The Body: The Complete HIV/AIDS Resource Follow Us Follow Us on Facebook Follow Us on Twitter Download Our App 
Professionals >> Visit The Body PROThe Body en Espanol

Radical Red: Positively Sesame Street

September/October 2002

When the news broke about the HIV-positive muppet being developed for South Africa Broadcasting Corporation's Takalani Sesame, I was excited. A ground-breaker from its inception back in the early 1970s, Sesame Street was the first children's show to feature developmentally disabled characters, physically disabled characters, and a happily inter-racial cast.

Over the past 30 years, Sesame Street has tackled sensitive subjects such as death, divorce, pregnancy and childbirth, lying, stealing, racism, and gender stereotyping. In some countries, difficult and painful political situations are depicted in an age-appropriate manner, including the bloody conflict between Israel and Palestine.

Surely, I thought, Sesame Street would do a great job with HIV.

Granted, it would've been great to see HIV-positive muppets or cast members on SS a long time ago, but better late than never. Even if it's not a regularly-featured character, the HIV-positive South African little-girl muppet could at least break the ice ... hopefully one of the American muppets would then feel comfortable sharing their HIV status, after they saw how everyone accepted the South African muppet. Once everyone realized it was safe (and fun!) to play with fuzzy animated HIV-positive beings, surely other SS cast members would feel the great weight of stigma lifted and disclose as well. Maybe Maria or Gordon could explain how it's okay to eat or drink after someone with HIV, but that no one should touch anyone else's blood or pick syringes out of the dumpster ... but generally there'd just be lots of hugging and dancing with flailing arms, the way there always is on Sesame Street.

But almost immediately, some knobs from the GOP got all upset about whether U.S. tax dollars were funding the development of that Godless South African HIV-positive muppet, and demanded that there be no mention of HIV/AIDS in the American Sesame Street because -- you know -- they didn't feel "that subject" was "appropriate" for Sesame Street's target audience of children aged 2 to 5. And instead of breaking new ground once more time for our nation's children, Public Broadcasting Services President Pat Mitchell shot off a hasty letter to the concerned parties, assuring them that no U.S. public funding is being spent on the little girl-muppet in Takalani Sesame -- and, even more importantly, that there are no plans underway for HIV-positive characters to appear on the American version of Sesame Street at all. While the HIV-positive South African muppet will be visiting other countries' Sesame Streets in the future, the USA has apparently refused her a visa or permission for a stopover.

So, help me with this: Do these GOPers actually believe there are no HIV-positive children watching Sesame Street these days? Does PBS and Sesame Workshop not feel that an HIV-positive muppet might be incredibly validating to children living with HIV/AIDS, or who have loved ones living with HIV/AIDS, in the U.S. or anywhere else? I mean, correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't children's programming supposed to be relevant to children's lives?

Where exactly do HIV-positive or HIV/AIDS-impacted children see any images of themselves, outside of maybe some terrific camp programs and community support groups?

Apparently these GOPers and all the other folk who immediately went into high-battle gear when the HIV-positive muppet announcement was made were too stricken with the pornographic Sesame Street imagery that immediately leapt to mind: Bert topping Ernie over the bottlecap collection ... Elmo and Prairie Dawn sharing syringes behind Oscar's trash can ... Grover tooting a little Tina before heading over to the pansexual orgy at Maria and Luis's place ... Kermit doing a condom demo on a banana after Cookie Monster confided that "Me no use condoms because them not feel natural to me -- besides, all Cookie's monster-lovers clean! Me just know it!"

Did these images (colorful and exciting as they may be) so cloud the collective judgment that the potential good of an HIV-positive Sesame Street character was immediately discarded out of fear over the "transmission issue"?

It's as though introducing discussion of the global HIV/AIDS crisis would somehow lead to a Stonewall-esque Muppet Riot over the right of Bert and Ernie to finally come out of the closet and live openly as God made them. Or does their reaction simply stem from the realization that people who interact with children (parents, teachers, etc.) might actually have to talk with them about HIV/AIDS if they hear about it on Sesame Street?

Like this would be a bad thing? Like we shouldn't be doing this already?

Obviously PBS and Sesame Workshop wouldn't even have to spend time on blowjobs or vaginal/anal sex or smack-shooting if they developed an HIV-positive character -- to be honest, they wouldn't even really need to go into transmission at all, given their target age group. An HIV-positive muppet would simply afford children living with or impacted by HIV/AIDS a validation of their own experiences, and would show the rest of its viewers the same lessons Sesame Street has always taught: that it's okay to hang out with people who are a little different from you.

For those interested in writing letters concerning the introduction of HIV-positive muppets on American Sesame Street:

Sesame Workshop
One Lincoln Plaza
New York, NY 10023

PBS Headquarters
Public Broadcasting Service
1320 Braddock Place
Alexandria, VA 22314

(Note: due to the anthrax scare post-9/11, PBS will only handle correspondence on postcards.)


Editors Note: At press time, PBS officials switched gears and said they won't rule out the appearence of an HIV-positive muppet on Sesame Street.

Got a comment on this article? Write to us at

This article was provided by Positively Aware. It is a part of the publication Positively Aware. Visit Positively Aware's website to find out more about the publication.
See Also
13 Moments in Black Celebrity Activism
History's Biggest HIV-Positive Celebrities
More About HIV on Television


The content on this page is free of advertiser influence and was produced by our editorial team. See our advertising policy.