Hurrah for Sesame Street – the children’s TV show showing true diversity
- December 11, 2019
- William Lewis
As well as introducing their first homeless character, Sesame Street has introduced a scheme to help the real homeless children of America.
We meet Lily, Sesame Street’s newest resident, while painting a rainbow mural with the show’s most famous stalwart, Elmo. As they reach the end of the purple band of colour, Lily becomes upset, prompting Elmo to find out what’s bothering her. Turns out her old bedroom was purple, the bedroom she no longer has, as her family have had to move in with friends since they had to move out of their apartment. Lily, we soon realise, is the street’s first homeless Muppet.
Sesame Workshop, a non-profit organisation that aims to educate children through television, has created a set of informative learning tools for both children and adults to help them understand and cope with homelessness. These range from free, bilingual videos, through which adults can ask children about their thoughts and feelings, to articles for pastoral carers and teachers on how to spot, and subsequently keep an eye on, students who may be struggling with losing their homes. There are coping strategies for children who are homeless themselves and explainers for children who have homes, but who have friends who might be experiencing similar instability. In essence, it’s a toolkit for everyone – children, adults and Muppets alike – to educate themselves and prepare themselves to deal with homelessness.
In the US, one in 30 children are homeless, with 1.2 million of those children being under the age of six. These children are largely invisible – they’re not out on the streets and they’re not on the news. But, now, they have been given an international face and perhaps, through Lily, people will begin to acknowledge their existence and, by extension, help them.
Interestingly, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen Lily on Sesame Street, as she appeared back in 2011 as a vehicle to discuss economic vulnerability – she was hungry because her parents couldn’t afford to feed her much. Using the same character to represent the poor and homeless is a smart move by the creators, showing exactly how connected and subsequential the two circumstances can be.
Homeless children have been given an international face and perhaps, through Lily, people will begin to acknowledge their existence and, by extension, help them
In March last year, Sesame Street introduced a puppet with autism, Julia. Like Lily, she first appeared in a series of YouTube videos and educational materials on recognising and acting considerably towards those with autism. The puppeteer who controls Julia has an autistic son herself and praised the programme for their sensitive approach to the topic, telling 60 Minutes, “Had my son’s friends been.
As well as homelessness, Sesame Workshop also has initiatives to support children of military families, children who are experiencing grief and children whose parents lose their jobs and endure long-term unemployment. Even Cookie Monster has briefly given up cookies to encourage kids to snack healthily. And it’s not just the American programme that is driving inclusivity within the Muppet and the real world. In India, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, young female Sesame Street characters have been specifically created to bolster the role of women in society, promote the education of girls and teach men to treat women as equals. As for representation, there have been countless Muppets with disabilities and the adults and children who live on the street are always racially diverse. When anti-immigration Trump was first voted to be president, the show began a theme of cultural appreciation with a particular focus on predominantly Mexican areas of America, despite the programme claiming to be “apolitical”.
More often than not, children are encouraged to play outside, to climb trees and breathe fresh air – television is equated to slothdom and wasting away brain cells. But Sesame Street is proving that children’s TV isn’t just bright colours and learning to count to five. It’s inclusivity at its most pure, with real-life, practical initiatives to back up what they preach. There are still some areas of diversity Sesame Street haven’t ventured to – apart from the Bert and Ernie gay couple debacle, they have stayed clear of any LGBTQ+ characters – but let’s hope a trans Muppet is on the horizon. For now, adults, children and even brands should be looking towards Sesame Street and its initiatives to help the vulnerable. Turns out we can all learn something from a fuzzy little puppet.