“People on “Sesame Street” had limited possibilities and fixed identities, and (the best part) you weren’t expected to change much. The harshness of existence was a given, and no one was proposing that numbers and letters would lead you “out” of your inner city to Elysian suburbs. Instead, “Sesame Street” suggested that learning might merely make our days more bearable, more interesting, funnier. It encouraged us, above all, to be nice to our neighbors and to cultivate the safer pleasures that take the edge off — taking baths, eating cookies, reading.” – Virginia Heffernan, The New York Times Magazine
You’ll definitely hear me harp on Sesame Street from time to time. Sesame Street was a gift to my development as a child, teaching me lessons that I didn’t even know would be integral to life both as an adolescent and as an adult.
Here are some lessons that it taught me.
Put Down the Ducky
This musical number is seemingly innocuous – like most of Sesame Street. Ernie keeps hearing squeaking noises when he tries to play the saxophone, and it’s because he tries to play while holding onto his rubber duckie. The song tells him to put down the duckie.
I was using the phrase “put down the duckie” long after I watched this is a child; it was clear to me that if something is preventing you from doing what you want to do, then you need to learn to let go of that thing in your life. This can apply to bad habits, addiction… anything that keeps you from “playing the saxophone.” Sure, you can learn to accomplish your goals while compensating for this weakness that you refuse to give up, but if you know deep down inside that it’s time to let go, you’ll still hear that little squeak when you play.
This metaphor mixes up a little bit with the lighter concept of “it’s okay to let go – if it’s good for you then you’ll be able to pick it up again.” We know that Ernie’s relationship with the duckie is not in itself harmful – he just needs to let go of it for the moment. His friend assures him “you can just pick it up when you’re done!”
Being Proud of Yourself Doesn’t Mean You Need to Bring Others Down
This lesson needs to be taught more. I hear so many people talk about how important it is to have pride.
“I’m proud to be [insert race here]!”
“I’m proud to be a [man/woman/other]!”
Then they go and disparage others. “The white people do not understand blah blah” “You’re cisgender so blah blah.” “This meeting is only for [my group that I have pride in].”
In Fuzzy and Blue, Grover expresses his pride in being born fuzzy and blue. (“It’s just the way that I grew…”) He is joined by Harry Monster, and then Cookie Monster (“me just so fuzzy and blue!”) who enter seamlessly.
Then comes Frazzle. Frazzle is orange. Frazzle is a very different addition to the Sesame Street cast – his appearance is extremely fierce, with bright orange fur, a strong, thick unibrow, and an inability to speak English without a thick gurgle that renders him incomprehensible to non-monster ears. Grover is reluctant at first – or perhaps simply trying to comprehend the pull that Frazzle appears to feel for being involved in a song that is about pride in being blue. (“All right, all right, just thought I’d mention it!”) Then, although the song is practically over, they restart it for Frazzle and modify their refrain:
“We’re fuzzy and blue (and orange!)”
They do this with no outside prompting, no mediating parent, no supervisor, and no union intervention. It’s true – pride in oneself is important, and that involves knowing what it is you’re proud of. I can be proud of being tall – does that have to mean that I’m disparaging short people? No. Short people can be proud to be short, and I can agree with that pride without undermining my own pride.
Frazzle is different, and his friends support his difference and his pride in being different without any insecurity about themselves and what they value.
Interestingly, everything Frazzle says sounds the same (something directly addressed in the show). Who hasn’t made that comment about a foreign language before? Frazzle represents a foreign identity even to Sesame Street – which has monsters, but most of them are friendly colors.
Oscar the Grouch
Oscar the Grouch makes it very apparent that Sesame Street is not a perfect place. He is a misanthropic, grouchy monster that lives in a trash can. He doesn’t enjoy anybody’s company, nor does he want anything to do with learning any lessons.
Oscar is as close as it gets to being a social pariah – my memory isn’t amazing, but as far as I can recall he is the only character whom other characters chide and to whom they even suggest that he needs to change his ways. His life doesn’t look very nice, which could be a cautionary tale… or it could even suggest that Oscar is crying for help by making sure to surround himself with the people of Sesame Street. Whichever it is, Oscar’s grouchiness doesn’t keep the people around him from talking to him or involving him in their conversations.
Sesame Street – with Oscar – is now a complete image. It is not an idyllic, utopian place, it’s a ghetto. Yet, the show is adamant that the place is amazing, with everyone wanting to know “how to get to Sesame Street.” The people (and monsters) of Sesame Street aren’t trying to leave – instead, their reaction to the hand they’ve been dealt is to watch each other’s backs.
The relevant links can be found below, but I want to take this opportunity to make a point. I’m not saying Sesame Street is a gem to the world of television (it is, but I mean that it’s not my main point). I’m saying that the kid shows you put your child in front of have lasting effects that go beyond the obvious – and certainly go beyond that stage of development. We remember the things we see, and they DO stick with us. So the next time you let TV do the babysitting… it’s worth thinking about what you’re letting your kid be inundated with.
Either that or communicate regularly with your child. Crazy talk, I know.
NOTE: Old School Sesame Street and modern, HBO Sesame Street are not the same beasts. As a result, some people argue that old school Sesame Street might not be suitable for children today, as a lot of the concerns modern parents have were not voiced or even present back then. We’re talking a depressed talking elephant that only one character can see, a homeless misanthrope, and a scene where Cookie Monster eats a pipe. If these sound shocking to you, then you know not to watch. If it just sounds like pre-hipster age television, then enjoy.
Or again, you could show it and then just talk to your kids.