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09 December 2006

Smoke and Sesame

There's something very unnerving about the smell of bushfire smoke. It's 37 degrees celsius today, and 170 000 hectares of Victoria are on fire. It's not a cloudy day, but you can't see the sky for smoke. It's setting off people's smoke alarms even in the inner city.

I'm trying to put the finishing touches on this last draft of my novel, but it's hard when it's so hot, and the smoke is making my eyes water.

So I thought I'd take a minute to say a few words about a documentary I watched recently, called The World According to Sesame Street.

It's about all the different versions of Sesame Street all over the world - there are 120 - and how Sesame Street tries to provide education to all kids - not just ones in privileged countries.

It was a seriously revolutionary idea, back in 1968, that TV could actually teach kids stuff. Joan Ganz Cooney had the wacky thought that you could use advertising techniques to help kids learn, "instead of selling them soda or candy, we're selling them the alphabet". She approached Jim Henson to come on board with his Muppets, and an international sensation was born. 4134 episodes (and 109 Emmys) of American Sesame Street later, it's one of the most successful, popular, critically acclaimed and long-running TV shows of all time.

It seems an incredibly un-American thing, the way that Sesame Workshop works with other countries to form a new, unique Sesame Street, tailor-made to appeal to the kids of that country. Whether it's incorporating traditional hand-puppets in the Bangladeshi Sisimpur, or introducing Kami, an HIV positive muppet in South Africa's Takalani Sesame, or exploring race relations and promoting tolerance in Kosovo's Rruga Sesam (Albanian) and Ulica Sezam (Serbian). This isn't about imposing American popular culture on the rest of the world, it's about taking a good idea and adapting it to suit each country's requirements.

"The only kids who can identify along racial lines with the Muppets have to be either green or orange."
--Jim Henson

The documentary itself wasn't fantastic. There was far too much footage of grownups in meetings, and not nearly enough of kids, and how watching Sesame Street has influenced them.

I read a great story about an Israeli/Palestinian Sesame pilot, in Jim Henson's time. They asked some Israeli children what they would do if they saw a Palestinian child in their street. The kids replied "I would throw stones at him". They showed the kids this Sesame pilot, and asked the same question. The kids replied "I would go and play with him".

It's these sorts of stories that give you hope for the future. And brilliant documentary or no, I spent most of The World According to Sesame Street with tears running down my face.

You rock, Sesame Workshop people. You are doing more for our children and their future than any politician is.


Tyson said...

I watched two episodes of Oprah recently, and both times I was crying. Not just subtle tear down face, red eyes crying, but whole body shaking, loosing control of myself crying.

The last one was about this program kids did at schools that made miraculous changes to their bullying. Cue many displays of kids being incredibly brave, and the bully's hugging them. Cue Oprah: "But then the kids got to the real issue: rampant RACISM."

Sure, one kid called his friend something a little less tasteful but Oprah makes NOTHING about the fact that there was a gay kid who suffered not only mental but PHYSICAL abuse from the other kids. It's the racist white kids who are the REAL problem.

Oprah left a bad taste in my mouth, and that taste is Discrimination Favouritism.

Emmaco said...

Tyson: I am continually surprised by how discrimination against gay people in the media etc is seen as OK. I'm sure most TV networks wouldn't air a clip from someone saying "Jews are subhuman" as though it were just another opinion yet I've seen that happen too often with discrimination against gays.

On the subject of Sesame Street, what a cool sounding documentary! At uni my Spanish teacher once brought in Columbian Sesame Street (her family sent it to her for her children) which was my first exposure to another version of the show. I had expected a badly dubbed version of the American one but instead it was a whole new show, including a bright green Big Bird with a pink feather thing on his head. I admit the part of the show I liked best was the letter and number of the day as they were the bits I felt I understood :)

canoe said...

Jim Henson is a wonderful, wonderful man.

George Bush could learn some useful lessons from watching more Sesame Street, like C is for COOPERATION. As a matter of fact, it should be compulsory viewing for all leaders of all countries.

Penni said...

I love Jim Henson. I think he was one of the most amazing people in television history - I think he showed that tv could have heart and humanity.


I could cry too.

Christopher Miles said...

Lili, I thought you might be interested in this story about Sesame Street videos on iTunes: