Airbrushing the Street: re-telling the story of how we got to Sesame Street

Film poster A new documentary glosses over some awkward questions about the origins of America’s most celebrated children’s television show.

The story of the early years of Sesame Street, and of Children’s Television Workshop (CTW), the organisation that produced it, has been told numerous times. Richard Polsky’s PhD study Getting to Sesame Street, published as long ago as 1974, was the first to appear. In 2006 came Robert Morrow’s academic history Sesame Street and the Reform of Children’s Television and then Michael Davis’s more popular book Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street (2008). In the last couple of years, in the wake of Streetgangthe show’s 50th anniversary, there has been a further popular book, David Kamp’s Sunny Days: The Children’s Television Revolution that Changed America; and now we have a feature-length documentary, also called Street Gang, partly based on Davis’s book, accompanied by a substantial book of backstage photographs from the period.

Finally released in the UK a few weeks ago, the Street Gang film (directed by Marilyn Agrelo) brings together some original footage and archival interviews that are definitely worth preserving and watching. Unfortunately, it also rehearses a rosy story about the origins of America’s best-loved children’s show that continues to circulate, and is in serious need of more critical examination.

A couple of years ago, in those innocent pre-pandemic times, I spent several weeks going back to original documents about the early history of Sesame Street, courtesy of a small grant from the Leverhulme Trust. The major archive is at the University of Maryland outside Washington DC, but I also visited archives at Columbia University and the Paley Center in New York City. What I found was a rather more uneven and contested history than the one that tends to prevail. You can find my (very lengthy) account of all this here.

Joan-Ganz-Cooney-and-Lloyd-MorrisettThe Street Gang film covers a lot of ground. It does so quite effectively when telling the story of the early years, but it rather loses direction as it comes closer to the present. It includes contemporary and archival interviews with a great many of the key players, including not only Joan Ganz Cooney (the founder of CTW) and Lloyd Morrisett (the Carnegie Foundation executive who gathered the funding) – who have both been interviewed countless times before – but also key figures on the creative side, including the late Jim Henson (creator of the Muppets) and Joe Raposo (the first musical director) as well as several leading early performers. Perhaps most significantly, the film allots a central role to the show’s first producer, Jon Stone, who doesn’t feature so strongly in earlier histories.

More entertaining for most viewers will be the archival scenes taken from early episodes, and especially the backstage footage of the Muppets at work. There is also interesting visual material relating to the research that informed the show’s initial design, and the outreach efforts targeting inner-city African American families. There is a particularly striking sequence about the response to the show in the state of Mississippi, where the public television channel refused to show it on the grounds that viewers were not ‘ready’ to accept such a racially integrated cast.

Nevertheless, the overall tone of the film is highly celebratory. Like much of the wider commentary, especially around the show’s recent anniversary, it is infused with a heart-warming nostalgia that becomes increasingly cloying and sanctimonious as it proceeds. This is also apparent in the film’s trailer, which you can see here. We are told that Sesame Street ‘changed the world’, that it was ‘revolutionary’ and ‘one of the most important forces in culture’, and indeed even ‘immortal’. The show was created by ‘people dedicated to a real ideal and having the will to do it’: it was ‘what television would do if it loved people rather than trying to sell to people’. This celebratory tone has been overwhelmingly echoed in the reviews and media coverage surrounding the film.

(As an aside, it’s worth noting that the other ‘iconic’ children’s TV show of the time, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, has recently come in for similarly glowing and sentimental treatment, most notably in the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor (2018) and the drama A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019). This must tell us something about the times in which we live…)

Susan and GordonAs might be expected in the era of Black Lives Matter, the issue of ‘race’ and representation is a central aspect of the pitch of Street Gang. Joan Ganz Cooney is quoted proclaiming her intense commitment to the civil rights movement, while Lloyd Morrisett describes how the show set out to deal with the problem of African American children starting school some months ‘behind’ their white counterparts. Much is made of the targeting of African American (and later Hispanic) children, for example through the show’s urban setting, its ‘positive image’ of multi-racial harmony, and the inclusion of guests like Stevie Wonder, James Earl Jones and Jesse Jackson. Sesame Street, it would seem, was going to eradicate educational inequality in the most entertaining way that could be imagined.

There are several things missing from this history. There is an abiding assumption here, as in the more popular histories by Davis and Kamp, that the show’s educational mission was straightforward and unproblematic. Yet its essentially behaviourist approach to ‘drilling’ letter and number recognition arose from a particular theory of learning that was highly controversial even in the 1960s. (Its adoption of this approach was a key reason why the BBC refused to screen the show at the time.) This was aligned with some equally contested assumptions about the educational ‘disadvantage’ of Black children, and how it might be addressed. For all its positive images of racial harmony, Sesame Street was premised on a deficit model of black children and their families.

Early press adCTW’s claim that the show was succeeding in its key task of closing the gaps in educational achievement between black and white children was equally problematic. Its commissioned research on the issue was convincingly challenged by other independent researchers. CTW subsequently back-tracked, arguing that it had never set out to bridge the attainment gap in the first place – although there is an enormous amount of evidence (including in Street Gang itself) that this is precisely what it was saying. At the very least, it would seem that CTW was attempting to claim too much on its own behalf.

Of course, this was partly about money. The government funding that created Sesame Street was never likely to continue, especially once Richard Nixon came to power. If it was going to survive, the show would have to reach all children, not just a minority. From a very early point, CTW also relied on overseas sales and on merchandising – much like the apparently more ‘commercial’ children’s shows from which it is routinely differentiated. Generating revenue in this way – and driving some hard deals in order to do so – is an unavoidable fact of life in the world of kids’ television. This isn’t to dismiss what CTW achieved, but it should certainly lead us to qualify some of the grander claims that are made about loving people rather than selling to them.

To be sure, Sesame Street was partly driven by some of the broader social movements of the period. It would have been surprising if it wasn’t. But despite the impression that might be created by the film, Sesame Street did not come straight outta da ghetto. On the contrary, its prime movers were all white and middle-class. CTW was a product of the government’s liberal social policies of the time (Lyndon Johnson’s ‘Great Society’), with all the limitations and unresolved tensions that would imply.

Roosevelt_Franklin_-_The_Year_of_Roosevelt_Franklin_Album_CoverIn this context, the issue of representation was bound to be a focus of debate and struggle. CTW was attacked, both by outsiders and by some within the organisation, for ignoring or oversimplifying issues to do with gender as well as race. One interesting case here is to do with Roosevelt Franklin, a black Muppet character who featured for a few seasons in the early 1970s. Some effectively argued that Roosevelt was ‘too black’, while others suggested that he was merely confirming negative stereotypes. Roosevelt was eventually written out, and his creator, the African American writer and performer Matt Robinson, left CTW shortly afterwards.

To be fair, both Street Gang and Kamp’s book Sunny Days do address some of these controversies, but they do so quite superficially. CTW did not always get it right. To suggest that Sesame Street was a product of benevolent liberalism is not by any means to condemn it – and indeed we could probably all do with a good dose of nostalgia for 1960s liberalism right now. However, it is to suggest that airbrushing such tensions and contradictions out of history is unhelpful – not least in enabling us to make sense of the present.

Street Gang, it should be noted, was co-produced by HBO, the company that now owns Sesame Street, including its back catalogue. (There was great controversy a couple of years back when HBO proposed to screen new episodes exclusively on its premium subscription service.) One of the very few dissenting critics, the Washington Post’s Inkoo Kang, is perhaps a little harsh to call it a ‘cross-promotional puff piece’. But CTW (now re-named Sesame Workshop) has always assiduously managed its publicity and sought Time Mag for introto silence its critics: cultivating the myth of Sesame Street has been indispensable for its continued survival. In this context, it’s probably unreasonable to expect much more than nice warm feelings.

Perhaps particularly for baby boomers who grew up with it, Sesame Street remains the motherhood and apple pie of children’s TV: it holds out the promise – perhaps the dream – of television as an agent of progressive social change. There is a danger in all this of ignoring the deeper causes of social problems like educational inequality, and why such change might be seen to be necessary in the first place. There is also a risk of regarding television as a band-aid, an easy substitute for the more fundamental reforms that might be required. The problems that Sesame Street initially sought to address have by no means disappeared: yet if we are to tackle them, and if we want to learn from history, we’re going to need more than rosy nostalgia.