Beyond Big Bird and Cookie Monster
12.7 million girls live in Egypt. Many don’t dream the same dreams as their brothers…of becoming teachers and doctors and world leaders, because they’re girls. Then there is Fatma. Fatma is one of 9 million Egyptian children who watch Alam Simsim. Fatma’s in the first grade and dreams of becoming a lawyer. Fatma got the idea from Khokha, a girl muppet who inspires Egyptian children to be anything they want to be. So if Fatma and those 9 million Egyptian children grow up to become lawyers or doctors, if they inspire their daughters to become teachers or astronauts and if those daughters inspire their daughters to become world leaders, can the future course of women change forever?
In 2006, Sesame Street made headlines when the show added its first new muppet in a primary character role in more than 13 years- and it was a girl. Writer Tony Geiss conceptualized Abby Cadabby, a fairy who moved to Sesame Street, who looked different and spoke a different language. A 2006 New York Times article reports that he wanted to “simultaneously introduce a major female character to the show and add someone from a different culture, without ‘having consciously to introduce somebody from Indonesia or India.’ Abby’s design is an intentional departure from the typical Muppet look because she’s not originally from Sesame Street. The implication is that the fairies in her old neighborhood look like her.” Introducing Abby Cadabby to Sesame Street was a huge milestone for the show and just the beginning of changing how girls view themselves in the world.
When you ask how to get to Sesame Street, you may think you are asking how to get to a little piece of Manhattan where monsters eat cookies and the air is sweet. However, with funding from USAID and Mobinil, among other organizations, Sesame Street may cross through more neighborhoods than you thought.
In 2004, USAID began the Sesame Street alliance. Based on research that girls’ education is the ‘single biggest factor in a country’s economic and social development,’ the challenge became to reach girls and their caregivers around the world and to change common perceptions about a girl’s need to be educated. By showing strong female characters that the audience could culturally relate to the hope was that Sesame Street would become a place where girls value themselves, create ambitious dreams and that their value is seen as equal to boys.
The Sesame Street alliance works with education experts within the target country to create programming that will be inspiring and meet the needs of local children. In Bangladesh children watch Sisimpur. Tuktuki is a muppet who is five years old, from an low income family and dreams of going to school so she can read and write, just like the boys. This is significant in a country where 67 million adults are illiterate and over 60 percent of those are women. In Nigeria, on Sesame Square, Kami and Zobi are two friends who love school and soccer and the show often has guests that are strong Nigerian women, such as a pilot, actresses and politicians.
Alam Simsim captures the attention of children in Egypt as muppet Khokha teaches the basics, such as letters and numbers, but also wants to be a doctor, engineer and lawyer- all at the same time! Fatma, from the passage above tells the Sesame Workshop that she is inspired by Khokha because, “she is girl like me.’
In Nigeria there is the muppet, Kami. She is 5 years old, fun, vibrant- and the first HIV positive muppet. She breaks stereotypes about HIV and living with the virus. Her presence on Takalani Sesame challenges the notion that children with HIV are weak, sickly and without enjoyment in life. Her name, Kami, means “acceptance” in the local language. She answers questions about living with HIV to help children who live with the disease as a part of their lives daily.
Sesame Street has spread across the globe- but does this really mean sunny days? Recent research suggests that it does. Johns Hopkins University conducted a study on math and reading levels for Alam Simsim in Egypt. The study found that 90 percent of children, age 2-8 watch the show and those children tend to read a grade level higher that those who do not watch the show. There are similar gains in math. In Bangladesh, literacy rates among those who watch are 67% higher than those who do not, including girls. The research is still young, but overall shows that these shows are being watched and children and their caregivers are being affected in a positive way.
Home in the United States, Sesame Street continues to work on the self-esteem of girls. They recently featured a girl muppet singing: Change the World- something we know that she, and any girl, has the power to do.