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The fear of being misread
Hello, Manuscript Workers!
Today’s newsletter is a guest post from one of my developmental editing clients. She first told me about her book idea nearly seven years ago, and this month it is finally going to be available for everyone to read. Pretty much everyone I tell about this book is fascinated and wants to know more, so I thought you might like to hear from the author herself in this week’s newsletter.
Before we get to that, just a quick reminder that I have a free 90-minute webinar coming up next Wednesday (April 12). It’s called How to Publish Your First Scholarly Book, and it will answer the most common questions I receive from authors about navigating the publishing process with university presses and other academic publishers.
Everyone who registers will receive a recording. You don’t need to attend live, but you do need to register in advance. Note that in order to receive the Zoom link you will need to register with a first and last name.
I also wanted to let everyone know that through April 5 I will be donating 20% of all sales of my Book Proposal Shortcut program to the University of Michigan Graduate Employees’ Organization strike fund to support workers who are currently striking for better pay and benefits. The Shortcut program comes with lifetime access, so if you know you’ll want to do it at some point this year, now would be a great time to sign up and forward some support to striking workers.
Now on to the guest post!
Criticizing Sesame Street and the fear of being misread
By Helle Strandgaard Jensen
Hi Manuscript Workers. My name is Helle Strandgaard Jensen, and I am an associate professor of history at Aarhus University in Denmark. My new book, Sesame Street: A Transnational History, comes out with Oxford University Press this month. And I am very afraid it will be misread or even misused.
If Dungeons and Dragons was real life, my alignment category would be ‘lawful good.’ My inner beast is a Labrador. As a woman, a first-generation academic and a non-native speaker of English, I’ll do everything to fit in with the ‘real’ academics of the anglophone world. Feed me and scratch me behind my ear (or the academic equivalent: cite my work and tell me my English accent isn’t that bad), and I’ll be your friend forever. Probably.
I’ve had to change, writing my new book. I’ve been forced to be braver. Less afraid of going up against widely established ‘truths.’ I wouldn’t necessarily have chosen this path, but my research on Sesame Street simply drove me to write a history that didn’t align with the usual angle used to talk about the beloved show.
In English, your secrets can be kept like a skeleton in a cupboard. In Danish, we mostly use this metaphor to talk about the event where the skeleton falls out of the closet, and the secret is revealed. And oh man, did the skeletons keep falling out of the closet once I started digging in the archival boxes with Sesame Street records in them.
Most historical writings about Sesame Street focus on the show in the United States. Such histories are rose-tinted, painting the company behind the hit show, the Sesame Workshop, in a positive, progressive light. The show is positioned as an alternative to the otherwise grim commercial broadcasting landscape, and the company’s alignment with the values of the civil rights movement is foregrounded, portraying Sesame Street as the appropriate, progressive, educational alternative—the golden standard of how children’s television ought to be.
However, my findings, based on material from eleven different archives in seven countries, cannot confirm the do-gooder image. Threats of lawsuits, bitter rivalries, and even blatant sexism were some of the skeletons that fell out of the archives’ dusty boxes. Even Sesame Street’s domestic history started to look less progressive, and less altruistic, when I looked at it from an international perspective. For instance, I found that the views on the child-adult relationship and ‘educational value’ ingrained in the original American shows were quite conservative in comparison with those of contemporary European preschool shows.
That scared me. I realized that I had to argue against the conventional narrative that painted the Workshop’s overseas activities as non-intrusive, non-imperialistic, ‘help’ to foreigners who didn’t know how to produce the ‘right’ kind of television. The image of the Workshop as a saint-like helper on the international market—as opposed to a dirty business operation—has been carefully crafted since 1969. It is the established history. It is what you find in academic literature and in the enormous realm of Sesame Street fandom. It’s also a narrative the Workshop has actively cultivated itself and cleverly used to set Sesame Street apart from other American brands like Disney.
As you might expect, this fear of what it might mean to challenge the established, positive Sesame Street history was not very productive for my writing. I tried to hide my voice and the rather critical narrative that I was beginning to see emerging in my writings. How did I hide it? Behind hundreds of quotes and lengthy discussions of existing literature. My writing became extremely convoluted. [BTW, sidebar, I love the English word convoluted. The Danish word for ‘envelope’ is literally ‘convolute’ (though spelled ‘konvolut’). So, imagine me trying to hide my treacherous writing in a tight envelope, sealing it off in the hope that no one would notice my critique of the beloved American institution.]
There were three main reasons I was scared to criticize Sesame Street. First, the Sesame Workshop is very protective of its do-gooder brand image. I have seen that in my sources (remember those lawsuits I was talking about?), but I also got to see it in the New Yorker in 2020. When the American historian Jill Lepore had written a somewhat critical essay about the show, she, and the editors of the New Yorker, got a slap on the wrists for not ‘knowing the facts’ in a snarky reply by the Workshop president, Jeffrey Dunn. As someone who hates conflict, I did not find this encouraging.
Second, I am not American. Writing about something which is so beloved in American culture makes me feel like an imposter. I’ve had some rather harsh remarks at conferences when I’ve presented historical incidents of criticism against the show, being told that I didn’t understand what Sesame Street represents in American culture. All my friends in the United States love the show—or at least they love the old episodes they themselves watched as children. It’s hard for me to criticize something that people love, and which is intertwined with wonderful childhood memories. But I have focused on the connection between the show’s educational model, the ideas of childhood behind the show and the business side of things, and money is often dirty. It is certainly not as cute as the Muppets.
Third, and perhaps most scary, is the fear of my work being misrepresented or even misused. It is sometimes said that the enemy of your enemy is your friend. No, thank you, I do not want to be friends with most of the people who dislike Sesame Street, yikes. If you read my book, and especially its conclusion, you will see that my scholarship is inspired by critical race theory, postcolonialism, feminism, and all the rest of the poststructuralist lot. And I am proud of that. So, I will be furious if any right-winger uses my criticism of Sesame Street for twisted purposes. But I can’t control that. So, what to do?
I aired all of my fears to Laura when we discussed my manuscript. I’ve been writing the book on and off since 2014, so we have had many conversations. In one of them, she said something which warmed me like an elixir of bravery: “I love Sesame Street, but that does not mean that I can’t enjoy a critical read.” These words and the fact that there might live a tiny stubborn mule inside my inner Labrador have helped me finish my book. I’ve even written a manifesto-style conclusion (that’s what Laura called it) where I challenge the Workshop’s ideas of objectivity and the claim that Sesame Street is culturally neutral. Of that, I am very proud.
Thank you for all of your help Laura, and for letting me share my thoughts on the fears of being misread.
I hope you enjoyed Helle’s story. I asked her to share it here because I think a lot of us can relate to worrying about how our research findings will be received, though we may not all be critiquing a beloved (and litigious) cultural institution.
If you’d like to check out Helle’s book, Oxford University Press is offering 30% off preorders with discount code AAFLYG6. If you’re a scholar of critical media studies, transnational cultural transfer, or childhood, you will absolutely want to read it (even, or maybe especially, if you also love Sesame Street).
Hope to see you at my webinar next week or back here in the newsletter!