Sesame Street often reflects on the raw reality of life for children who don’t recognize themselves in the sunlit, suburban world of children’s entertainment.
I remember watching an episode of Sesame Street with my Elmo-obsessed son, and hearing one of the fuzzy hand puppets reflect on the fact that his father was currently locked away in prison. It was a beautiful way to normalize such a tragedy, to children who are facing that problem, and to those who are fortunate enough to never have to consider it.
What a wonderful alternative to the saccharine-soaked landscape of children’s television; the value of Sesame Street simply cannot be overstated.
The show’s newest character, Karli, has a mother who suffers from an opioid addiction, another brutal reflection on a social issue that the vast majority of children’s television, and even adult-oriented shows, are extremely reluctant to acknowledge.
Karli discusses her mother’s addiction frankly, and Elmo’s father explains the complexity of the situation to his son, without ever placing blame on Karli’s mother.
It’s a stark contrast to the primitive attitude taken by the cartoons from my childhood, when G.I. Joe, Captain Planet, and even The Smurfs all tried to clumsily implement some kind of anti-drug messaging.
That messaging might have been well-meaning, but it was utterly devoid of thought, delivering a surface-level dismissal of drugs that didn’t even try to approach the root of the problem; think of Marvel’s clumsy incorporation of female empowerment, and you’ll get the idea (women just need to shoot more laser beams at men, that’ll solve sexism).
These heavy-handed narratives depicted drug dealers as the root of all evil, and the characters who chose to take them as weak-minded - why won’t they “just say no?” This completely ignores systemic issues that contribute to drug addiction, and worse, implies that there is a moral failing on behalf of the addict.
Thankfully, Sesame Street actually collaborates with experts to craft their messaging, and create stories that engage children without talking down to them. There’s only one problem - the paywall.
Sesame Street is currently owned by HBO, and without a subscription, there is no way to watch the latest episodes, which only air publicly (on PBS) nine months after broadcast.
The show is soon switching to HBO’s streaming service, HBO Max, in 2020, which really detracts from the show’s mission of providing education and resources to the children who lack access to it.
Fortunately, Karli’s opioid segments, along with other clips that feature difficult topics, are available free online through the “Sesame Street in Communities” website, and also available on YouTube.
The latest episodes being hidden behind a paywall is far from ideal, antithetical to the values of the show, but at least Sesame Street is still providing informative, non-judgemental content, for the children who desperately need to hear these messages.
Dani Di Placido
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