Elmo with Donald Trump haircut sesame street in today's political climate illustration by Natasha McDonald

In Polarizing Times, ‘Sesame Street’ Tackles Intense Issues Head On

Whether it's autism or addiction, the long-running kids show continues to engage with pressing matters in our current social and political climate.
October 27, 2019
8 mins read

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the beloved children’s series “Sesame Street,” and it doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon. For five decades now, everyone’s favorite little puppets — from Elmo, to Big Bird, to Oscar the Grouch  — have graced our screens, educating young minds and guiding the smallest of all of us down the path of kindness. With the staying power and cultural impact that “Sesame Street” has, one might label it the greatest children’s television show ever. But with the more serious topics the residents of the famous avenue have been taking on lately, it could also be the most relevant children’s show as well.

From its very beginnings, “Sesame Street” has been quite progressive. We all know about the speculation on whether or not Bert and Ernie’s relationship is more than platonic. While a gay couple on a kid’s show would not have swung back when the duo was first introduced and the current producers still claim that they are simply “best friends,” we now know that when they were originally written, they were indeed meant to be a couple. Mark Saltzman, a former writer on the series, confirmed that Bert and Ernie are based on himself and his life partner, Arnold Glassman, last September.

However, it’s 2019 and a gay relationship would no longer (or, at least, should no longer) be considered an intense topic. “Sesame Street” is not only dealing with that one issue, though. There have been many new characters and plot lines introduced in recent seasons that try to destigmatize even more intense issues. We have seen our favorite Muppets discuss world hunger, marriage, death and what it’s like for kids with military and incarcerated parents. There was even an HIV-positive character on the South African version of the series. All of these are important topics for kids to learn about because they are real things that many children are already experiencing.

The story that really got the public’s attention, though, was the introduction of the Muppet Julia back in 2017. Julia, who had already been featured in printed “Sesame Street” merchandise for years before she made it onto the show, is on the autism spectrum. This was attention-grabbing because it was the first time a character who was actually pictured on the American version of the show was dealing with something of that magnitude.

And it turned out wonderfully for the creators — Julia was well-received by most viewers and praised for being well-researched, having immense character development beyond being autistic and for the great strides she made in the discussion of representation. Many kids with autism felt like they were seeing themselves on television for the very first time, in the form of a yellow felt puppet. Julia sparked conversations about inclusion, kindness, empathy and more. Adding Julia into the show even gave writers a chance to talk to kids about consent, teaching them that when someone doesn’t want to be touched or talked to, whether they have autism or not, you need to be respectful of that.

One issue they have decided to include that isn’t sparking the same amount of praise, however, is the topic of substance abuse. Karli, the newest Muppet to join the “Sesame Street” friends, is explained to be in foster care because her mother is currently in recovery from her battle with addiction. She is the latest addition in the show’s caregiver-resource initiative called Sesame Street in Communities and an attempt to help kids understand the opioid crisis that affects so many people in America and around the world.

While this effort to address and cope with trauma, break down stigma and show support for the children going through this very real issue appears to be doing nothing but good, there are quite a few parents and guardians up in arms over it. Many are critiquing the show for including such a dark storyline that they believe only affects a few kids in front of their privileged, unknowing children. Others think it is just sad that we are in a time so broken that the creators felt the need to address addiction on a children’s show.

Their thought process is extremely problematic. Even if it is sad that our world is so messed up that we have to discuss addiction with children, we still have to discuss it because it’s not going to just disappear. It is an issue that affects many children, even if your child is not one of them. There is so much value in educating people about things that other people are going through in order to destigmatize and alleviate their burden.

The “Sesame Street” creators are probably not concerned about these negative voices, as they are few and far between. Most of the reaction has been very positive. And with the show’s recent partnership with HBO (the next five seasons will premiere on HBO Max first before later returning to the show’s original channel, PBS Kids), it should have been expected that the content would reflect the network’s more controversial reputation.

No matter how this new plotline affects the show’s ratings, it really doesn’t seem like anyone needs to worry. With its new commercial expansions, such as a theme park called Sesame Place San Diego, and its half-a-century-long resume (just think about how many “sunny days” that is!), it doesn’t look like “Sesame Street” will be going anywhere anytime soon. Honestly, the world would end without Cookie Monster, so our childhoods seem pretty secure. No one wants the world to end. Let’s all just hope that “Sesame Street” doesn’t give in to the pressure and continues to tackle the tough issues and help the world become a better place while it teaches our children’s children the ABCs.

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