When we look back fondly on our childhoods, it’s because we consider them to have been a time of innocence, free from responsibility. And it isn't really possible to ‘remember’ our childhoods with any real objectivity because that particular memory lane is walked down with mandatory rose coloured glasses. But perhaps we can pinpoint that moment in adolescence when a tiny tear appeared in the fabric between our world and the realm of the grown up. Suddenly the politics of social engagement took identifiable shape, we became aware of things happening outside of our classroom, and decisions other people made became things we could legitimately challenge. With actual words, that is, once we’d gained a sort of mastery over our tear-ducts and didn’t (always) spontaneously burst into tears of frustration when faced with something we didn’t like. There’s a lot to recommend this sort of coming of age that we have all experienced. But down the line, somewhere on the road to '30', the glossy appeal of independent thought is tarnished by its annoying best friend, responsibility. Hence, the warm fuzzy memories of childhood when we didn’t get to make any decisions, but then again, we didn’t have to make any decisions.
This time of loveliness needs to be protected, which is why it’s a real blow to the gut when we see another sexualising / politicising parody of our favourite Disney movie pop up on our Facebook feed. Or when someone tells us The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe was actually about Christianity. Or when Hannah Montana takes her clothes off. Or - the vey worst betrayal of childhood possible - when that bastion of youthful purity, Sesame Street, has its Youtube channel hacked by trolls and starts showing x-rated nastiness.
This last is just one in a long list of scandals that have haunted Sesame Street. And perhaps the show is of a sort that leaves itself open to such attacks. Originally, in its 1969 incarnation, the show was actually labelled ‘adult only’ thanks to the inclusion of a pipe smoking Cookie Monster and protesting hippy puppets. Since then, although this kids’ show has become a stalwart of childhood, it has continued to suffuse its characters and stories with cleverly hidden adult themes, to encourage (they say) parents and kids to watch together, and learn together. This is a good idea. No, it’s a great idea. So, as we walk you through some of the more infamous scandals to hit the ‘Street, we offer a caveat; at least these little furry muppets are well-intentioned.
10 Roosevelt ‘Stereotype’ Franklin and Arab Puppets
Promoting diversity has always been a key element of Sesame Street and this is a sticky one, because in order to promote diversity, it’s often necessary to acknowledge difference. This can cause problems and, for Sesame Street it’s pretty impressive that such problems have only twice arisen in the decades the show has been airing. First up, the 1970’s African American Roosevelt Franklin was a little rascal, and was always getting himself into trouble in class. Obviously this translated, for lots of viewers, as ‘any African American student is rowdy and troublesome’. And so Roosevelt, and all of his genuinely informative lessons and value based chats, were cut. More recently, Israeli Sesame Street introduced an Arab puppet, Mahboub to the (otherwise segregated) Jewish programme. This did prompt a slew of protests, but in the long run has proven to be quite the integrational success story.
9 RIP Mr. Hooper
In 1982 Will Lee, the actor who embodied Mr. Hooper, died. And then in 1983, Sesame Street had to confront the fact that his character had just evaporated from the show. Big Bird had a talk with some of the adult characters on the show who (gently) explained why Mr. Hooper wasn’t coming back. This did not go down well with the parental audience who didn’t believe their children were old enough to deal with the subject. That’s right. They said their little ones weren’t old enough to deal with an actual thing that actually happens in actual life. Ignoring completely the fact that many children watching would have experienced loss and could maybe use a sensitive handling of the subject.
8 Just Good Friends
This is maybe one of the more unusual ‘controversies’ to be associated with Sesame Street. Bert and Ernie, two of the show’s staple characters, have long been popularly believed to portray a gay couple. Which, back in the dark ages, was scandalous because…well, they were believed to portray a gay couple. But the tide has turned, and when the show’s producers finally addressed the rumours, they denied that Bert and Ernie are a gay couple and added the questionable explanation that Sesame Street is a show for preschoolers. Which bizarrely suggests homosexuality is unsuitable for the kiddies. Helpfully though, the Sesame Street crew pointed out that Bert and Ernie are puppets, and as such they 'do not have a sexual orientation'. Cue backlash spoof film, Ernst and Bertram, by Peter Spears - a short and raunchy romance about two male puppets who just can’t get enough of one another.
7 Bert and Bin Laden
Bert got on the photo bombing bandwagon with the assistance of now infamous Brad Fitzgerald, when his image was inserted into various images associated with terrorist activity. Scandalous enough, in itself, but the controversy really grew legs in 2001 when a less than diligent Bangladeshi poster shop printer used one of the images (of Bin Laden) to create Anti-US posters for a rally. 2,000 images of Bert and Bin took to the streets in support of Bin Laden. Oh dear.
6 Katy Perry and Elmo
Katy Perry was all lined up to make an appearance with fellow scandal courter Elmo back in 2010. The two were due to perform a Sesame Street version of Hot and Cold. But mommies everywhere kicked up a bit of a ruckus when it became apparent our girl Katy would be performing the song in a deeeeeep V, and accompanying the number with a bouncy little dance. Which was just not something mom thought daddy should see. Wait, we mean kids. Not something the kids should see. Of course.
ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) is something of a controversial subject all by itself. But it became a Sesame - specific scandal when media began reporting expert links between ADD and the structure of Sesame Street, which is presented in 40 short non-sequential parts. Apparently this is just the sort of thing that can trigger ADD. It’s called OR, the Orienting Reflex and works by presenting a dizzying image that forces the brain to focus until the image becomes recognisable, like dancing letters. According to educational psychologists, this has the effect of making real life dull. So what we’re really saying here is Sesame Street is just too entertaining to be good for us.
4 Mitt Romney / Big Bird Face Off
In a 2012, pre-election interview with PBS, Mitt Romney announced his intention to cut subsidies to the network, specifically (not to say oddly) mentioning Big Bird as potential collateral damage in the cut. Obama responded to the comment in a later interview saying “thank goodness someone is getting tough on Big Bird.” There’s a career in comedy there if all else fails.
3 'Pox' News
Oscar the Grouch, whose very grouchiness has itself been the subject of picketing parents, in 2009 delivered a parodic news report from his own network, the Grouchy News Network (GNN), during the course of which he responded to a complaint from a caller berating the network’s coverage which, she claims, just isn’t Trashy enough. In future, she announces, she’ll be watching “Pox News. Now there’s a trashy news show.” A representative for PBS responded to Fox Network’s complaints, saying that while “the parody was too good to resist, it should have been resisted.”
2 Kami the HIV Positive Muppet
In 2002, Kami was introduced to the South African audience of Sesame Street. Kami is a puppet who is HIV positive and whose mother died of AIDS. Her character sparked outrage from viewing adults who claimed she promoted homosexuality and discussion of an inappropriate subject. Which is difficult logic to follow given she is the product of a heterosexual union, and that burying-head-in-sand psychology went out with the ark. At least, that’s what Bill Clinton thinks, and he proved it by appearing with Kami in a Public Service Announcement that will just break your heart.
1 Oh, Elmo.
Truly the most tragic of all scandals to break on Sesame Street was Kevin Clash’s recent run in with the law. In September of 2012, 23 year old Sheldon Stephens alleged that Clash had conducted a sexual relationship with him, which began when he was just 16 years old. Although Stephens later recanted the allegation, three other individuals came forward with similar claims, forcing Clash to resign from the show. These cases were thrown out in 2013, because they exceeded the statute of limitations, which doesn't exactly exonerate Clash. Of course, if there is any truth to the claims, a very different sort of tragedy emerges. But for the moment, any of us who saw Being Elmo just can't help but feel…well…Sad Elmo.