Now that Owl is two we occasionally allow ourselves the luxury of putting Owl in front of the TV for some quality programming.
Over Christmas we had fun showing him The Grinch (which he loved) and Muppet Family Christmas (which he liked) and Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer (which he had no interest in).
Sometimes we let him watch some Sesame Street.
I really notice a difference between letting him watch Sesame Street on Netflix versus the Old School Sesame Street DVD that we picked up years and years ago.
Sesame Street has really changed over the years, and it’s more than just the loss of Jim Henson.
The early Sesame Street looks… grittier. The opening segment shows inner city kids running around alleys and grim city playgrounds. Almost all of the kids are non-Caucasian – either Black, or Hispanic, or Asian.
Sesame Street itself is a little dirty, a little down-and-out. You can hear traffic in the background. Acid rain and smog have tarnished the old brownstone of 123 Sesame.
The general message of the Old Sesame Street is about integration – respecting how people do things in other cultures, learning other people’s languages, and finding common bonds in our differences.
Now, move forward to the modern Sesame Street.
Sesame Street is bright and shiny. There is no whirr of traffic. 123 Sesame may have been built yesterday, the stones are so clean and unworn by time. The ABC graffiti is gone, as is the building you saw it on. Instead there is a garden, complete with butterflies.
The story lines have changed too. Now the emphasis is on healthy eating and physical activity.
The stories have gotten more complex, too, and I find that there is less emphasis on the alphabet.
In the Old Sesame Street, practically every segment is about a letter or a number. The ones that aren’t are education segments about, say, a family in the Philippines or how milk comes out of cows.
In the new version, there are entire segments that have nothing to do with anything – fifteen minutes about Abby Cadabby’s day at school, a fifteen minute imaginary segment in which Baby Bear tells an elaborate story about bears in space.
The Elmo segment takes place in a world made entirely of crayon, and is not about letters or numbers, but instead about daily life – construction, weather, getting dressed.
I’m trying not to draw any judgement.
After all, the kids that Old Sesame Street was aimed at were disadvantage youth who should have been in pre-school, but weren’t.
Today’s Sesame Street is watched by a much broader range of children. Racism is no longer the topic du jour. Instead, we worry about the obesity epidemic.
Nor is gentrification BAD. The neighbourhood has simply been cleaned up through the years, and the characters themselves are responsible for much of it (like the garden, which was the focus of an episode).
In fact, my favourite TV gay couple (and yes, I know, Sesame Street insists that they aren’t gay, but COME ON), Bert and Ernie, are probably partially responsible. Everyone knows that a gay population gentrifies an area. Sesame Street may simply be imitating Park Slope.
I prefer the old episodes. I find them more tongue in cheek, more quirky, more fun, and honestly, more educational for Owl than the new episodes. He understands “look, this is a 3!” but he doesn’t understand why the bears’ porridge is floating in space, or why a cowgirl just rode onto a spaceship.
That being said, I don’t think he gets much out of either kind of Sesame Street. He already knows the alphabet, and I don’t think he’s really absorbing the point of listing a bunch of words that start with “buh”.
Furthermore, he is whiny and clingy for a good hour after watching any kind of children’s programming, so most weeks he doesn’t see anything at all.
So really, the point is moot.
Even so, I’m a little sad when I notice the changes that happened to Sesame Street over the years. Nothing stays the same forever, but I wish the shows of our childhoods could.