Messaging is possibly the most important factor into swaying the public to one side of a political issue. Even if one side is clearly in the right, it can be defeated by a good message that counters the narrative just by its effective use of rhetoric. This is obvious. Messaging matters. It’s why the Biden administration is packaging its new “American Jobs Plan” as an infrastructure plan. While there are many infrastructure-related items in it, the bulk of the cost goes to things that historically have not been considered “infrastructure.” They are simply trying to change the definition of “infrastructure” to incorporate a bunch of other agenda items because infrastructure is something that tests well with both Democrats and Republicans.
When it comes to manipulating language and messaging, I generally pay little attention to it. Both sides of the aisle do it all the time. For instance, pro-lifers don’t call themselves “anti-choicers” and pro-choicers don’t call themselves “anti-lifers.” Those names would likely turn off those in the middle. But the issues that are generally discussed in political spheres are almost always targeted at adults, and I have to be able to trust adults to be able to remove the verbiage and look at the issues.
However, when it comes to messaging to kids, that is where I take a stand. It is why many pieces you may read from me tend to focus on schooling. If a school system is able to manipulate minds by forcing them to learn false histories or blatantly racist thinking, children generally do not have the ability to speak out against it, or question those who are giving them information.
Well, the same is true of children’s television programming. Now, I can go through a bunch of popular children’s programming and show which ones are trying to sneak messaging into their shows, trying to manipulate children into the social issues of the day, but that is not the point I am trying to make now. I am far more interested in the about-face made by children’s programming, and not just any program in specific, but the longest-running and most influential series in history – Sesame Street.
Sesame Street has gone through as many messaging changes in the last several years, the most notable of which was moving new episodes to HBO, and PBS only being able to air them nine months after their original release. But somehow the messaging has changed as well. And when I say “changed,” what I mean is “totally reversed.” And nowhere is this more evident than in the way they present race.
First, let us look back at an episode from 1993. This episode is centered around a white woman named Gina Jefferson and her good friend Savion, who happened to be black. The friends were hanging around Sesame Street and eventually go to the store to have a soda. Gina receives a call from someone who had spotted the two on Sesame Street and was upset that two people of different races were friends. A disturbed Telly Monster could not understand why that would bother someone. Gina explains that Telly is right. Skin color should not matter at all. “Just look at our block on Sesame Street. There are brown people. There are pink people. There are monsters. There are penguins. There are grouches,” Gina shouts. “And eight-foot-tall yellow bird who is friends with everyone!” Telly yells. After a short back-and-forth, Telly finally arrives at the correct conclusion: “I don’t care what color anybody is.” This message is how we should all view racial differences. It does not matter what race we all are. Everyone can be friends.
Fast forward to 2021, and that message has been turned on its head. Three weeks ago, Sesame Street introduced two new black Muppets, who had a conversation with Elmo about how melanin colors the skin and is what makes some skin darker or lighter. But then one of the Muppets explain that “things on the outside – our skin color, our hair texture, our noses, our mouths and eyes make us who we are.” What a statement! It is no longer what is on the inside that counts. What makes us who we are is externals. This is not only a complete reversal of lessons Sesame Street itself has previously tried to impart, but it is more likely to align with the person who called Gina back in 1993. If our external features are what make us who we are, why shouldn’t bad people use that as a division? If I were to buy a pack of markers, would it be wrong to sort them by color? Well, no. Because the primary feature of markers that distinguish one from the other is the color. If we are teaching children that the color of our skin and the shape of our noses are to be the judge of who we are, children will be more likely to say that the darker and lighter colored people can be kept apart - you know, like they do with markers.
This messaging is in sharp contrast to the way that beloved children’s television host Mr. Rogers chose to address race. In 1969, amid a bevvy of stories about how white people were banishing black people from using public pools, Mr. Rogers invited the black police officer on the show to dip his toes in his pool with him. There was no prelude needed. No explanations of what race was or why this was important. Just two men of different races being friends. That is what children saw, and that is what stuck with them. No preaching necessary – ironic, seeing how Fred Rogers was also a Presbyterian minister.
In an effort to explain race to children, Sesame Street has aligned itself with the thinking behind racist thinking. The color of our skin is what makes us who we are. White supremacists have been making this argument for centuries. This thinking has been the cause of countless deaths throughout history, and Sesame Street is choosing to champion this thinking today, and it is concerning to say the least.
This is not the only children’s show to try to warp the minds of children, but it certainly one of the most prominent. So please be careful about what you may allow to penetrate the earholes of children these days. When Sesame Street can no longer be trusted, how many trustworthy shows out there can there be?
Izzo Zwiren is the host of The Jewish Living Podcast, where he and his guests delve into any and all areas of Orthodox Judaism.