Getting to Sesame Street, it turns out, isn't always just a walk in the park. Ever since the children's television show phenomenon began in 1969, with its urban location, multiethnic cast, and mission to educate preschool children of all economic levels, Big Bird, Grover, and the gang have encountered a minefield of social and political entanglements.
'In 1969, a lot of public television stations refused to air Sesame Street because it had an integrated cast,' says Linda Costigan, co-director with Linda Knowlton of The World According to Sesame Street, a documentary about the show's international reach. 'Every country, including the United States, has thresholds it has to overcome.'
It's these political underpinnings that drew Costigan and Knowlton to explore the 20 versions of Sesame Street that are co-produced around the globe, from Israel to Palestine, Kosovo to Russia, Germany to Mexico.
'When we started to learn about the strong political characters they had around the world, such as the HIV-positive Muppet in South Africa, and dealing with mutual understanding in the Israeli-Jordanian co-production, that's what got us interested,' explains Knowlton. 'They're dealing with these incredible issues for 3- to 5-year-olds.'
In war-torn areas like El Salvador and Kosovo, Sesame Street becomes a symbol, far more significant than just a TV show. When the filmmakers attended a UNICEF conference in Kosovo to discuss the possible creation of a single Sesame Street for all of the countries in the former Yugoslavia, for example, 'emotions were high,' recalls Costigan. 'People were getting very upset.' The idea of a regional Sesame Street became a political issue: Could these countries rally behind a single production? 'It boiled down to the fact that these people were not ready,' says Costigan.
With the future of their children at stake, governments, broadcasters, and local producers see Sesame Street as treading upon delicate territory. 'Education is political,' acknowledges Sesame Workshop international co-producer Nadine Zylstra, who has helped plant Sesame Street signs in South Africa, India, and Bangladesh. 'But even if you're talking about equal opportunity'-Egyptian and Palestinian productions, for example, feature empowered girl Muppets-'when you boil that down to what that means to a 2- or 3-year-old, it's really about saying, 'Dream and ask questions,' and everyone can rally around that.'
Not everybody, exactly. Every time Sesame Street journeys into new territory, questions of American cultural imperialism inevitably arise. 'Sesame Street has to re-prove itself in every country where it goes,' says Costigan. 'Here is an American organization coming in and wanting to teach their children. That's alarm-bell city.'
Sesame Street goes out of its way to integrate local customs and culture into every show it co-produces overseas. While the documentary filmmakers were initially skeptical of Cookie Monster's transnational nature, the reality proved, as Knowlton says, that 'it's not about them coming in and shoving their agenda down someone else's throats.'
Close-knit collaboration with indigenous producers is simply a matter of effective education, according to Zylstra, who spent nine months with Bangladeshi educators, academics, and producers just on the development phase of Sisimpur, the country's version of Sesame Street. 'The most important thing is that children learn best when the reality they see represented reflects their own,' she says. 'That's why we do it.'
Zylstra recalls a meeting at which the locals asked why the Muppets all have the same eyes. 'I was floored by that, and I thought, 'That's a bloody good point,' ' she says. She discovered that Sesame Workshop prefers the round orb and big black pupil to make a point of connection with viewers. 'But the deeper issue is that we, as an American company, were replacing their puppets and puppet history with our own puppets,' she says. In Sisimpur, the production came up with a compromise that integrated both Sesame Workshop Muppets and Bangladeshi puppets and song into the show.
Filmmakers Costigan and Knowlton have become champions of Sesame Workshop, even though they maintain their objectivity. 'Here is the real truth of the matter,' says Costigan: 'They're doing good work.'
'When this is the only preschool education available to kids, whether they're in Bangladesh or Indonesia or Egypt, it's hard to argue with that,' adds Knowlton. 'Can a TV show that's on for half an hour create peace in the Middle East? No. However, if you look at what kids in Israel or the Palestinian territories have to watch on TV, here is an opportunity to see people behaving in a different way. Here is another option to see how we can behave and care for each other.'
Anthony Kaufman is a Brooklyn-based film writer whose work has appeared in Village Voice and In These Times. Read his blog at blogs.indiewire.com/anthony.