This week, “Sesame Street” announced that its character Julia, who has autism, will make her TV debut in April in an episode that will teach kids about the disorder. That trailblazing decision marks just one of the series’ many groundbreaking moments.
Throughout its 47-year history, “Sesame Street” seems to have always embraced diversity and inclusion by having its Muppets and their human friends discuss important issues (like bullying and divorce) and reflect people kids actually see day to day (like children whose parents are in the military).
Though there are many more to choose, here are 11 other important moments from the creative people behind the beloved show.
An episode aired in the ’90s in which Gina, who is white, receives a call from someone who saw her hanging out with her friend, Savion, who is black. Though viewers don’t hear what is said on the phone, Gina makes it clear the caller didn’t like seeing them together, and she and Savion explain the situation to Telly Monster.
“Telly, there are just some really stupid people in the world who can’t stand to see when people of different races are friends,” Savion says.
“Because Sav’s skin is brown and mine is white he thinks we shouldn’t be friends. It drives him nuts just to see us having fun together,” Gina says.
When Telly asks what color has to do with being friends, Gina replies, “Nothing, nothing at all.”
In the ‘70s, cast member Buffy Sainte-Marie normalized breastfeeding by nursing her son Cody on the show and educating Big Bird about the topic after he asks what she’s doing.
“I’m feeding the baby. See, he’s drinking milk from my breast,” Sainte-Marie says.
“That’s a funny way to feed a baby,” Big Bird responds.
“Lots of mother feed their babies this way,” Sainte-Marie explains. “Not all mothers, but lots of mothers do.”
For the South African version of “Sesame Street” called “Takalani Sesame,” the show introduced a Muppet named Kami who is HIV-positive. The character, who also appears in the show’s Nigerian version, teaches basic facts about HIV and tackles the stigma of having it. In 2006, she also appeared in a UNICEF campaign with former U.S. President Bill Clinton to encourage parents to talk to their kids about HIV and AIDS.
After the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, “Sesame Street” aired an episode that involved a grease fire in the kitchen at Hooper’s Store. The incident traumatizes Elmo, who is later invited to visit a firehouse to learn what firefighters do. According to New York Daily News, the show offered appreciation to the New York City Fire Department at the end of the episode, which was dedicated to Lt. Robert Nagel, an FDNY firefighter killed on 9/11.
While parents today are still fighting for kids with Down syndrome to be represented, “Sesame Street” did it with ease years ago. According to the Los Angeles Times, Jason Kingsley, a boy with Down syndrome, made his debut on the educational show when he was 15 months old. Emily Kingsley, Jason’s mom and a writer for the show, used her experiences with her son to push for more inclusion as an activist for kids with disabilities.
Jason can be seen on “Sesame Street” counting, spelling and hanging out with his Muppet friends in 55 episodes in the 1970s.
Kingsley pushed for the show to cast kids with other disabilities as well. Tarah Schaeffer, a girl with osteogenesis imperfecta who uses a wheelchair, first appeared on the show in the ‘90s. She sang a song to the tune of “The Wheels on the Bus” to explain the different parts of her wheelchair.
In Charles A. Riley II’s book Disability and the Media: Prescriptions for Change, Kingsley explained why it’s important for kids with disabilities to be a part of the cast, which also includes characters who are deaf and blind:
“We include kids with disabilities just as part of the gang. Children in the audience get validation when they see others like themselves. Their siblings receive gratifying reinforcement seeing kids like those in their own families. We take the strangeness out of it. Why should difference be equated with fear?”
In its “Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration” resource video, “Sesame Street” shed light on kids whose parents are incarcerated. A Muppet character named Alex explains to his friends that his dad is “in jail” when they mention that their dads should help them with a project. His friend, Sofia, then says that her dad was also incarcerated when she was younger. She takes the opportunity to explain to the other Muppets what “incarceration” means and offer support to Alex.
Actor Will Lee portrayed Mr. Hooper on “Sesame Street,” beginning with the show’s first episode. After his death in 1982, the creators decided to address death head-on in an episode later that decade. In it, Big Bird is reminded that Mr. Hooper has died, but insists that his beloved friend will return. That’s when his other human friends explain that Mr. Hooper won’t be back and remind Big Bird that he will always have his memories of his friend.
In a 2004 interview with the Archive of American Television, Loretta Long, who plays Susan Robinson on the show, said, “People still come up to me on the street telling me what it meant to them to be able to talk to their children about death.”
In 2016, “Sesame Street” introduced its first Afghan Muppet Zari, a character who promotes girls’ rights. According to the show’s press release, Zari interviews Afghan professionals to learn about national identity and physical, social and emotional well-being.
Sherrie Westin, executive vice president of global impact and philanthropy of the Sesame Workshop, described Zari as the “perfect opportunity to engage both boys and girls with lessons supporting girls’ empowerment and diversity appreciation as we aim to help all children in Afghanistan grow smarter, stronger, and kinder.”
The show once delivered an ode to natural hair with help from one of its writers and his daughter. The song “I Love My Hair” appeared in a 2010 episode. According to NPR, head writer and Muppeteer Joey Mazzarino wrote the song for his then 5-year-old daughter whom he and his wife adopted from Ethiopia. He said he wrote the lyrics after his daughter played with dolls and noted that she wanted to have “long blond hair and straight hair.”
In the song, the character sings, “Wear a clippy or in a bow, or let it sit in an afro, my hair looks good in a cornrow. It does so many things, you know, that’s why I let it grow. I love my hair.”
In the ’80s, the show taught kids about adoption when its characters Susan and Gordon Robinson told their “Sesame Street” neighbors they were going to adopt a son named Miles. In 2006, cast member Gina shared similar news and announced she was adopting a boy from Guatemala.
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