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Gender and Sesame Street

A picture of multicoloured puppets from the show 'sesame street'

My mother was not a role model for me when I was growing up – not in the traditional sense of role models. She loved me more than anything else in the world, to accept my decisions: wearing shorts and not frilly lace frocks, playing football instead of learning Rabindra Sangeet (that every man, woman, or child in a Bengali household must know!). I am sure that she wished I could be more ‘girly’ and less of a ‘tomboy’ – but she never stopped me. I think that was the greatest gift she could have given me. Like a fierce tigress, she stood by my side, defending my choices – however against societal norms they might have been. And she continues to be my biggest champion.

My father never really cared whether I wore frocks or shorts, played with dolls or balls, as long as I studied. He believed in pushing the envelope and he encouraged my brother and me to push ours. And he encouraged us to read. These, I think were his greatest gifts to me.

So growing up in a typical middle class Indian household in the late 60’s – my de facto role models were George in Famous Five, Nancy Drew, Catherine Earnshaw, Lizzie Bennet, Jo March, Anne Frank, and Matilda, amongst others: smart, adventurous, brave, spirited girls and women of their times. Willing risk-takers, breakers of norms.

Looking back, a lot of my behaviour and attitudes were shaped by the content I was consuming on a daily basis through these books. I guess I was lucky that I had access and resources and, most importantly, amazing parents. Millions of girls around the world do not.

Girls who work, instead of play. Girls, who are not encouraged to go to school; to dream; to break stereotypes and push envelopes. Where will these girls get their role models? Can television be an answer? According to the FICCI FRAMES report 2013, the Kids genre continues to be the largest, after Hindi GECs (General Entertainment Channels) and Movies, contributing 7.5 per cent of the viewership share in India. This means that the TV can and does play a significant role in children’s lives today.

Can the power of television be used for good? Can children’s television programs really help break gender stereotypes? Racial stereotypes? Pre-conceived notions about others with disabilities? Can it make kids more tolerant, inclusive people with a healthy respect and appreciation of others? One program has made this its mission. Sesame Street.

In 2006, I was introduced to a group of powerful girl Muppets who had aspirations, self-confidence, and moxie. I saw girl Muppets who were curious, active, and could speak up for themselves. And then I realized, “Hey, these are amazing role models – these are role models that so many girls need.” Through television, we can bring them into the living rooms of millions of families. And in those living rooms, on that television screen, we are not just reaching girls, but their brothers and parents, too. Sesame Street is breaking stereotypes, and television is making it possible to do this on a large scale.

Consider some of the places we work: India, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Egypt, South Africa, Afghanistan, and other developing countries. These are places where educational and professional opportunities for women are severely limited.

Take a look at Chamki, a Muppet from Galli Galli Sim Sim here in India. I love Chamki as much as I used to love George. She represents irrepressible curiosity, boundless ideas and contagious energy. Chamki is a reporter, a karate expert, and loves going to school.  And so many other strong female characters across our many programs put girls’ empowerment centre stage. Like Kami. Kami is South African, HIV-positive, and helping break the culture of silence around HIV and AIDS. Like Sivan. Sivan is Israeli and in a wheelchair but that does not stop her from playing, studying, and having friends. And like Khokha. Khokha is Egyptian and encourages girls to dream big – to be what they want to be. Take a look

The influence these role models can have is unparalleled. And when these characters are in a larger family and social context, the potential impact grows exponentially. Imagine, if you’ve never seen a girl in a position of responsibility. Or if you’ve never seen a boy doing housework. Sesame Street does that – we show women holding government offices, and we model how boys can help around the house. We want our young viewers to see that girls and boys have equal rights and responsibilities, indeed equal opportunities.

Television is just a platform. Kids have access to so many different kinds of programs – some great and some not so great. On the ‘great spectrum,’ Sesame Street scores high. It boldly takes on social messages that can be difficult to tackle – and we make it fun, funny and very entertaining so that children want to keep coming back to watch more. Research shows that when girls are educated, families and communities benefit. There’s increased productivity, less poverty and lower infant mortality. For 45 years, Sesame Street has been inspiring hope, shaping attitudes, redefining norms and producing tangible outcomes. Watch it. You’ll see.