Debating with Muppets

As this implies, the issue of ethnic representation in Sesame Street was a continuing focus of debate, both within CTW and in the wider public sphere. What some saw as ‘positive images’ were condemned by others as bland and unrealistic. Characters who some saw as a welcome recognition of African-American culture and identity were seen by others as patronising or demeaning stereotypes. Perhaps surprisingly, these different views were sometimes more apparent in relation to the Muppet characters than the human ones: although few of the Muppets are ethnically ‘coded’, it seems that diversity has been more difficult to achieve here.

For example, in her interviews with Harlem residents, Linda Francke found there was considerable disquiet about the character of Oscar the Grouch, the ill-tempered green Muppet who lives in a trash can on the Street. ‘That to me is the inner-city character,’ one day care centre director told her; ‘he’s the one who’s bottled up, and who compensates for it by saying he likes to live in a garbage can. That’s really like saying it’s all right to live in a dump. I don’t agree with that. And the kids call it phony.’ These views were echoed by others, including a black Minister: ‘the Man is perpetuating the idea that that’s where you’re going to live and you ought to be happy living there’. When presented with these comments, Joan Cooney asserted that in her view ‘little black kids’ would be unlikely to identify with Oscar in the first place (although she didn’t appear to have any evidence on this).

Another, more obviously ‘black’ Muppet character who attracted controversy during the early seasons was Roosevelt Franklin. According to Michael Davis, Roosevelt was introduced in Season 2 in order to address criticisms from some in the black community that the programme lacked ‘soul’, and that it should feature black vernacular language and humour more prominently.[i] Roosevelt was a somewhat unruly elementary school pupil, but he often seemed to end up teaching the class, and the school was even named after him. Although the puppet was purple, Roosevelt was clearly figured as African-American, and was created and voiced by Matt Robinson (while his mother was voiced by Loretta Long): he spoke in a form of rap or jive talk, strutted into the classroom to the rhythm of ‘black’ music, and repeatedly played the fool. Jane O’Connor, an African-American member of CTW staff, expressed concern that Roosevelt was too ‘one-dimensional’, and called for some research on the issue[ii]; although Loretta Long, who later wrote her PhD on Sesame Street, regarded him in a more positive light, not least because he seemed well-informed as well as cool.[iii]

Roosevelt also came in for external criticism. If some clearly saw him as ‘too black’, others regarded him as ‘not black enough’. Educationalist Barbara Stewart, writing in the journal Black World, argued that Roosevelt spoke in a kind of ‘stage Negro dialect’ – a Southern-inflected version of standard English that misrepresented the real nature of Black Language, and reinforced notions of ‘linguistic deficit’. Stewart argued that ‘the oppressor’ (that is, the producers of Sesame Street) was bound to serve his own interests: ‘the only effective educational program for the majority of Black children in this country,’ she argued, ‘must be one devised and controlled by Blacks who, although having acquired certain technical skills, continue to identify with the interests of the Black masses rather than with European interests.’[iv] A couple of years later, Dr Carolyn Jetter Greene of the Bay Area Association of Black Psychologists wrote to CTW, arguing that the Roosevelt Franklin scenes showed young people that ‘the classroom is some kind of joke and that they should behave accordingly’. While Greene accepted that Franklin’s chaotic classroom was ‘unfortunately… typical of all too many classrooms’, she asserted that it was likely to have a negative influence on children.[v]

Back at CTW, Evelyn Davis and others appeared to agree – although Joan Cooney worried that this was a conservative, ‘upper-middle-class’ black view. While she struggled to deal with criticisms from within the black community, she also regularly received letters from viewers complaining that there were ‘too many blacks’ on the show, and stations in some conservative Southern states such as Mississippi initially refused to screen it, apparently on these grounds.[vi] In successive efforts to deal with the problem, Franklin was later transformed into a teacher and then a celebrity in his own right. However, a later internal CTW report suggested that the character might have been ‘perpetuating more negative stereotypes about black children in classroom settings than it’s worth’[vii]; and – against opposition from some of the black performers – Roosevelt was eventually phased out.

As a later academic critic, Heidi Louise Cooper, points out, the issues here are not easy to resolve. For a start, puppet comedy tends to rely on caricature and physical humour, which means that it may be more inclined to rely on stereotypes. Cooper contrasts Roosevelt Franklin with a later ‘black’ Muppet character, the preppy and nerdish Kingston Livingston III, arguing that ‘negative’ stereotypes cannot simply be replaced by ‘positive’ ones; and she also draws in the example of Elmo, probably the most successful Sesame Street character of recent years, who is less obviously coded as ‘black’, and yet appears to be perceived in this way by black viewers. Unlike the other characters, Elmo is not represented as either positive or negative, as a stereotype or an anti-stereotype – and in a sense, Cooper suggests, it is these kinds of binary distinctions that need to be transcended.

Ultimately, all these arguments rest on assumptions about media effects – and in particular about the influence of ‘role models’ on children. Such effects are seen to vary according to the ethnic background of the audience, and the intended outcome. If the producers’ aim was to promote ‘self-esteem’ among black viewers, the aim for whites was a more nebulous form of ‘tolerance’. Yet it’s possible that such objectives may conflict; that black children may identify with white ‘role models’, and vice-versa; that ‘positive’ images may not always have ‘positive’ effects; and indeed that there will be disagreements on what counts as positive or negative in the first place. Meanwhile, as I’ve suggested, such imperatives are cut across by the requirement for realism (or at least plausibility or authenticity, which are not quite the same thing). How far these assumptions are accurate is a challenging question. Some have argued that useful evidence on these points can be obtained by looking at viewers’ online forums – although such evidence is likely to be very partial and unreliable.[viii] What remains striking is that, despite the centrality of these aims and the complexity of the issues at stake, almost none of the enormous volume of research on Sesame Street has addressed them.


From ‘race’ to ‘diversity’

As these examples suggest, debates about representation were starting to become very visible at the time, and often received wider media coverage; yet in the process, questions about ‘race’ were also cut across by other concerns. In fact, some of the most vocal criticisms of the early seasons came from feminists. They argued that female characters in the show tended to occupy secondary roles, and were often portrayed in limited and stereotypical ways; and that even in the animated sequences, voice-overs were almost exclusively male. They also pointed out that, although several of the Muppet characters were androgynous, those who were gendered were almost all male: the few female Muppets were typically weak and ineffectual, affecting an exaggerated femininity. (With the exception of Jane Henson, all the puppeteers were male. Jim Henson argued that female Muppets would have required female puppeteers; and he even asserted that women would have been incapable of lifting such large puppets.)

Much of this feminist criticism was extremely detailed and well documented in reports and academic papers; and some of it appeared in high-profile publications like The New York Times, where Jane Bergman went so far as to accuse the programme of ‘vicious, relentless sexism’.[ix] It was also backed up by quite plausible threats of picketing and boycotting of advertisers, as well as a vigorous letter-writing campaign organized by NOW (the National Organization of Women).

In many instances, these criticisms were completely on point, but they cut across the issue of ‘race’ in ways that proved quite challenging for CTW to address. In light of the pathological view of the black family contained in publications like the Moynihan Report, the programme had set out to provide a corrective. Gordon and Susan, the two black hosts in the street scenes, were a stable, married couple (the decision to marry them was apparently made for fear of attracting criticism that the show was stigmatizing black unmarried couples).[x] Gordon was a teacher, and although he was never seen in the classroom, he was often shown teaching the children in the street. As CTW saw it, he represented an attempt (along with the other male characters) to ‘defeminize’ the early learning environment[xi]; although producer Jon Stone later described it as an instance of ‘real middle-class modelling’ – suggesting (not for the first time) that there was also a class dimension to the show’s preferred image of African-Americans.[xii] However, the character of Susan was initially somewhat secondary, and even subservient. ‘We had thought it was a nice idea to have a strong black man supporting his wife’, Cooney later said[xiii]; but feminist criticisms of the presentation of Susan as a mere ‘housewife’ eventually obliged CTW to give her a job as a nurse (although there was then further criticism of her adopting ‘a woman’s profession’).

In these debates, there was effectively a contest for priority between gender and race. In responding, Cooney described herself as a feminist, and presented herself as being on the side of NOW – although some of her internal memos were less sympathetic.[xiv] In the case of Susan and Gordon, she seemed to accept that ‘presenting a strong competent male image to inner city children who often do not have a strong masculine figure in their lives’ might have been achieved ‘at the expense of our female audience’. In general, however, she claimed that ‘the primary aim of reaching the disadvantaged child’ (that is, the black child) took precedence. In one of her responses to NOW, she argued that the show’s ‘positive images’ of blacks were in line with calls from the African-American community, and from her own black staff; and she went so far as to accuse NOW of displaying ‘anti-black’ attitudes.[xv] Ultimately, CTW developed a rather less confrontational ‘flak-catching’ strategy in order to deflect such criticisms: through the mid-1970s, a group of women from NOW were engaged to produce a series of reports on ‘sex roles in Sesame Street’, which began to point to signs of progress.

Meanwhile, in terms of ethnicity, some of the attention also began to shift away from African-Americans. Strong criticisms had been encountered at an early stage from groups representing Hispanic communities, who accused the programme of racism.[xvi] Once again, CTW responded by engaging Hispanic representatives as advisers, and as the decade progressed, CTW’s focus on ethnic inclusion began to shift in this direction: there was an emphasis on the Spanish language (with English-speaking performers shown learning Spanish) and on aspects of Latino cultural heritage and art forms. Critics argued that, all too often, the Spanish material was simply a translation from English with little Spanish cultural roots or context. In general, however, this appeared to be an easier difficulty for CTW to address; and the thorny issue of representing ‘race’ gradually merged into a more inclusive, but also more bland and less overtly political, emphasis on diversity.[xvii]

As Robert Morrow suggests, Sesame Street has come to be regarded over time as ‘the archangel of multiculturalism’.[xviii] It is the ‘poster show’ for diversity, tolerance and inclusion, and it has been massively influential in this respect – although as such, it has continued to be a highly visible target for criticism on all sides. Aside from ‘race’, this approach has extended to many other areas: in 2015, for example, it debuted an autistic Muppet character named Julia – although here again, this went on to generate some controversy among advocacy groups.[xix] As I have implied, these kinds of debates are unlikely to be easily resolved: on the contrary, they reflect the inevitable tensions and contradictions of liberal multiculturalism itself. Some of the same issues emerge in a rather different way in relation to the second major issue I’ll discuss in the following sections of this essay: the question of how Sesame Street addressed the problem of educational disadvantage, and how successful it was in doing so.


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[i] Davis, 24

[ii] Memo from Jane O’Connor to CTW staff, UM/CTW archive, box 35: 47.

[iii] Long, PhD thesis, 83-4.

[iv] Stewart, Barbara H. ‘Sesame Street: A Linguistic Detour for Black-Language Speakers’, Black World. August 1973.

[v] UM/CTW archive, box 36: 49.

[vi] Some examples of these letters are cited in Loretta Long’s PhD thesis; and see also Davis, 202.

[vii] Position paper on cultural diversity, UM/CTW archive, box 35: 6.

[viii] See for example the articles by Reimer and Cooper.

[ix] For example, Jane Bergman’s article ‘Are little girls being harmed by “Sesame Street”?’ 1/2/1972, and the ensuing debate, for example, ‘Do the guys have it all on “Sesame Street”?’, 2/20/72.

[x] Cooney, TV Academy interview, 1998.

[xi] A recommendation carried over from Cooney’s first report for Carnegie, The Potential Uses of Television….

[xii] Cited in Morrow, 96.

[xiii] TV academy interview, 1998.

[xiv] For example, UM/CTW archive, box 34: 7. Of course, it’s possible that Cooney was bound to present herself in one way for NOW, and in another way for her (largely male) colleagues.

[xv] Letter to Wilma Scott Heide of NOW, April 1972, cited in Davis, 213-5. I’ve also drawn here on several folders of feminist criticism, and CTW responses, in the UM/CTW archive, box 34.

[xvi] See Morrow, 154.

[xvii] These debates are covered in various folders in the UM/CTW archive, especially Box 34.

[xviii] Morrow, 165.

[xix] In 2019, Sara Luterman reported on Slate that the show was accused of ‘promoting insidious ideas about neurodiverse people’: