Big Bird is a national treasure. And yet right-wing attention seekers are the ones getting their feathers ruffled, accusing the “Sesame Street” star of being brought to you by the letter “P” — for “propaganda.”
The eternally 6-year-old Muppet is one of the millions of American children who recently became eligible to receive Pfizer-BioNTech’s Covid-19 vaccine. After getting his (fictional) shot, he had an adult tweet out his excitement Saturday morning.
In response came a wave of outrage toward the 8-foot-tall avian from the likes of Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Fox News contributor Lisa Boothe. “Government propaganda…for your 5 year old!” Cruz wrote.
That alone isn’t surprising: The last decades have featured an escalating, one-sided war against “Sesame Street” and it’s supposed liberal bias toward kindness and inclusion. But in their rush to land a blow against that cesspit of urban elitism, conservatives seem to have forgotten that they’re in favor of kids not dying.
The last decades have featured an escalating, one-sided war against “Sesame Street” and it’s supposed liberal bias toward kindness and inclusion
Despite tackling some of the most critical social issues of the day in its five decades on the air, “Sesame Street” was for the most part, well, inoculated from conservatives’ ire. Instead, their main target was PBS, where “Sesame Street” premiered in 1969, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. For example, here’s how Cal Thomas, a columnist with the Wisconsin State Journal, put the right’s feelings in 1992:
Just as the National Endowment for the Arts wants us to believe that its major funding goes to symphony orchestras and legitimate theater, and that only small amounts go to nude chocolate-covered dancers and homoerotic works, the CPB plays the same game. It holds up ''Sesame Street'' and ''The Civil War'' documentary as prime examples and ignores the propaganda purveyed by many of the leftist and one-sided documentaries that appear on the Public Broadcasting System.
As a result, the CPB spent much of the 1980s and the 90s fighting back against congressional Republicans’ attempts to slash its budget. "Let's make Barney and Big Bird taxpayer-friendly by transforming them from government bureaucrats into free-market entrepreneurs," then-Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., told a House Appropriations panel in 1995.
Attempts to defund PBS throughout the years have mostly fallen flat — in part thanks to the likes of then-Sen. Al Gore, D-Tenn., rejecting "a move from the Republican side of the aisle to hold 'Sesame Street' hostage."
There were still some controversies around the show and its messaging. It was briefly banned in Mississippi in 1970 for potentially making kids think integrated neighborhoods were normal and good. (The ban only lasted for 22 days before national attention forced a reversal.) And when an international version airing in South Africa introduced an HIV-positive Muppet to the cast in 2002, one pundit said the show “should leave the songs linking HIV and STDs to ABC and NBC and CBS.” Another described Big Bird as the “token eunuch” on a program “run by socialists who have infiltrated 20 countries with pledges to meet the needs of children.”
But starting about a decade ago, things took a turn. First a clip featuring a few gags about a “trashy news show” called “Pox News” made conservatives pretty grouchy when it went viral in 2009. Then in 2011, right-wing wunderkind Ben Shapiro accused the show’s producers of “soft bigotry” by designing it “to cater to Black and Hispanic youths.” When Fox News host Sean Hannity warned that “every kid in America is gonna hate” him for “taking on Elmo and ‘Sesame Street’ and Big Bird,” Shapiro responded: “I kind of wanna take ‘em out back and cap ‘em.”
There are two very telling things about this current flap over Big Bird’s (fictional) vaccination.
By 2012, Fox News guests were regularly railing against the “liberal bias” of the show, in some segments accusing it of “propagandizing children” and “brainwashing” them. More recently, professional bile spewer Tucker Carlson went after the show last year for putting on a joint town hall special with CNN on the George Floyd protests and racism.
There are two very telling things about this current flap over Big Bird’s (fictional) vaccination. First, as the Twitter account MuppetWiki first pointed out, this isn’t the first time Big Bird has taught kids that it’s good to be vaccinated. Back in 1971, the first measles, mumps and rubella vaccine was approved for use in the U.S. The next year saw Big Bird take part in a vaccination drive just down the block outside of Hooper’s Store.
How far has the conversation shifted since then? Well, a search of LexisNexis from that period shows that the episode wasn’t even a blip on the national media’s radar. Nor was it considered an issue when Sesame Workshop and pharmaceutical company Merck put out a series of public service announcements in 1996 that featured “Big Bird, Elmo, Baby Natasha and Oscar the Grouch along with the series characters Maria and Gordon reminding each other about the importance of getting vaccinated.”
Second, and more critically, in trying to roast Big Bird, these conservatives have lost the plot on Covid vaccination. The messaging from the mainstream right for the last few months has been that they’re pro-vaccination, but not mandates for getting your shot. In decrying Big Bird’s — again, fictional — shot, they’re ditching that veneer to do what they’ve proved best at lately: Scaring parents, by any means possible.
Republicans are trying to make themselves out as the pro-family party, defending parents from government intervention and the horrors of critical race theory. It’s a bold strategy — but one that’s undercut when telling children not to be afraid of a shot that may help keep them and their family safe is suddenly a bad thing.