New York – The last few years has seen more than a few eye-catching character reinventions on the long-time award-winning children’s show, Sesame Street. The changes are not surprising given that it’s on PBS, a network committed to advancing progressive values while instilling a strong sense of community among its viewers.Take, for instance, Cookie Monster’s recent substitution of an all-cookie diet to a balanced one with vegetables as a main focus. For those of you who may not be familiar with the strangely endearing shaggy blue puppet, Cookie Monster, as his name illustrates, has always been quite the lover of all things ‘cookie’. But in 2005, writers decided that it was time for the character to promote healthier eating habits in a country ravaged by the hungry jowls of obesity.
In a similar vein, the Sesame Street franchise has introduced us to Kami, an HIV-positive character, a much older Elmo grappling with issues of puberty and masturbation, as well as Oscar the Grouch’s recent bouts with the harsh realities of homelessness and schizophrenia. All of these changes seem to be part and parcel of the show’s evolution and has helped connect viewers to a much more pertinent reflection of the world that they live in.
“It’s pivotal that our shows give an adequate representation of the actual society that we’re living in, ” observed PBS correspondent, Holman Akwame, “change is good.” These changes, however, were only the tip of the iceberg. Just last week, the iconic, fun-loving Big Bird -who has been undergoing some troubling identity issues this season- came out as transgender and will be continuing the show as a female character.The larger-than-life, seemingly asexual bird is helping ease viewers into her new lifestyle and educating children as to the importance of accepting who they are. The groundbreaking episode, which urged viewers to practice patience, love, and support for all individuals, reached a whopping 5.5 million viewers according to Nielsen ratings- a number rivaled only by the Ken Burns documentary, “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea” back in 2011.
“The positive responses have been overwhelming! We’ve received literally hundreds of letters and phone calls in a matter of days,” says Ben Lerman, one of the show’s co-producers. “In all honesty, we don’t expect viewers to immediately accept this change, and that’s just real life. These things do take time, true, but we believe that easing viewers into this character change will sympathetically mirror Big Bird’s transitioning process, so that -in a way- it evokes a deep empathy as the viewer feels a similar kind of transitioning. We’re hoping to create something of a video interaction or identity dialogue, if you will.”
Lerman, together with several of the show’s veteran writers, admits to having initially felt somewhat conflicted about the writing decision, but realizing the positive message would ultimately outweigh the controversy, felt truly compelled to green light the project.
Reception is in fact, mixed, but overall, records show that it has been surprisingly positive. “I didn’t believe it at first! It was just such an giant step forward totally out of the blue,” says Greg Halloran, Project Manager at the New York Transgender Coalition. “Gender identity is something children definitely need to know more about. I mean, Big Bird is still lovable, ole Big Bird! She simply prefers a different pronoun and this is the kind of thing people need to start acclimating to.”Sesame Street, which has showcased a dizzying number of celebrities throughout the years, is certainly not lacking in support. “You def know you’ve made it if you get to be on Sesame Street with all those muppets, sure, ” comments Dylan McIntyre, star of the upcoming live-action video game adaptation “Contra: Real Corps”. Such sentiments certainly appear to be common among actors and musicians, many of whom admit to getting their start on the show.
“I love Sesame Street, man. It will always speak to a deep part of me. And I love Big Bird, male or female- it don’t matter,” says 43 year-old, Matthew Rivera, lead singer of the prog rock project, ’2 Die 4? out of Sacramento, California.
All in all, it might seem strange that a children’s show would tackle such strong issues, but Sesame Street’s track record as one the longest-running television programs in history is a testament to its rapport with the public, both young and old.
“We feel that we have a responsibility to our viewers, and we want to make sure to keep our relationship fresh every step of the way,” says Lerman. By the looks of it, that is certainly the case.
As to Big Bird’s new transition, producers at PBS are optimistic about the public’s acceptance of the new changes and will be paying close attention to productive feedback. Perhaps this is one of the secrets to a successful television program: communication. Take note, America, as PBS promises to do their best in keeping the viewers in mind, whether counting the 1-2-3?s or singing the A-B-C’s.