Welfare, HIV and Palestine on Sesame Street

With Sesame Street celebrating its 40th birthday this week, many blogs are reflecting on the show’s greatest moments. While most of these lists celebrate the show’s charm and humor, Sesame Street should also be honored for its commitment to social issues. Last week, SocImages uncovered this touching clip from the 1970s:


Gwen puts the above segment with Jesse Jackson, titled “I Am Somebody,” in the following context:

In the early 1980s the Reagan Administration engaged in an active campaign to demonize welfare and welfare recipients. Those who received public assistance were depicted as lazy free-loaders who burdened good, hard-working taxpayers. Race and gender played major parts in this framing of public assistance: the image of the “welfare queen” depicted those on welfare as lazy, promiscuous women who used their reproductive ability to have more children and thus get more welfare. This woman was implicitly African American, such as the woman in an anecdote Reagan told during his 1976 campaign (and repeated frequently) of a “welfare queen” on the South Side of Chicago who supposedly drove to the welfare office to get her check in an expensive Cadillac (whether he had actually encountered any such woman, as he claimed, was of course irrelevant).

The campaign was incredibly successful: once welfare recipients were depicted as lazy, promiscuous Black women sponging off of (White) taxpayers, public support for welfare programs declined. Abby K. recently found an old Sesame Street segment called “I Am Somebody.” Jesse Jackson leads a group of children in an affirmation that they are “somebody,” and specifically includes the lines “I may be poor” and “I may be on welfare” … I realized just how effective the demonization of welfare has been when I was actually shocked to hear kids, in a show targeted at other kids, being led in a chant that said being poor or on welfare shouldn’t be shameful and did not reduce their worth as human beings. Can you imagine a TV show, even on PBS, putting something like this on the air today?

In response to Gwen’s post, SocImages reader Ben Spigel agues that Sesame Street would not shy away from doing something like this even today. He writes, “the Children’s Workshop, which produces all the Sesame Streets, has been very proactive in dealing with contemporary social issues. For example, they produce an Israeli-Palestinian version of Sesame Street, and their HIV-positive muppet for the South African version. In the American version, there was the very public change in Cookie Monster’s eating habits.”

The Palestinian version of Sesame Street, titled Shara’a Simsim, dates back to 1996 – an archived NYT article from that time chronicles the show’s tense beginnings. Since the show’s initial concepting phase, there existed a debate among the producers as to what kind of approach to take. Would it be unrealistic to show a world in which Israeli and Palestinian children played together? Yes, they decided – for the time being.  In 2002, the show producers’ complex quandaries were revisited by the New York Times in the wake of 9/11. Now in its fourth season, Shara’a Simsim is a popular show for children that places an emphasis on giving children positive role models. On the Sesame Street Workshop site devoted to Shara’a Simsim, executive producer Daoud Kuttab (who you’ll remember from both the 1996 and 2002 NYT articles!) says, “giving children hope would be a major accomplishment.” And here’s a clip:

2 Responses to “Welfare, HIV and Palestine on Sesame Street”

  1. Luke Copping Says:

    Heres to 40 more years of Sesame Street being one of the most socially progressive programs on television, anywhere in the world!

  2. Agent Double Oh-No Says:

    A television program that idealizes peace is quite a break from what kids often get in Palestine. Just recently, programming for children included a mouse that advocated, among other things, suicide bombing in the name of genocide: