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Cruising with Lazarus

The Muppet Menace or Republicans in the 'Hood

September 2002

What's the most famous street in the United States? Sesame Street. Since debuting in 1969, "Sesame Street" has become the most well respected children's educational series in the history of television. Public television producer Joan Ganz Cooney developed the series concept -- helping preschoolers build the skills needed to make a smooth transition from home to school. She wisely recruited innovative puppeteer Jim Henson to create a family of characters to inhabit "Sesame Street," including Ernie and Bert, Oscar the Grouch, Cookie Monster and an eight-foot-tall feathered oddity named Big Bird.

Possibly the most thoroughly researched television program ever produced, "Sesame Street" solicits input from educators, developmental psychologists and sociologists. The successful combination of education and entertainment has pleased children and parents alike for over thirty years and "Sesame Street" has been recognized with over 75 Emmy Awards (more than any other show in television history), George Foster Peabody Awards, Parents Choice Awards and an Action for Children's Television Special Achievement Award.

Perhaps even more impressive than the show's longevity and honors is that it has always featured a multi-cultural human cast along with its Muppet characters. Not only has "Sesame Street" been ethnically and racially integrated, but its producers also make an effort to include children and adults with disabilities. A wheelchair-bound child and a deaf adult using sign language have been spotted hanging out in the neighborhood over the years. What also makes "Sesame Street" so wonderful is how it has evolved, sensitively tackling real life issues -- like explaining death and the loss of a loved one, acknowledging Spanish-speaking Americans, and introducing children to people, cultures and careers that might be different than those found in their own lives.

Most Americans probably don't realize that "Sesame Street" is a creation of the Sesame Workshop, a non-profit children's television company based in New York. The Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) contracts with Sesame Workshop to broadcast "Sesame Street" here in the United States, but does not own the series or dictate its content. The Workshop's programs include 20 indigenous "Sesame Street" co-productions created by media companies in countries such as China, Israel, Mexico and South Africa. In other words, the Sesame Workshop oversees the re-creation of localized versions of "Sesame Street" that reflect local languages, customs and educational needs, so new characters and new scripts are routinely developed for children living in other countries.

In South Africa, their version of "Sesame Street" is called "Takalani Sesame." It features mixed-race couples, disabled children, multilingual Muppets (South Africa has eleven official languages), skits about accepting people who look different, and lessons specifically designed for smaller kids living in a country still grappling with the aftermath of apartheid. This past July, Joel Schneider, vice president and senior adviser to Sesame Workshop, announced the creation of an HIV-positive Muppet character for "Takalani Sesame" at the XIV International Conference on AIDS.

The new Muppet, designed as an orphaned five-year-old girl, is scheduled to begin appearing in late September of this year. Beatrice Chow, spokesperson for Sesame Workshop, has said the new Muppet "was created specifically for South Africa, and there has been no discussion about having this Muppet appear on the U.S. program."

According to Chow, "Takalani Sesame" won't address sexual activity, intravenous drug use or other ways of transmitting HIV. "A story line might be that some kids don't want to play with her because she is HIV positive," Chow revealed. "It's about de-stigmatizing people with AIDS and how other children view them."

Now this makes perfect sense when you put it in context. South Africa has more HIV-positive individuals than any other country in the world. In a population of approximately 44 million, an estimated 4.2 million (roughly 10%) are infected with HIV. (Sources: Kaiser Family Foundation and UNAIDS) The South African Department of Health reports that in 2000, AIDS-related illness accounted for 628,000 hospital admissions, or 24% of all public hospital admissions. Nearly 25% of pregnant women utilizing public clinics in 2000 were infected with HIV. As of 1999, the estimated number of South African children orphaned by AIDS was 420,000.

South Africa is a country ravaged by AIDS and scores of children are either infected or affected. Consequently, the introduction of an HIV-positive puppet creation is both sensible and relevant. The skilled, sensitive folks who've brought "Sesame Street" to the world for over thirty years are uniquely qualified to help South African children cope with an issue that will or already has penetrated their lives. As Sesame Workshop spokesperson Beatrice Chow explained, this is not about depicting or discussing how people get infected, but rather to address the fear and stigmatization of people with HIV.

What happened in the U.S. next is predictable: Six Republican members of Congress -- all but one from the South -- sent a letter to PBS President and CEO Pat Mitchell stating "We are concerned that what may be fitting for viewers of 'Sesame Street' in South Africa may not be appropriate for children in the United States, especially in such a very early age group." The letter, which also demanded to know if public funds were used to develop the puppet, was conceived and written by House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee Chair W.J. "Billy" Tauzin, a Republican from Louisiana, and signed by him and five more Republican members of the same committee, Representatives Joe Barton (R-Texas), Richard Burr (R-North Carolina), Chip Pickering (R-Mississippi), Cliff Stearns (R-Florida) and Fred Upton (R-Michigan).

Just to make sure PBS President Mitchell wouldn't dismiss their letter for what it really is -- the AIDSphobic ramblings of six men who probably can't locate South Africa on a map -- they made sure to remind Mitchell that PBS "receives Federal tax dollars." Of course that was a deliberate, thinly veiled threat to cut funding if PBS were to introduce the HIV-positive Muppet to the American audience. So what you have here are six congressmen who would rather skip any kind of rational dialogue about the subject and jump directly to scare tactics. Now that's what I call adult leadership!

Tauzin and his charm-free henchmen excel at being hysterical, simpleminded, ultraconservative Republicans who fear, well, just about everything, including a cloth puppet fictionally infected with HIV. Apparently not one of them did enough research to know that PBS does not produce "Sesame Street" here or abroad; they simply buy the program and do not dictate its content. They fail to acknowledge that Sesame Workshop, creators of "Sesame Street" and its various co-productions have handled many real life issues with aplomb and grace for over thirty years -- something you really can't say about Congress.

In their haste to deliver a fascistic, threatening "letter of concern" to PBS, these six airbags failed to ask the kinds of questions that might bring some perspective to the story. The fact is that Sesame Workshop was reluctant to develop the HIV-positive Muppet character for South Africa, but the South Africa Department of Education, South Africa's national broadcaster SABC, a corporate sponsor, and the U.S. Agency for International Development all insisted that it would serve a need.

Nevertheless, PBS President Pat Mitchell has already responded to Tauzin's letter, assuring him and his shortsighted sidekicks there are no plans to introduce a similar HIV-positive puppet here and that no Federal funds were used to create the South African Muppet. Credit Mitchell with remarkable restraint under siege. These six Republican scrubs ought to be told they're underestimating our children's ability to grasp simple truths -- HIV is a bad thing that happens to people ... it's not contagious ... it's okay to touch or play with other kids that have HIV. Yes, four-year-old children can handle those kinds of messages. I don't think these six lawmakers can. I suspect their twisted minds have already entertained the worst possible scenarios: heroin addicts Bert and Ernie happen upon Big Bird's secret needle-exchange program; Cookie Monster turns into the Condom Monster; and the entire "Sesame Street" cast cuts Oscar the Grouch some slack when it's revealed that his cranky disposition is caused by Sustiva and chronic diarrhea. Reasonable people know that "Sesame Street" is not going to thrust explicit HIV messages about dirty needles and unprotected anal intercourse on small children.

The United States economy is a mess, corporate America is imploding from unethical business practices, and Osama bin Laden is missing in action. But don't we all feel better knowing that "Sesame Street," a cheerful, hospitable, make-believe neighborhood populated by amiable humans and enchanting puppets, is under the watchful eyes of six Republican congressmen? I'm sure they'll be the first to spot any vaguely Middle-Eastern-looking evildoer puppets wielding box-cutters.

Got a comment? Write to David at

This article was provided by AIDS Survival Project. It is a part of the publication Survival News.
See Also
More News on HIV/AIDS in South Africa


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