Every year, the Kennedy Center Honors are awarded to venerable artists in the United States for lifetime achievement and impact on American culture.
I check my mailbox once or twice a year in the hopes I’ll be recognized. Truth be told, I really just want a cool rainbow medallion. I could probably save a lot of time and money with a trip to Michael’s, versus all that “honing my generational talent into a marketable craft” crap. Not to mention I could stop checking my mail outright. I never get anything, except Bed Bath & Beyond coupons and angry letters from debt collectors. Exactly how do you propose I catch up on my bills when Bed Bath & Beyond has such great deals AND an extra 20% off? It’s a vicious cycle. Get off my back, Visa.
This year, the Kennedy Center Honors were given to singer Linda Ronstadt, San Francisco Symphony conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, Gidget/Forrest’s momma/the Bandit’s road companion Sally Field, everyone’s favorite 73-piece band Earth, Wind & Fire, and the classic children’s television show Sesame Street.
I’m neutral-to-happy about all of these winners. You can rest easy this blessed holiday season, now that you know my vague opinion on a matter about which you did not ask.
I want to talk more about the place where the air is sweet, though.
The win by Sesame Street marks the first time the Honors have been given to a television show. And what an important television show it is.
Sesame Street first aired in 1969. It was the brainchild of producer Joan Ganz Cooney and Carnegie Corporation Vice President Lloyd Morrisett. The goal was, put simply, to harness the “addictive” properties of television to help children—especially those from low-income families without access to formal preschool education—better prepare for school. It was the first children’s television program to base its format and content on developmental psychology research. And in stark contrast to contemporaneous local kids’ shows, Sesame Street proactively chose to present a culturally and ethnically diverse image of the world.
An aside on that juxtaposition: Mississippi found Sesame Street a little too diverse back in 1970. Based on the show’s casting, the Mississippi State Commission for Educational Television voted to ban the program from being aired in their state.
A member of the commission explained the decision: “Some of the members […] were very much opposed to showing the series because it uses a highly integrated cast of children […] Mainly the commission members felt that Mississippi was not yet ready for it.” For ease of reading, I’ve edited out the Foghorn Leghornesque “boy, I say, boy…” that was interspersed throughout the commission member’s explanation.
Mississippians were also worried about the anthropomorphic seven-foot-tall talking bird and the resurrected woolly mammoth, stating both were “against Gawd’s plan.” I have no source for that bit of trivia, but I’m pretty sure it’s true, notwithstanding the fact that I made it up just now.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: surely they were upset about Bert and Ernie’s long-suspected more-than-friends relationship. Thankfully, “confirmed bachelors” were the norm back then. If Ol’ Buford could blindly chuckle at the likes of Paul Lynde and Charles Nelson Reilly without connecting their campy dots, he could surely ignore the unwritten backstory of two cohabitating male Muppets.
Back to the story. I gotta do a better job of keeping my eye on the ball. Eye, ball. Eyeball. That’s a gag, I say, a gag. A joke, that is, son.
When I watched the Kennedy Center Honors’ presentation and celebration of Sesame Street’s legacy in American culture, I found myself almost crying.
I don’t cry very often. I don’t say that as a proffer of my masculinity or toughness, namely because I’m not particularly masculine nor tough. It’s just not the knee-jerk reaction I have when I’m confronted with emotional material. I’m 1000x more likely to make a joke. That’s my way of coping, which is why you all get to read funny blog posts about the fact that our country is crumbling into the rubble pile of history. I’m coping with it. Tragedy and comedy go together like peas and carrots.
So why would a program honoring Sesame Street get to me?
I think it was the stark difference between the future the show attempted to create and the future at which we’ve arrived.
In 1969, Sesame Street envisioned—much to Mississippi’s chagrin—a world where everyone would be neighborly and loving. It started as a simplistic racial mix, reflective of the predominant tension of the era. Over the years, the show’s definition of “everyone” has grown to reflect a more realistic picture of our society. All of the formerly muted hues have been brought into fuller saturation to showcase a more realistic (and surrealistic) reflection of society. Black, white, Latinx, Asian, avian, alien, monster, mammoth, autistic, neurotypical, homeless, “roommates,” human, vampire, amphibian – everyone lives and works and plays together. And more than that, their differences are accepted and even celebrated.
But now, our society is starkly less neighborly than we would lead our children to believe. Today, instead of appealing to our idealism and desire for unity, we have a president who shines an ugly, orange spotlight on our differences. He scapegoats the weakest among us. He sows distrust and blame, and empowers the angry masses to follow suit.
Sesame Street was borne of a reality where poor children and children of color saw markedly lower academic achievement than their middle class and white peers.
Fast-forward 50 years, and I could write that sentence again and only edit the verb tense. It’s literally, statistically, exactly the same. And we have a Secretary of Education working hard to dismantle the public education system upon which the vast majority of Americans rely.
A puppet show can only do so much to benefit the people of this country. Our government has to do much more.
When the show began (and for 40+ years thereafter), Sesame Street was broadcast to literally every home with a television for free. It was a major reason PBS grew into a full-fledged network, as it became “appointment television” for generations of children. It makes sense: if you’re going to attempt to mold and shape young minds across socioeconomic strata, you need to reach as many as you possibly can. Free, over-the-air television reached 97% of the American population in 1969.
Today, Sesame Street is an HBO property. If you want to watch first-run episodes, you (or your parents, if you’re a preschooler) have to subscribe to premium cable television. You can still see episodes on PBS a few months after their first airing, to be fair. But it’s a reminder that in the United States, if you can’t turn a profit, your worth will be in constant question. It doesn’t matter how noble your experiment is, how well it’s working, how loved you are. Your existence will be under constant threat. And you’ll likely find yourself compromising your beliefs and mission to survive another year or two.
Change is constant, and I don’t lament its slow, predictable march. I lament its current direction.
I am saddened that on our long arc toward justice, we’ve taken so many ridiculous, counterproductive detours.
I’m frustrated that we don’t prioritize and protect this pure, altruistic experiment in preschool education for the masses. It’s not profitable, so it’s on its own.
I almost cried when I saw our past innocence and idealism contrasted with our current ignorant ideology. I’m depressed that a giant swath of the populace—and possibly our president—would still likely side with the Mississippi board.
And I’m embarrassed by the sweet memory of Bob, Gordon, Maria, Luis, and Mr. Hooper, as I look around a real world that looks nothing like their neighborhood.
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Need some more Hitting The Trifecta right now? Try this one: The Millennials Are Alright. Or how about this one? A Letter To My Younger Self. I like this one, too: To Tell The Truth, I’m Obviously Lying.