Photo: The Canadian Press
Smokey Bear taught children the importance of preventing forest fires. McGruff the Crime Dog warned them not to talk to strangers. And in 1972, Big Bird lined up on “Sesame Street” to receive a measles vaccine as part of a campaign to get more young people vaccinated against the disease.
But when the same iconic, 8-foot-tall child figure tweeted last weekend that he had been vaccinated against COVID-19, conservative politicians immediately pushed back.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican, grilled Big Bird for what he called “government propaganda.” Fox News contributor Lisa Boothe described it as “brainwashing children” and “twisted”.
“My wing is a little sore, but it will give my body an extra protective boost that keeps me and others healthy,” Big Bird tweeted.
“Sesame Street” has long faced grumbling from conservatives who are dissatisfied with its links to U.S. public broadcasting, which receives federal funding. Yet this recent fallout marked a new controversial hotspot that has plagued previous vaccine rollouts, as well as the shot becoming available to children between the ages of 5 and 11 years.
Nearly 50 years ago, when the series was in its third season, “Sesame Street” encouraged kids to get the measles vaccine by showing the Big Bird and other kids who got the injection. The movement was similar to other public service campaigns that used beloved characters to help teach children life lessons, including counteracting casualties, wearing seat belts and seeing both roads before crossing the street.
“What Big Bird is doing is part of a long tradition. But what is different now, of course, is that everything is political and everything is controversial,” said Thomas Doherty, an American professor at Brandeis University. “Something that we all wanted a year ago, the vaccine, is now this big question. Assertion.”
Controversy at the crossroads between television and politics has emerged here and there for decades. In 1952, “I Love Lucy” did not use the word pregnant once in an episode that focused on the title character, Lucy Ricardo, who had a baby after leaders determined it would be too outrageous to do so.
The 1970s TV series “Maude”, a spinoff show of “All in the Family” that explored all sorts of political and racial issues in a big man’s household from New York City’s Queens, showed the character Maude chose to have an abortion. The story was aired a year before the U.S. Supreme Court made Roe vs. Wade to the law of the land. Several affiliates declined to post reruns of the episode.
In the early 1990s, the sitcom “Murphy Brown” found itself in a high-profile tiff during the presidential campaign of 1992, when Dan Quayle, vice president of George HW Bush, claimed the unmarried Murphy’s pregnancy as a mockery of fatherhood and American morality.
In “The Puppy Episode” of “Ellen,” which aired in 1997, Ellen wrote DeGenere’s story as the first prime-time lead on network television to come out as gay. It was a huge cultural moment, but it also triggered attacks from religious groups. ABC later aired a “adult content” warning when DeGeneres’ character kissed another woman in a separate episode.
Nearly 15 years ago, PBS was condemned by the country’s education secretary after spending money on a cartoon featuring lesbian characters. The episode of “Postcards From Buster” featured two lesbian couples while the title character, an animated rabbit, was on a trip to Vermont – a state at the time known for recognizing same-sex civilian associations, while many others did not. . PBS later decided not to distribute the episode to its stations.
“When you get a mass media as dominant and powerful as television … it will always be a battleground about what messages are coming out there,” said Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University.
Big Birds tweet tattered other people’s feathers at a time when educational messages aimed at children are under increased control. Schools have seen an increase in heated debates from frustrated parents and elected officials about how racial and social justice issues are handled in classrooms and teaching materials.
Meanwhile, education officials have faced several conflicts over how to deal with mask and test requirements during a pandemic. Some Republicans have pushed back against marketing the COVID-19 vaccine directly to minors.
“The whole ‘Sesame Street’ embrace of diversity, inclusion, being cute, being aware of people in poverty and of different colors, it’s all a form of education aimed at children that most people would think is a really good thing “And a great thing. Contributions. Then come the vaccines,” Thompson said. “And now this idea of getting a vaccine is no longer a party. It’s turned into something else.”