Grover Goes Global

Exporting Sesame Street with sensitivity


| Utne Reader March / April 2007



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.'