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Today’s reading: the HIV Muppet Controversy

Great column by Mark Morford in the San Francisco Gate:

“So it has come to this. It has come to an orphan HIV-positive female Muppet on “Sesame Street” in Africa. Let there be quiet and tragic applause.

It has come to the point where we can no longer avoid intermingling the worlds of sunny happy sing-songin’ innocent Cookie-Monster days and brutal ravaging epidemic disease and deathly nights, and man is Big Bird ever confused and sad and lost.

But this is a good thing, this new character. Everyone says so, everyone with any sort of conscience or even mild awareness of the horrors of the AIDS epidemic senses this is probably the right kind of thing to do, even if it feels like it’s not. ”

Read the whole article:

Condoms To Cookie Monster / An HIV+ Muppet comes to AIDS-ravaged Africa, and the world will never be the same

The idea, of course, is to gently raise the awareness among African kids (an estimated 18 million of whom have been orphaned due to the disease), prepare them all-too-early to confront a very painful adult problem they’re seeing every day in the street anyway, try to recast the afflicted as people not to be feared or loathed or shunned, much like introducing a gun-toting proto-American war zealot into the cast of “Everybody Loves Raymond.”

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12 Comments

  1. I actually thought it was kind of snarky, but, well, I can’t quite imagine an innocent childhood. I had a Christianity-slathered repressed childhood, the closest facsimile my parents could provide, and I think at some level I always figured that that was the kind of thing most purportedly innocent childhoods really came down to.

    Until less than two centuries ago two or three of five children died before puberty, give or take, so this whole “innocent childhood” thing just seems to me like one more tripy Victorian idea hindering us from dealing with the world as it really is.

    A.
    not opinionated at all 🙂

    • Oh, it was kinda snarky. Morford is good at that, and it’s the main reason I read him.

      But, you know, I think he’s right. It IS sad that the world has become such a place that we do feel compelled to have these sorts of issues on Children’s TV. And we do feel compelled, and we really have to.

      I know you’re childhood was less than idyllic. Mine wasn’t, though. I had a perfectly boring childhood, with perfectly reasonable upbringing, and even the parts that seemed intolerable at the time in retrospect are fairly unremarkable. So that’s my benchmark.

      Of course, nothing was ever as pastoral as ’50s family television would have you believe, but isn’t it worth hoping for kids to be able to hold on to a few years of just experiencing the joy and wonder in their world before crushing them beneath the weight of modern society?

      Certainly makes for interesting dinner conversation, if nothing else. 🙂

      Love,
      -R

      • It IS sad that the world has become such a place that we do feel compelled to have these sorts of issues on Children’s TV.

        I guess I just don’t think it never was such a place. Polio, influenza, diptheria, bubonic plague….war, dispossession, slavery, conquest….all those things and more.

        I’d love for children to have “a few years of just experiencing the joy and wonder in their world” before modern society squishes them, but I wonder if it always works so sequentially. Imagine the joy and wonder of two six year olds’ friendship when one has AIDS and the other is emboldened by learning through this Muppet to befriend her, for instance.

        Besides, I personally have found lots of joy and wonder in modern society. *wink* (But that’s beside the point.)

        I too wish this Muppet didn’t have to exist, but, well, I do think without the reservations Mr. Morford describes that it is a good idea.

        So when do we get to debate this over a beer? 🙂

        • I guess I just don’t think it never was such a place. Polio, influenza, diptheria, bubonic plague….war, dispossession, slavery, conquest….all those things and more.

          Oh, sure, the world has always had its horrors. Must we concentrate so entirely on them that we forget its wonders too?

          I’d love for children to have “a few years of just experiencing the joy and wonder in their world” before modern society squishes them, but I wonder if it always works so sequentially. Imagine the joy and wonder of two six year olds’ friendship when one has AIDS and the other is emboldened by learning through this Muppet to befriend her, for instance.

          Well, of course. That’s why the character is being introduced. I’m in favour of that, in case I hadn’t been clear. The character is necessary. And it’s unfortunate that the character is necessary. These are not mutually incomptable — one’s an expression of what is, and one is a longing for something that isn’t.

          Just because something never was so doesn’t mean we can’t still wish for it. I’d love for every child in the world to have had a childhood like mine, for instance. They don’t. Many children in the world suffer horribly and needlessly in ways that a loving God would not allow. That makes my wishes no less real.

          So when do we get to debate this over a beer? 🙂

          Well, when are you coming to visit me and ? 🙂

          • Oh, sure, the world has always had its horrors. Must we concentrate so entirely on them that we forget its wonders too?

            I’ve actually been thinking a lot about this topic lately, more generally than just in this context. But more drunken ravings from me later. 🙂

            When am I coming to visit you and ? Well, I now have enough in my savings acct that, barring disaster *knock on wood* I will see you at OVFF. 🙂

            A.

          • I’ve actually been thinking a lot about this topic lately, more generally than just in this context. But more drunken ravings from me later. 🙂

            I will look forward to them. 🙂

            When am I coming to visit you and kitanzi? Well, I now have enough in my savings acct that, barring disaster *knock on wood* I will see you at OVFF. 🙂

            I am greatly looking forward to that as well. *HUG*

            Love,
            -R

          • Hmmm…..

            Best news I’ve had all day! (Of course, this is for a day that’s been mostly bad news so far, but it’s still wonderful news!)

      • The thing is that Sesame Street was NEVER about innocent dancing around. I really have to wonder what Morford thinks he’s been watching since 1970. Sesame Street has had a mission from the beginning to introduce deeply controversial, even radical issues in a way which will teach the children a sense of tolerance and help the grownups come to terms with these issues in a nonthreatening fashion.

        When I was growing up in the seventies, the human cast on Sesame Street included an interracial couple. No mention was ever made of it, nobody discussed whether or not there was anything wrong with it, they were just there. And by being there, they helped a generation like mine grow up treating such relationships as matter-of-fact, not even important enough to comment on… while the generation two up and six to the right from mine screamed about how it was terrible that we had to expose innocent children to such things.

        In Egypt today, the Sesame Street version there emphasizes the radical, culture-shaking notion that it is important for girls to get an education just like it is for boys. It has the government’s backing, or it couldn’t do it in Egypt, but it’s considered by much of the population to be just another method through which evil America is corrupting innocent Muslim kids.

        There is children’s television for escapism and there is children’s television for education. Sesame Street was conceived from the first as an educational program, and specifically as an educational program with a heavy element of social and political education. They’ve been teaching kids, through the medium of songs and puppets, the kind of thing that make the adults scream in horror, since they were conceived.

        I approve of the existence of children’s TV that’s pure escapism. I also approve of the existence of children’s TV whose intent is quite purely and simply to teach the values of an age which has not yet come to the generation which, properly educated, will help make it come. A show doesn’t have to be serious and offputting to be the second; it’s just as okay to use muppets to make a point about AIDS as it is to use them to make a point about the letter A. Sesame Street was never what Mr. Morford thinks it was. That he does think it was, may have something to do with how well it taught him when he was a little boy, so that the values he thinks should be preserved unsullied are the same ones which shocked the columnists when he was a child.

        • I more or less agree with everything you’ve said.

          I had a feeling that posting that article woudl cause some people to say some interesting things, so it had the desired affect. One note, though — I’m not really sure his article was so much about Seseme Street itself as it is the world we live in.

          Still, thanks for the thoughtful reply. 🙂

          Love,
          -R

          • Today’s episode is brought to you by the letters H, I and V …

            In my opinion, Mark Morford (who I’ve only been reading since last November, and who’s writing I find to be a total delight and one of the highlights of my day, or three times a week anyway!) quite often writes with his tongue firmly in cheek, sometimes pretending to be a little more “upright/uptight” than he is in order to throw the next sentence into starker/funnier/more shocking relief. After all he did complete his article on the HIV muppet with

            “In somewhat loosely related news, the creators of the Teletubbies are planning on introducing a new character to the
            wildly popular toddler program next season, tentatively named Zonk, who will allegedly be a mullato lesbian dwarf quadriplegic encephalitic autistic scoliotic genius waterskiing dentally challenged philatelist with multiple STDs and a wandering eye”

            I don’t agree 100% with what he says (sometimes) but quite often I wish I did …

            … he likes to point out that people have (or would love to have) a “perfect-50’s-TV” view of the world, politicians, religion etc. and then give the news story about the child abuse, the government accounting scams, the pedophilia in the Catholic church etc. That’s just his style, standing as far to one edge as possible so that the news story on the other edge is that much further from the “established” reality and thus causes greater dissonance and greater emotional impact.

            People want children to grow up slowly (hence teenagers and tweenies and all the rest), maybe because they remember their childhood as good (or as bad and want it to be better for *their* kids) and want that goodness to last as long as possible. In Victorian times the children of the poor weren’t educated beyond absolute minimum requirements, worked down the mines or up chimneys or on the farm and going back further, getting married at 14 was fairly normal. Now you can’t buy beer until you’re 21 in some states … oh wait, this is going to to turn into a long rant and I think I’ll save that for another time!

            But, basically, most people want their kids to grow up totally protected and to remain children as long as possible. But there’s a real world the kids have to live in (guns in schools, drugs, teenage pregnancies, abductions etc.) and there is a necessary conflict. Sesame Street is one of the balancing forces, I think it is 100% correct to attempt this, whether it succeeds or not, because in South Africa 1 in 9 people are infected with HIV. This means that children are likely to be either infected themselves or their friends at school may be, and they need to know whether it is ok to hug them, to share sweets with them and what to do if they skin their knee or cut their finger … you may know what is safe and what isn’t, but the 3 to 7 year olds are the market for Takalani Sesame and they are the ones that need the education.

  2. Oooh, interesting …

    … I hadn’t realised he’d done *two* articles on this, the short one in his emailed newsletter (below) and the main one on the website!

    The email newsletter one said: (and I quote at length, but I include the copyright notice, so I feel karmically balanced! Particularly since I put the free email subscription link here.) 🙂

    THE MEDIA STEW
    From the fringes of SF Gate, and then some…
    ***********************************************

    **Snuffleupagus Meets Pneumocystis Carinii Pneumonia**
    The first HIV-positive Muppet will soon join the cast of “Sesame Street”
    in South Africa to educate children about the deadly virus that infects
    more than 10 percent of the country. The female character, whose color,
    name and personality traits are still on the drawing board, will be
    introduced on “Takalani Sesame” in September, as the last exhausted
    glimmer of pure untainted childhood innocence whimpers and sighs and
    finally collapses under the weight of nasty politically charged complex
    human disease and deeply tragic issues of mortality and neverending
    suffering and death. In somewhat loosely related news, the creators of
    the Teletubbies are planning on introducing a new character to the
    wildly popular toddler program next season, tentatively named Zonk, who
    will allegedly be a mullato lesbian dwarf quadriplegic encephalitic
    autistic scoliotic genius waterskiing dentally challenged philatelist
    with multiple STDs and a wandering eye.
    article here

    ***********************************************
    All contents, except the swearing and the random blasphemy, ™ (c)
    2002 Hearst Communications Inc.
    http://sfgate.com/chronicle/info/copyright/

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