There’s a rule in politics or at least there should be: Never get into a fight with Big Bird. You end up spitting out feathers, and the 8-foot fowl just strolls away singing about the alphabet.
In the 2012 election, Mitt Romney repeatedly argued for cutting public-TV subsidies and having the beloved character share the screen with ads — “I’m afraid Big Bird is going to have to get used to Kellogg’s Corn Flakes” — opening himself to attacks that he cared more about Wall Street than about “Sesame Street.”
In November, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, became the latest pol to find the big yellow target irresistible. After the Twitter account for Big Bird announced that the character had gotten a COVID-19 vaccine, following a CNN and “Sesame Street” town hall on vaccines for kids, Cruz called the tweet “Government propaganda…for your 5 year old!”
Leave aside the dubious claim that promoting childhood vaccination, a cornerstone of public health and schools, is “propaganda.” Disregard how Cruz ignores that Big Bird was promoting the measles vaccine a half-century ago. And forget that, for decades, liberal and conservative parents have loved “Sesame Street” for its noncommercial wholesomeness.
Cruz was at least on to one larger truth: “Sesame Street” is political, and it has been from the beginning.
It is political not in a partisan sense but because the way we teach and protect children — and choose which children to teach and protect — is inevitably bound up in politicized ideas.
“Sesame Street,” which premiered in 1969, was the project of Joan Ganz Cooney, a TV executive who was originally more interested in the civil rights movement than in education but came to see the connection between the two. “The people who control the system read,” she once said, “and the people who make it in the system read.” And she believed that the best way to get the kids of the 1960s to read, paradoxically, was through TV.
“I saw it as a political show,” says Sonia Manzano, who played Maria, because of its casting and its determination to raise conversations that kids’ TV wasn’t used to having.