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C Is For Controversy? Sesame Street's Most Eyebrow-Raising Characters

Oct 26 2011 - 7:08am

For more than 40 years, Sesame Street [1] has been nearly synonymous with childhood, but that doesn't mean the beloved program has been controversy free. New puppet Lily is the latest character to get tongues wagging about the appropriateness of certain topics for tots, but she's far from the first. Since its inception, Sesame Street has pushed boundaries and tackled tough topics, some of which critics deem too tough for tots.

Keep reading for some Sesame Street characters, storylines, and guest stars who've had people talking about way more than ABCs and 123s.

Are They or Aren't They?

In August 2011, an online ‪petition to let Bert and Ernie get married‬ [2] circulated. It garnered a lot of media attention despite Sesame Street's official statement on the matter, posted on its Facebook page [3]:

Bert and Ernie are best friends. They were created to teach preschoolers that people can be good friends with those who are very different from themselves. Even though they are identified as male characters and possess many human traits and characteristics . . . they remain puppets and do not have a sexual orientation.

The speculation about the nature of their relationship [4] is nothing new for Bert and Ernie. In 1980, Studio 360 host and author Kurt Andersen wrote: "Bert and Ernie conduct themselves in the same loving, discreet way that millions of gay men, women, and hand puppets do. They do their jobs well and live a splendidly settled life together in an impeccably decorated cabinet."

Photo courtesy of Sesame Street Workshop

The Katy Perry Cleavage Fiasco

When Katy Perry [5] joined Elmo for a duet, they weren't the pair that everyone was talking about. When a preview of the episode was broadcast on YouTube, some parents and critics complained that Perry's low-cut neckline and enviable assets were inappropriate for lil eyes, and Sesame Street pulled the episode.

Source: YouTube [6]

Oscar the Grouch vs. "Pox" News

When Oscar starts his own news network, GNN (Grouchy News Network), an angry listener calls in to complain that Oscar's version of the news isn't grouchy enough, saying, "I am changing the channel. From now on I am watching 'Pox' News. Now there is a trashy news show." Not surprisingly, Fox News didn't take kindly to the thinly veiled barb.

Cookie Monster's Questionable Eating Habits

At a time when America's childhood obesity levels are reaching epic proportions, the giant blue monster with an insatiable appetite for sugary treats has been criticized for exacerbating US tots' addiction to junk food. In 2005, a reformed Cookie Monster changed his tune, singing "A Cookie Is a Sometimes Food," and began eating healthier foods, like fruits and vegetables.

HIV Positive Puppet

In 2002, Sesame Street introduced viewers to Kami [7], an HIV-positive puppet on Nigeria's Takalani Sesame, in an effort to educate and fight stereotypes about people with AIDS. Though Kami never appeared on American Sesame Street, some individuals staunchly opposed the introduction of Kami, and a group of conservative US representatives cautioned PBS [8] against introducing HIV-positive puppets to American audiences or risk losing funding.

Photo courtesy of Sesame Street Workshop

The Arab/Israeli Conflict Conflict

In 2006, two versions of Sesame Street were broadcast in Israel — one for Arab children and one for Israealis. Doing their part to bring peace to the Middle East, and despite protests and professional blacklisting, Sesame Street brought Arab Muppet Mahboub to Rechov Sumsum, Israel’s Sesame Street adaptation.

Photo courtesy of Sesame Street Workshop

Lily, the "Food Insecure" Puppet

Introduced in a special earlier this month to raise awareness about hunger and poverty, Lily is a 7-year-old girl representing one of the 17 million American children that the Department of Agriculture estimates are "food insecure," meaning they have limited or uncertain access to affordable and nutritious food. Some critics feel that Lily isn't an accurate portrayal of hunger [9], given that most children in this country are much better off than their peers in third-world countries.

Photo courtesy of Sesame Street Workshop

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