'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Thursday, November 12, 2009

40 Years of Sesame Street 

As people who visit this site frequently know, I'm a cinephile as well as a leftist, which is why I periodically review films from an aesthetic, sociological and ideological perspective. I purposefully select provocative movies that prompt us to examine our relationship to the world around us, and the prospects for transforming it. For me, film was the preeminent art form of the 20th Century in this regard, because, in addition to the creativity that the medium affords, it reached a mass audience.

Film, in addition to other forms of artistic expression, such as literature, art and photography, inspires us to simultaneously imagine alternatives even as we confront the cruelties, that we encounter in our everyday lives. All have played prominent roles in the ignition of social unrest that overturned abusive practices, and, in some instances, the elites that engaged in them.

Perhaps, my attitude about this is an urban, metropolitan thing which serves the purpose of giving an ideological veneer to the intimate, voyeuristic pleasures of cinema. I still recall marching in a heavy rain on an April day in San Francisco after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. After arriving at Dolores Park in the Mission District, I looked across the street, and observed a young woman reading an alternative newspaper sized program for the upcoming San Francisco International Film Festival at the end of the month. Having already ordered tickets for particular screenings myself, I wondered, how many other protesters will find their way over to the Kabuki along with us in a few weeks time? Quite a lot, I concluded. The cross pollination of politics and culture that so defines the Mission, indeed, much of northern California, was crystallized in that moment.

So, with that in mind, you will not be surprised to discover that I allow my young two and a half year old son to watch television and DVDs. Not all the time, mind you, but I'm not a hippie or Waldorf type when it comes to television. It is part of the modern world, and an inescapable part of our culture, although I do draw the line at Disney. All of which is a long way round to acknowledging the 40th anniversary of Sesame Street on Tuesday. In advance of it, a blog entry on the SFGate website prompted a spirited discussion as to whether Sesame Street had become outdated.

Many commented on the aesthetics of the program, complaining, possibly overcome by nostalgia, that it was far better when they were kids, and perhaps, it was. But, for me, this misses the point. I have no memories of earlier programs because I was nearly nine years old when it first aired, and, having already graduated to Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns at the drive-in with my father, never watched it. Of course, I only recently discovered it because of my son, and, in comparison to other programming, it fairs pretty well.

Above everything else, the most important thing about Sesame Street is that it is urban. You wouldn't think that it would be such a big deal, but it is. As with children's books, most programming has an idyllic, utopian dimension contrary to the grittier realities of everyday life. Clifford, in a departure from the books written by Norman Bridewell, is set on an island, the characters of Super WHY live in a village like environment evocative of The Hobbit and the activities of Bob the Builder occur in the mountainous confines of Sunflower Valley. Curious George is an exception, but he lives in the New York City of the Algonquin Round Table. Admittedly, Sid the Science Kid lives in the new suburbia built in the last 10 years, injecting some social realism, especially through his multicultural friends, and, surprise, surprise, it was created by Jim Henson Productions in collaboration with KCET in Los Angeles.

Nature, it seems, or rather our fantastical, romaticized view of it, is more playful, nurturing and reassuring than the man made metropolis. But not according to Sesame Street. Here, people (even if presented as friendly monsters), not anthropomorphized animals, are front and center. Here, the characters find purpose as part of a larger community, one which is richly textured through its racial and economic diversity, and induce our children to do the same. Overall, the neighborhood is clearly working class, one in which the hierarchy of current American society is absent. Interestingly, unlike Super WHY, which urges children to immediately go to the library and look in a book to solve problems, conveniently maintaining a separation between more upper middle class and upper class children and less advantaged ones who live elsewhere, Sesame Street emphasizes the importance of community involvement and folklore.

If someone proposed Sesame Street today, I doubt that it would receive sufficient funding to be produced for television. It celebrates the uniqueness of the African American and Latino social experience, along with the white one, and consciously emphasizes immigration as an essential aspect of our culture. According to the Sesame Street ethos, life is more delightful when we aspire to understand the differences and similarities of those around us, and succeed in doing so. For some adult viewers such as myself, there is, however, something bittersweet about the program's invocation of an urban America that predates gentrification. It reminds me of the midtown Sacramento neighborhood in which I grew up in the mid-1970s. To its credit, Sesame Street remains true to the ideals that inspired its creation.

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