Usually, when a movie is created for a particular group of people, actors who belong to that community are called for the roles to ease into character and better express the idea and concept of the story being told. Even when an indigenous member of the community can’t be used the actor is offered a consultant in that field to solidify the character being played.
It’s like an actor called up to play the role of a police officer. If an actual police officer is called up to offer guidance to the actor it comes as no surprise and the representation of what police officers do is important, it matters and perhaps, that is what Sesame Street missed out on when it started rolling, but at least they got with the program.
According to a study, inner-city children were months behind middle-class children in kindergarten, and the gap widened and advanced through later grades. Because youngsters are known to spend a lot of time watching TV, the TV served as a sort of babysitter. It was considerably worse for inner-city children whose parents worked long hours and so exposed their children to meaningless programming.
Lloyd Morrisett collaborated with Joan Ganz Cooney, a producer and activist at the time. They believed that young children might be taught through television. Cooney conducted a feasibility study, which was used to persuade the Department of Education, the Carnegie Corporation, the Ford Foundation, and individual benefactors to provide $8 million to the Children’s Television Workshop (now the Sesame Workshop).
Cooney approached Jon Stone, a Yale University graduate with experience in children’s television, as a writer and TV producer. He shared her enthusiasm for social activism and agreed to participate in the show because of its emphasis on educating Black and brown youth and so influenced by the African-American neighborhoods of Harlem and beyond, the renowned children’s television show debuted in 1969. From the witty slang to the jazz and groove music to the set and performers, everything about Sesame Street was Black, but the puppets were not.
The idea and thought and target audience of the series at the time was not reflected in what was shown. There were no black puppets even though some of the puppeteers were black and predominantly male. So on many fronts, representation was a problem. Representation entails viewing tales and performances in movies that portray and resonate with an audience, which was lacking in this case.
Over the years, this issue was resolved in the 1980s when Kevin Clash was cast, but while his puppet sounded black it did not look black. However, he did set the pace, and eventually, in 2021, a full-time black female puppeteer, Meghan Piphus Peace, was cast. This time, not only is the voice of the puppet black, but its physical appearance is black too. Gabrielle, the 6-year-old puppet not only has melanin skin, but she has kinky hair too.
Representation matters especially for children, who relate, grasp and understand better when what they say on screen is what they see in their immediate surroundings. For a program that was built on the life and gaps found among black and brown kids, it took Sesame Street way too long to get here, but the important thing is the representation is being factored in the casting of the show.
A lot of things kids learn at a tender age are picked up from what they see on TV. For young girls especially who have to deal with the issues of their kinky hair not being accepted even to this day, Meghan Piphus’ puppet is an amazing representation of black girls that can go a long way to letting young girls understand that they are okay just the way they are and there are people like them even on TV.
Today, it is not just black and brown children who watch Sesame Street, but children of different races worldwide watch the program and are duly represented although the representation is progressive. Like the viral photo of the young boy who while watching a cartoon saw a male character that looked just like him and was so connected, little black and brown girls who watch Sesame Street will be happy to see 6-year-old Gabrielle in all her melanin skin and kinky glory.