The Magazine

Against Big Bird

Oct 22, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 06 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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Here’s what The Scrapbook learned last week: Democrats believe any suggestion that taxpayers shouldn’t have to subsidize the Public Broadcasting Service​—​even if it means continually borrowing from China​—​is off the table, a political third rail, strictly taboo. Republicans seem to believe the opposite, especially in light of public television’s substantial income (see Jonathan V. Last’s “Big Bird Is Big Business” on page 14)​—​although some think that Mitt Romney might have been wiser to choose, say, Bill Moyers as the personification of PBS, rather than Big Bird.

Big Bird in China

Alas, The Scrapbook must respectfully disagree with that last point. In fact, we thought Romney was making an unassailably good point about deficit spending until that moment when he told Jim Lehrer, “I love Big Bird.” It may surprise Mitt Romney, and anybody else who regards Big Bird as a national treasure, that not every American loves Big Bird, and that a not-insignificant percentage of Americans actually loathe Big Bird, The Scrapbook among them. We think Romney was being too nice about PBS in general, and Big Bird in particular.

Part of this, we confess, is a larger discomfort with the whole Sesame Street enterprise. A program that was intended, in 1969, to serve as a kind of televised version of Head Start​—​giving inner-city kids the rudiments of elementary education and moral instruction​—​has, in its 43 years, enjoyed about the same rate of demonstrable success as Head Start itself: which is to say, practically none. Almost from the beginning, the predominant Sesame Street audience has been the youth division of the wider PBS demographic: affluent, suburban, overwhelmingly white. Do these kids really need taxpayer-subsidized assistance to learn the alphabet or subtraction or the varieties of sexual orientation? For that matter, would anyone argue that since the invention of Sesame Street, American youth has grown more, not less, literate? 

Which brings us to Big Bird. The Scrapbook has nothing whatsoever against birds​—​in fact, to paraphrase Governor Romney, we love birds​—​but Big Bird bears the same relation to birds that aircraft carriers bear to fish. It’s a different species altogether. Big Bird neither looks, sounds, thinks, nor behaves like any creature we see at the backyard feeder. Big Bird does, however, look precisely like what he is: an oversized, garish-yellow, awkward, whining, infantile artifact of the 1970s, complete with “feathers” that look more like shag carpeting than anything found in nature. Indeed, the only bird to which Big Bird bears any resemblance at all is the dodo, extinct now for three and a half centuries.

Of course, if Big Bird were just the oafish avian he appears to be, The Scrapbook might be less emphatic on this subject. But we have a long memory, and remain traumatized by recollections of Big Bird in China (1983), a joint project of the Children’s Television Workshop and China Central Television in Beijing. This was a long, friendly, lachrymose travelogue​—​available on DVD, by the way​—​featuring Big Bird careening around the People’s Republic, soaking in the party line, even singing a duet with a winsome young Maoist. 

This may come as a revelation to Big Bird’s admirers in the media, but the People’s Republic of China was an even more repressive Communist dictatorship then than it is now. The old mass murderer Mao himself had died just seven years before Big Bird in China, and aftershocks from the -catastrophic Cultural Revolution​—​when millions died​—​could still be felt when Big Bird was prancing along the Great Wall. Is it conceivable that public television would ever have dispatched Big Bird as a goodwill ambassador to Fascist Italy or Nazi Germany or Pol Pot’s Cambodia? Of course not. 

Or at least, we hope not.

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