The talk of budget deficits and sensible economic policy is a farse, a rouse given the longstanding effort to divest from public programs, particularly those ideas of justice, equality, and social good. The criticisms that “multiculturalism” or “tolerance” represents a vehicle for the “intolerance” for dominant values (white, Christian, middle-class) that have purportedly been central to America’s historic greatness are common to the broader culture. Equally troubling to those critics of Sesame Street is not only tax-payer support for a program that is neither intended for white-middle class audiences (Shapiro notes the history behind Sesame Street), but in their mind devalues whiteness for the sake of multiculturalism agenda.
To understand this criticism and to comprehend the right’s denunciation of Sesame Street mandates an examination of this larger history and the ways in which Sesame Street has built upon the civil rights movements and those concerned with justice, equality, and fairness. In 1979, The New York Times identified the primary focus of Sesame Street as the “4-year-old inner-city black youngster.” Jennifer Mandel, in “The Production of a Beloved Community: Sesame Street’s Answer to America’s Inequalities,” argues that while the original intended audience for the show was “disadvantaged urban youth” who suffered because of “the limited availability of preschool education” the appeal and impact of the show transcended any particular demographic.
While addressing structural inequalities and countering the systemic failures in America’s educational television was part of the show’s mission, it more masterfully offered a utopic vision of America and the broader world. Joel Spring describes the mission of Children’s Television Workshop with Sesame Street as one bound by a desire “to shape public morality” and offer “a standard as to what the world should be like. Or as Robin D.G. Kelley might describe it, it is a show dedicated to the cultivation of “freedom dreams.” Imagining a place of “sweet air” and “sunny days” that “sweep the clouds away,” where “friendly neighborhoods” meet and “doors are open wide” Sesame Street is a utopia worthy of any person’s imagination.
The power of Sesame Street doesn’t merely resonate with its history, its efforts to challenge differential access to educational opportunities or even its emphasis “on the representations of diverse groups” (Kraidy 2002), but through its opposition to the normalization of whiteness; its power rests with its critiques of and counter narratives to hegemonic notions of identity. No wonder Mittens and friends have no love for Sesame Street.
The examples of Sesame Street’s opposition and resistance to Mitt’s America are endless. The history Sesame Street is one where it sought dominant white racial frames, particularly those that reinforced the desirability and hyper visibility of white, male, heterosexual middle-class identities – Mitt and friends. The anti-Sesame wing of the GOP doesn’t just hate Big Bird or the cost to produce Big Bird, but the agenda, message, and dreaming available on Sesame Street.
At its core, the criticisms directed at Sesame Street are racially coded and racially reactionary; it is not simply a matter of the unnatural celebration of undesirable and inferior identities and experiences but denying white male Christian identity its rightful place on America’s cultural mantle. The argument offered by Willard Romney, Shapiro and others imagines Sesame Street as a white-funded source of propaganda that unnaturally elevates racial (and sexual) Others all while denying the beauty and superiority of whiteness. In their estimation, it is yet another program where he and his friends are paying for something that benefits the 47%.
Given the history of the show and the efforts to challenge, in message and in its opposition to invisibility, the systemic normalization of particular white identities, it is hard not to see his comments as part of a larger backlash against multiculturalism and any effort that unsettles the hegemony of whiteness. It isn’t simply about liberal bias but the perceived threats to whiteness. Should we be surprised that Mitt doesn’t like Elmo? Cause surely Elmo don’t love Mitt’s vision of America.