Being the parent of a toddler has introduced me to all sorts of things I’d never have known about otherwise: how many Legos can be stacked before a tower topples, the sound of a stuffed rabbit singing when I accidentally step on it at 2a.m. (yes, I’ve done it more than once, and yes, it’s just as terrifying as you’d expect), the exact amount of time a paper airplane proves entertaining until it just decidedly doesn’t, the glee inspired by dogs and cats yowling “Jingle Bells,” and…most recently, Global Grover.
I don’t have cable, and I’m just fine leaving well enough alone when it comes to the shows my kid doesn’t know he’s missing until such a time as they become unavoidable. But my own generation was raised on TV, and I don’t have an ultra cynical take on it… and I do remember fondly the old standbys, namely Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and Sesame Street. So I just shrug when, despite best efforts, certain things just slip into my child’s consciousness. He’s only just two, and he already sings the melody and words from the Elmo’s World theme song, for crying out loud. Resistance is futile.
Much has been made of the troublesome lessons in arch-conservatism that lurk beneath the glitzy veneer of Disney films (it’s no wonder blogs like Feminist Disney are growing in popularity). Sesame Street looks like a relative UNESCO of gender and racial diversity in comparison. There is even the well-received documentary, The World According to Sesame Street, which looks at some of the adaptations (and the processes of making them) of the beloved show around the world.
But (also not unlike UNESCO), traditional power dynamics proliferate there, too. A friend directed me to Global Grover not long ago, with her own sideways stare at the loveable muppet. Here he is introducing his young audience to Bangladesh:
We learn, among other things, that “In Bangladesh, they go fishing with nets.” There’s another blog post entirely to write on how and when and why “they” when used as a singular pronoun is either offensive or liberating (the latter is emphasized in explaining why the American Dialect Society chose it for the 2015 “Word of the Year”). But for now, I’ll just toss out a few other gems from the episode:
“Are those two sticks supposed to be a bridge?”
“My, isn’t Bangladesh a pretty country? So green…”
“Runa had such a fun time fishing with her father today…She cannot wait to go again!”
And that fishing hat… “Is it not cute?”
As is so often the case, orientalism comes in the guise of progressive multiculturalism. Isn’t exotic otherness adorable? Just heard from your producers, Grover. They say yep, it sure is.
Ok, ok, my point isn’t to poke at Sesame Street. Surely saying “hey, did you know that children’s media can be problematic?” is about as necessary as asking whether one knows it’s not a great idea to guzzle nail polish remover. What I find interesting about Global Grover is how much his character — the kindly scout who’s out to raise awareness of others “out there” but whose narrative is just as reductive as it is well intended — has in common with contemporary scholars of postcolonial and identity studies. They’ve read their Said, but you wouldn’t really know it based on the “recuperation” projects that remain popular in the academy — projects that turn a romanticized and nostalgic eye toward their objects of study and leave almost entirely alone any structural analysis or theoretical critique.
I thought about Global Grover when I sat in a panel during November’s AAR meeting in Atlanta, where I listened to a prominent scholar suggest that the essential task of scholarship is to “fall in love” with those one studies so that one can stand aside and let “them” stand and speak. But that’s for my next post. Because while I get why it might be effective to describe Grover and/or his compatriots as loveable, where scholarship is concerned… I’m with Tina Turner, asking what love’s got to do with it.