Brief background: Sesame Street was begun as an effort to bring pre-school education to disadvantaged children, especially black kids in the poorest neighborhoods of America's cities. The people at the Children's Television Workshop (CTW), lead by Joan Ganz Cooney, hoped that by reaching these kids through the television, students might arrive at first grade more ready to learn how to read and add and subtract and, more generally, to succeed in school and life. Kids were already watching a ton of television, so why not teach them where they already are? Thus the multi-ethnic cast and the urban setting, and the focus on teaching the most basic concepts like letters and numbers. By adopting the progressive agenda of late 1960s liberalism, the show aimed to create a more diverse and egalitarian society.
The character of Oscar the Grouch, who was orange before he was green, was supposed to teach young viewers that the world is "not made up of sweetness and light" according to the CTW, and that kids "had better start getting used to that." (Francke) He would afford an opportunity for children to encounter and experience negative emotions . As everyone knows, Oscar lives in a trash can by a front stoop and complains nonstop. Jim Henson apparently found the inspiration for Oscar in an extremely rude waiter. Carol Spinney, the puppeteer who also plays Big Bird, modeled his Oscar voice after a New York City cab driver.
When Sesame Street debuted in 1969 it was greeted by almost universal acclaim and great excitement about the possibility of finding a noble purpose in a medium which, at the time, was considered moronic and perhaps also dangerous. But within a couple of years it had begun to receive some negative, critical notices as well, by educators who objected to its teaching style and its adoption of formats of commercial television, including advertising ("brought to you by the letter Y and the number 2") and the "magazine style" of variety comedy shows like Laugh-In, with many brief segments mixing live action shot on location or in the studio, animation, and puppetry.
A New York magazine article in 1971 added another dimension to the show's criticism: the author, Linda Francke, interviewed a number of African-American viewers in NYC and found that many were hostile to what they perceived as the show's middle-class values. They found fault with the show for failing to represent the reality of life in poor neighborhoods. These lines of thought didn't surprise me very much when I read them yesterday because the same thoughts have occurred to me before. But the stuff about offense taken in particular to Oscar the Grouch was more novel; it had not occurred to me that anyone would ever find anything but delight in him.
Francke claimed that the African-American community was unified by its hostility to this character: "There wasn't a black I talked with who did not single out Oscar as one of the things they found so painfully wrong about Sesame Street." It continues:
Grace Richmond, director of education at the West 80th Street Day Care Center, got right into Oscar. "I react to the garbage-can character because that to me is the inner-city character. He's the one who's bottled up, and who compensates for it by saying he likes to live in a garbage can. That's really like saying it's all right to live in a dump. I don't agree with that. And the kids call it phony."Francke clearly thought that these criticisms would sting the CTW folks, so eager to improve the lot of those who reacted so negatively to their work. The article continues:
Dorothy Pitman Hughes, director of the West 80th Street Day Care Center, agreed. "That cat who lives in the garbage can," she said, "should be out demonstrating and turning over every institution, even Sesame Street, to get out of it."
A black minister, who didn't want his name used, said, "Sesame Street is telling a black kid that it's perfectly normal for you to live in a garbage can if you keep it clean. The Man is perpetrating the idea that that's where you're going to live and you out to be happy living there."
I mentioned these reactions to Mrs. Cooney, and for a moment, she was speechless. Then she said, "It hurts me to hear that blacks think that. It tells me so much about the damage that 300 years have done that they think they're Oscar. We don't think they are Oscar. I don't understand that. Why would Oscar be them? Lord, I wouldn't dream of identifying with Oscar the Grouch. I'd be embarrassed as a human being. I mean...why...they're saying that they must feel that way. That they feel they're Oscar. Well, that's a whole different issue because that means anyone you could show, any grubby creature, anything, they'd say, 'That's me and I wish you'd take him off the air.'" That didn't seem to be the point, I said. It was the fact that Oscar wasn't trying to get out of his garbage can. "Well," she said with relief, smiling, "there's no evidence that the little black kids identify with Oscar any more than they identify with anybody else. Ernie has emerged much more as the character they identify with. That tells you a lot about the health of kids rather than the mental ill health of adults!"One thing especially worth noting here is that Francke quotes adults rather than children, but that Cooney gives herself the authority to speak for the children in her audience. This underscores the extent to which adults mediate children's culture for them, framing media texts and giving them context, choosing what children will experience and how they will experience it. At the same time, adults who presume to speak for children's reception are liable to impose their interests on kids, to see what they want to see rather than what children actually see.
Oscar was not the only muppet singled out for criticism over the years; a bright but trouble-making, "jive-talking" African-American character, Roosevelt Franklin, was eventually dropped from the show because of concerns that he was a negative racial stereotype and a bad example for children.
A certain affinity between Oscar and African-Americans seems to have persisted over the years, despite my inability to find much in the way of formal criticism since the New York article in 1971. The most recent instances I have seen occur in online remix culture, where the muppets, as a touchstone of several generations' youth, frequently appear. For instance, I have previously here linked to this video mashing up the muppets and Pulp Fiction. More recently on Fraktastic I posted this video mashing up the muppets and Woody Allen's Manhattan. The supreme oddity of Bert is Evil is well known to memesters and students of convergence culture.
A number of remix videos have taken audio from a David Chapelle standup bit about Sesame Street and a segment on Chapelle's Show ("Kneehigh Park", a parody of SS) and combined them with video from Sesame Street. Chapelle's Oscar riff from his 2000 TV special Killing Them Softly makes clear that he sees him as more urban than other muppet characters (transcript as follows from Wikiquote):
Have you ever watched like a cartoon that you used to watch when you were little, as an adult? I was sittin there with my nephew. I turned it on Sesame Street. And I was like Oh good. Sesame Street. Now he'll learn how to count and spell. But now I'm watching it as an adult and I realize that Sesame Street teaches kids other things. It teaches kids how to judge people and label people, thats right. They got this one character named Oscar. They treat this guy like shit the entire show. They judge him right to his face. 'Oscar you are so mean. Isn't he kids?' 'Yeah Oscar, you're a grouch!' He's like 'Bitch I live in a fucking trash can! I'm the poorest mother fucker on Sesame Street. Nobody's helpin me.' Now you wonder why your kids grow up and step over homeless people, like 'Get it together, grouch. Get a job, grouch'The line "Bitch I live in a fucking trash can!" is one especially ripe for remixing. One video I have seen (YouTube has taken it down) strings together a bunch of innocuous Sesame Street scenes of Oscar talking to human beings, inserting "Bitch..." for Oscar's dialogue.
In this very foul clip, a segment from "Kneehigh Park," the whole joke is that Oscar is from the 'hood.
This gets remixed/mashed up in this vid of Oscar cussing out the Teletubbies, with the Grouch portrayed through the audio-track as black and the Teletubbies as white, despite the fact that neither Oscar nor the Tubbies have conventional markers of ethnic or racial identity.
Indeed, one of the things I have always found especially endearing and distinctive about the Muppets is the way they confound or confuse identity categories like child and adult, white and non-white, human and non-human, etc. (For instance, who exactly are Ernie and Bert?) I remember being a bit surprised to learn that the puppeteer who performs Elmo, Kevin Clash, is black--surprised more than anything by my own reaction, catching myself in the assumption that an adorable red furry monster would have or lack any particular ethnic or racial markers.
This point of this discussion obviously is not to point out that Oscar (or Elmo) is coded black (or not), that he is a racist representation, or that there is something offensive about how the CTW characterized him. I don't buy any of these ideas, though I respect the fact that others might. What I think is worth taking away from these bits of reception and interpretation and appropriation of one piece of the enormous Sesame Street text is the distance between the way the show has always represented a progressive ideal of community (Jennifer Mandel calls it "beloved community") and the way that the minority community that the show's creators aimed to reach found its own meanings in it, a product of their own contexts of experience.
Linda Francke, "The Games People Play on Sesame Street" New York (April 5, 1971).
Jennifer Mandel, "The Production of a Beloved Community: Sesame Street's Answers to America's Inequalities" The Journal of American Culture 29.1 (2006), 3-11.