Sign of the times: Cookie Monster, of the globally beloved U.S. children’s television show “Sesame Street,” is going to have to start watching what he eats. According to the American show’s producers, the shaggy blue carbohydrate-cruncher will no longer be allowed to gobble chocolate chip cookies by the cartload, as he has been doing for more than 35 years.
Now he can have an occasional cookie. In line with this startling lifestyle change, he will also have to give up his signature song, “C Is for Cookie (that’s good enough for me),” for the more judicious, if much less joyous, “A Cookie Is a Sometimes Food.”
Since the U.S.-based Sesame Workshop has veto rights over scripts for the new, mostly Japanese-language version of the show currently being aired on TV Tokyo, it must be assumed that concern about Cookie’s eating habits will also surface in locally produced episodes.
It’s all part of a drive to have the show promote “healthy habits for living” rather than the cheerful self-indulgence of its 1960s-era origins. And it has some people up in arms. Which is worse, they ask: the Cookie Monster or the Earnestness Monster?
It’s easy to figure out why “Sesame Street” is suddenly pushing fitness over frivolity. Not just in America, but in developed countries around the world, childhood obesity is a, well, rapidly expanding problem. Health experts have identified different causes for this, from the less active lifestyles of increasingly urban populations to bigger food portions just about everywhere. But they all agree on the remedies, for young as well as old. Better nutrition and more exercise. Fewer French fries and more fruit. Less television and more playgrounds.
The mission of “Sesame Street” has always been educational. From the start, it was basically a bunch of lessons in happy disguise. “Today’s show is brought to you by the letter C”; Count von Count cavorting in his world of numbers; “Achoo! (Cover your nose, please”). Those familiar routines, characters and songs were all there to trick, coax or enchant preschoolers into learning their ABCs, their numbers and a few basic social skills. Little kids learned to look both ways before crossing the street, to “drop and roll” in case of fire and even a bit of literary craftsmanship: “Every story has a beginning, a middle and an end!”
Gradually, the mission expanded. “Sesame Street” became not just a primer, but a barometer of social and cultural change. Over the years, it has incorporated into its routines lessons about new preoccupations from AIDS to girl power. This is particularly the case in countries — now numbering about 20, including Japan — where the show is produced locally, albeit with U.S. supervision.
In the new “Sesame Street” that began airing here last fall, for example, the emphasis is less on educational basics and more on what could be called socially enlightening ideas — cultural diversity and the use of one’s imagination being the two big ones.
So when the decline in fitness became a global public health issue, it was only a matter of time before “Sesame Street” picked up on it. In the U.S., this season’s episodes open with health tips on nutrition, exercise, hygiene and rest. A skit titled “American Fruit Stand” parodies the classic “American Bandstand.” New characters such as talking eggplants and carrots will reportedly join the familiar crowd of frogs, pigs, giant yellow birds and unidentifiable monsters. And cookies are a sometimes food.
Nobody in their right mind would dispute the thinking behind the initiative. It’s hard to be opposed to fit, trim, healthy kids, after all. But the question is: How effective will the new approach be?
If there is one thing children are attuned to, it is a sermon — and they tend not to appreciate it. One struggles to envisage 4-year-olds warming up to a vegetable the way they warm up to message-free Ernie or Miss Piggy or Cookie Monster, a favorite with kids since the show began. They will go for the funny, fat, furry guy with the sweet tooth over the preachy eggplant every time.
The real misstep, though, is trying to sign Cookie Monster up to do the eggplant’s job. He embodies human appetites — an aspect of all of us that also needs to be acknowledged. Kids see in him their joyously naughty, exuberant, greedy side, their inner “monster.” There’s nothing wrong with a little sermonizing about fitness. Done with wit and originality, it might even work over time. Just leave the Cookie Monster out of it. Believe it or not, he has a mission, too.
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