Anyone who doubts the socially and culturally shaping powers of television, film or any other medium of expression need only look to Sesame Street in order to dispel their skepticism. What began as an American cultural experiment in 1969 has since become the most internationally successful television program ever created, with more than 20 different productions currently aired in over 120 countries throughout the world. Amid nationwide cynicism over war, assassination and social turmoil, the show was conceived as a means of educating disadvantaged children in simple, fun terms, employing racially nondescript Muppets and an integrated human cast so as to reach as many viewers as possible.
What is regularly underestimated—and put on full display in the sterling documentary The World According to Sesame Street—is the overwhelming power to change the show has exerted on the regions in which it has been aired. This humble exhibition follows the endeavors taken by a small group of Sesame Workshop producers—indeed, one of many—to further the show’s reach throughout the world, a kind of humanitarian missionary effort aimed at spreading knowledge, tolerance and compassion in equal increments. Millions of now-adult Americans who watched it in their youth encourage their children to do the same; truly, I consider it to be among the major moral foundations in my own life.
Rather than simply sending dubbed versions of the American Sesame Street abroad (which the producers see as an extension of callous cultural imperialism), the show’s creative minds instead immerse themselves in the regions they hope to share their work with, customizing it based on local customs, practices, traditions and relevant social issues. This approach led to the introduction of the HIV-positive Muppet Kami in the South African incarnation (Takalani Sesame), where AIDS has infected over five million citizens and countless young children are orphaned at a young age by the spreading disease. These daily-life realities, however, didn’t stop U.S. conservatives from climbing aboard their political pulpits to shout hollow rhetoric about Sesame Street’s newfound “perversion,” some even labeling it as yet another means of furthering the “gay agenda.”
Tell that to the producers who risked life and limb to get the show made and aired in Kosovo, where ethnic tensions between the Albanians and Serbians regularly shut down production for lengthy periods of time. In that region, two productions were ultimately undertaken—one for Serbian children, one for Albanian—with the intention of each shedding light on the others’ existence. Even if adult Albanians and Serbians can never rectify their quarrels, the producers hope they can at least bring about a shade more tolerance in the next generation.
Like its subject matter, The World According to Sesame Street is arranged in a simple, edifying and direct manner, its regional observations untainted by the gimmicky, disingenuous aesthetics of such globe-trotting productions as Fernando Meirelles’s The Constant Gardener. The suspense-laden drama documented throughout the film (such as whether or not a broadcast agreement will be reached with the state-controlled television network in Bangladesh) is admittedly engaging, but far less illuminating than the examination of Sesame Street as a presence both guided and limited by local politics, and one that often comes to define a culture’s identity. Would such beneficial, far-reaching effects befall all who hope to achieve them, this world would surely be a far better place for all who inhabit it.
The final montage of children across the globe watching their own various Sesame Streets is one of the more empowering, hopeful images this world has seen of late. One can’t help but think of the political brouhaha befalling the citizens of Iraq, where Sesame Street has yet to reach the airwaves. If Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld can’t bring peace to the factions of Iraq, then maybe Bert, Ernie and Big Bird can.