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'Sesame Street': Not safe for children?

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Posted: Wednesday, November 28, 2007 12:00 am

"Sesame Street" fans rejoice: Several of the original episodes have been collected on "Sesame Street: Old School" in two volumes (so far), available at the Sesame Street Store and elsewhere.

This is "Sesame Street" before the Count was de-vampirized, before Cookie Monster ate veggies, before Mr. Hooper died and before Snuffy was anything more than Big Bird's invisible friend (I totally remember the episode when he finally appeared to the rest of the cast).

Unfortunately, they have also been deemed "intended for grown-ups" and not suited for children.

What's wrong with them? I (and many, many people my age and older) grew up watching the Count laugh maniacally as thunder and lightning boomed, watching Cookie Monster wolf down the sweets, watching in tears when Mr. Hooper died (either in the original episode, or in later reruns, as I did). We watched water go from a lake to a faucet as "Don't waste water water water" was chanted in the background, and we watched orange crayons being made (that actually may have been an episode of Mr. Rogers).

I like to think that I, and many kids from my generation, turned out just fine.

So why slap a warning label on Sesame Street? According to New York Times writer Virginia Heffernan:

Man, was that scene rough. The masonry on the dingy brownstone at 123 Sesame Street, where the closeted Ernie and Bert shared a dismal basement apartment, was deteriorating. Cookie Monster was on a fast track to diabetes. Oscar’s depression was untreated. Prozacky Elmo didn’t exist.

Nothing in the children’s entertainment of today, candy-colored animation hopped up on computer tricks, can prepare young or old for this frightening glimpse of simpler times. Back then — as on the very first episode, which aired on PBS Nov. 10, 1969 — a pretty, lonely girl like Sally might find herself befriended by an older male stranger who held her hand and took her home. Granted, Gordon just wanted Sally to meet his wife and have some milk and cookies, but . . . well, he could have wanted anything. As it was, he fed her milk and cookies. The milk looks dangerously whole.

Live-action cows also charge the 1969 screen — cows eating common grass, not grain improved with hormones. Cows are milked by plain old farmers, who use their unsanitary hands and fill one bucket at a time. Elsewhere, two brothers risk concussion while whaling on each other with allergenic feather pillows. Overweight layabouts, lacking touch-screen iPods and headphones, jockey for airtime with their deafening transistor radios. And one of those radios plays a late-’60s news report — something about a “senior American official” and “two billion in credit over the next five years” — that conjures a bleak economic climate, with war debt and stagflation in the offing.

Basically, the original "Sesame Street" acknolwedged too much of reality.

How does that play out now? Well, here in the U.S., it means the most difficult current event topic that children are learning about is obesity: Cookie Monster now teaches that cookies are a "sometimes food" and exercise is encouraged.

I wonder, what does that say about us as a nation, that we feel that public television must protect our children from world events?

In South Africa, which has been hit hard by an AIDS epidemic, often children born with HIV are shunned by their peers. So "Takalani Sesame" introduced Kami, an HIV-positive muppet who got the virus from a transfusion, and who teaches that it's okay to hug people with HIV (and that collecting things is fun).

In Israel, Palestine and Jordan, "Suppuray Sumsum" and two different versions of "Hiyakat Simsim" muppets teach that Jews and Muslims can be friends together despite their differences. While each of the three shows is geared specifically toward that culture, they coloborate and there are shared segments between all three.

So why is the biggest problem we try to solve on "Sesame Street" obesity? It's definitely a problem among kids today, and it's definitely important to educate them on exercise and eating healthy if their parents don't or can't, but ... well, we've been at war for nearly five years, our economy is stumbling, we're still dealing with racial and gender inequality, among other things.

The way that "Takalani Sesame," "Suppuray Sumsum" and "Hiyakat Simsim" are dealing with major problems should be a good example for us. They are doing it simply. They are not bringing in difficult concepts or ideas that the children who watch them don't see in the real world every day.

We should be doing the same. We should be using "Sesame Street" to teach people to solve problems with their neighbors without calling in the police or resorting to violence (two things that have happened here in the past few months), or how it can be hard to miss your mom or dad while they are in the Army, or how it's possible to have fun without expensive video games and iPods (something that many children may soon have to do without so Mom and Dad can pay the mortgage). "Sesame Street" used to teach about these kinds of things alongside counting and saying "hello" in different languages.

Is "Sesame Street: Old School" unsafe for kids, or are we overprotecting them from realities they are already aware of?