The media today is filled with advertisements, television shows, celebrity gossip, videos and more that place women in uncomfortable and compromised positions. Sometimes women are shown in a positive light by the media, but it is not often enough. Recently however, there was one piece of information that struck me as particularly captivating, especially considering the encouraging manner in which it actually supports and furthers the strides women are making in popular culture. While reading the daily news, I came across a video story on abcnews.com about Sesame Street’s newest character, entitled “Sesame Street Teaches Self-Esteem”.
Diane Sawyer, in this video, begins by saying: “As you probably know its something that African American girls talk about amongst themselves but not often out loud: hair” with a photo of the character, an African American girl puppet, in the upper right hand corner. As someone who grew up idolizing this show that brings together both education and entertainment, and is currently studying representations of women, I could not be more proud that this character was added to Sesame Street. It is steps like this video that begin the movement away from the concept of an “ideal beauty type” which is so often talked about and give all different types of women self-confidence.
The clip that this new character was in called “I Love My Hair” is the most ideal way of showing that African American females are beautiful and should love their hair. Sawyer calls the incorporation of this new character a “revolution of the heart” but personally I think it has a much stronger message. Because African American girls don’t have hair that is idealized and worshipped in our society: Barbie’s long, flowing blonde locks, they often feel left out and unsure how to feel confident about their own hair. This video is a way in which all women can feel proud of what they look like, and in my opinion can only help the young girls/women in America to feel a greater sense of belonging, acceptance, and self-assurance.
“Don’t need a trip to the beauty shop, cause I love what I got on top” is the opening line of the clip, "I Love My Hair". ABC News discusses with several African American girls and women the issues they face because their hair is “big” and “poofy”. This is contrasted with a picture of Barbie saying “this, by the way, is often our earliest lesson about beauty”. The video cuts to a clip of Whoopi Goldberg doing a standup routine in which a little African American girl puts a towel on her head to try and emulate Barbie’s “long, luxurious blonde hair”. As Susan Douglas says in Enlightened Sexism, “conforming to the Barbie aesthetic of femininity… is essential” (page 164). This clearly poses an issue for African American women who do not have blonde hair, nor those long flowing locks, and as Douglas writes on page 137, “exactly how were black women supposed to reconcile the pressures to conform to and succeed in white culture with the pressures, and desire, to keep it real?” It can be not only discouraging but, as the 5th chapter in her book entitled “You Go, Girl” sums up, it also reinforces the “little power, in actuality, black women still have” (page 153).
The head writer of Sesame Street, Joey Mazzarino, just so happens to have an adopted daughter Segi from Ethiopia. He said that all she wanted was long straight hair that she could throw around and shake; it seems as though she wanted to be white, instead of embracing her culture. As any parent would feel, he became concerned. Thus, he decided to take a stand on this issue that undoubtedly extends much farther than his own daughter. Though Segi was the main inspiration for the muppet, it is obvious that while others have attempted to make these kinds of strides before, such as Sir Mix-a-lot who “sang the praises of black women’s backsides, made of fun the dominant white standard of beauty as promoted in Barbie dolls and Cosmo…” (page 134, Enlightened Sexism) this appears to be a powerful way in which young girls are convincingly addressed. Especially in considering Sesame Street’s phenomenal reputation, this, I believe, is a huge step forward for woman across the country. Not only African American women, but women of all cultures can connect.
There are still these stereotypes that many girls feel they must live up to, for example the seventh grader that Douglas refers to on page 217, saying that “there is too much pressure from the media to be ultra thin and to have big boobs and blonde hair…” I feel however, the adamant nature in which this muppet sings about her hair encourages young girls watching to embrace their hair and its uniqueness. She goes on to model several different hair styles and sings, “Wear a clippy or in a bow, or let it sit in an afro, my hair looks good in cornrows, it does so many things you know, that’s why I let it grow. I love my hair. I love it and I have to share.” Many viewers seem to agree. The YouTube user 4eva2bsassy states: “I’m twelve. I remembered seeing [the video] on the news a few days ago. I wear my afro to school all the time and I get made fun of. I get called afro lady mushroom head and its really annoying… this song kinda helped me a little and I’m tired of being told to straighten it!” User candymoon writes, “I am a black woman and happy that sesame street is teaching black girls to love their hair. This is way past due I see nothing wrong with the video. This video needs to be played in classrooms across the country. So that black girls feel good about the hair that they have.” Finally, xblackheart9 says, “this is so cute. I absolutely love it. Being blonde and white isn’t the only example of a pure beauty :)”
In general I feel that because this video has brought about a lot of publicity and conversation it has started to do its job. As of October 24th, one week after this particular video was uploaded, more than 3,300 comments have been made here alone, and the video has been shared more than 300,000 times. Although not all of the comments are positive, which I did not expect as white privilege, which Peggy McIntosh discusses, still exists, many do feel intensely inspired by it and make claims that “this is beautiful”, informative, empowering, and heartwarming. Though we live in a society where it is extremely hard to change people’s views, as a direct result of the media, small steps like this can be what brings about a change. At the very least, people should consider and take to heart the message that this video sends. Why continue to put women (and people in general) down when things like this receive such positive feedback? It is this action taken by Sesame Street that brought this very important issue amongst African American women and girls to a more global attention. Understanding that though people are different, they can still be considered beautiful is a big deal, and a necessary one. There is no reason that all women should be assigned to the same standard of beauty, and this video furthers the notion that there is a lot to love no matter what kind of hair you have and what you can do with it.
Also, there has been a remix made with the video clips from “I Love My Hair” and Willow Smith’s song, “Whip My Hair”.