thereby pleasing millions of parents, but more as wholesome entertainment than as actual education, encouraging healthy fantasies rather than teaching tough concepts. As an educational tool, it encourages bad habits, cultivates short attention spans and suggests that learning must always be fun, rather than the hard work it often is. Watching television is certainly more fun than learning to read a book.
No teacher I ever had was as adorable as Big Bird, though one or two male teachers affected the hair and fashion styles of Bert and Ernie. But any show with a character like Oscar, who loves anchovy milkshakes, and Elmo, who hates Brussel sprouts, has its virtues. “Sesame Street” should stick to doing what it does best. Learning your letters is important, but it should leave the songs linking HIV and STDs to ABC and NBC and CBS.

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