MLA 2019 Call for Papers! Sesame Street at 50

Sesame Street

In 1969, Sesame Street made its debut on PBS in the U.S. It has since become not just an American institution, but an international one — broadcast in 150 countries, and in over 30 languages. This show — as cross-media and transnational phenomenon — is thus an ideal subject for the MLA’s textual transactions theme, as it invites us to think transnationally about “intellectual, artistic, and pedagogical work.” This panel invites papers on Sesame Street as a site of transaction — creative, cultural, educational. Possible areas of inquiry include but are not limited to:

  • How the programme’s many international iterations interact with the original concepts and their particular audience.
  • The show’s many political initiatives, both within and beyond the U.S. Since the first international co-productions in 1972 (Brazil’s Vila Sesamo and Mexico’s Plaza Sesamo), co-productions throughout the show’s history have promoted many social justice initiatives through Sesame Workshop International, including the introduction of HIV positive muppet Kami in the South African version (Takalini Sesame), and the Kosovo co-production (Rruga Sesam/Ulica Sezam) that supported the peace process between Albanian and Serbian children.
  • How Sesame Street’s many changes in the past five decades respond to the media landscape it inhabits. Sesame Street now has a popular YouTube channel, and as of 2016 its first-run episodes air on HBO, not PBS.
  • How the Muppets’ comic mode of engagement often upends the concept of a distinct audience constituted solely of child viewers, and challenges protectionist discourses around what are considered “appropriate” media texts produced for young audiences. While the history of Sesame Street has situated the Muppets as part of a public mandate geared at preschool children (Davis; Reimer), the parodic, vaudevillian, and often subversive humor that characterizes the Muppets (Abate; Schildcrout) have been central features throughout the history of Sesame Street’s programming.
  • How Sesame Street inhabits a dynamic position within popular culture, particularly how characters have been remixed and/or deployed politically (for example, Bert and Ernie and marriage activism).
  • Sesame Street‘s role as a surrogate caregiver, especially via its recognition of the complex emotional lives of children. Beginning with the death of Will Lee (the actor who played Mr. Hooper) in 1983, Sesame Street has been a leader in children’s television for dealing with serious subjects: death, down syndrome, autism, loss and grief following 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, children with incarcerated parents, children in military families coping with a parent’s deployment.

If accepted by the MLA, the panel will convene at the Modern Language Association Convention in Chicago, which will be held from January 3 to 6, 2019.  

Send 1-page abstract and 2-page CV by March 15, 2018 to Philip Nel and Naomi Hamer.

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