Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Sesame Street Life

Toilets are not sexy, especially the ones in Bangladesh, and no one wants to talk about mensuration and diarrheal diseases, separately or in relation to one another. 

Now, the above statement might seem obvious to most to say the least. But these are the topics I have come to Bangladesh to discuss and immerse myself in. One of the most frustrating and unexpected struggles of my research has been my difficulty in getting professionals to openly and freely discuss these topics with me. I find it perplexing how, whilst being interviewed by me, a man working on improving hygiene policies struggles uncomfortably to find a word that is not poop or shit or anything of that ilk (fyi he eventually settles on the desensitized phrase of defecation.) This syntactical limitation is not constrained by gender. I have found that many of the women I've spoken with struggle just as much as men to speak openly with me about bodily functions we both know are a universal experience for women. How is it we can talk about the deformation of women through acid attacks, which I consider a far more disturbing topic of conversation, but end up spending moments in silence while scrambling for a more palatable way to describe a UTI? 

I understand where people are coming from. I've not always talked about bodily functions with the same ease with which I discuss the weather. When I was nine I went through a phase where the only word I would use to describe, and only when absolutely necessary, what I deemed to be an inappropriate and uncivilized bodily function, was excrement. Or if I was feeling particularly causal, I would at times say dung. I believed that if I could not sanitize the function itself I could certainly do so with the language I used. There is, however, a fundamental flaw with that logic. 

I do on some level understand that these are trigger words that makes the average person, regardless of geographical origin, uncomfortable. I recognize that are layers of cultural and societal stigmas that are attached to those words. But if you can't talk about a problem openly then you can't authentically discuss the problem. And if you can't even discuss a problem how are you ever going to solve it?

Language both constructs and mimics the social structures of a society. Part of the reason that Mary Daly, a rather infamous leader in feminist theology and the author of Gyn/Ecology, put forth a proposition for the restructuring of the English language is because she recognized that the ideas and values of a society, especially the more oppressive ideologies, are intimately connected to the language coda of that culture and community. The notion of the power of words is fundamental across belief systems. The same is true of Islam. The ceiling of the Dome of the Rock was inscribed with Quranic verses rather than images. This was done because human imagery was not powerful enough to express the transcendence of communing with Allah. But words were. 

When I speak to a sanitation professional who feels uncomfortable speaking the word diarrhea outloud, I am a direct witness to the way cultural taboos manifest themselves as limiters of progress. Yet of all the discussions and interviews I've had, there is one that stand out as an example of openness and forthrightness. 

I had the privilege of interviewing some of the staff members of Sisimpur, the Bangladeshi branch of Sesame Street. Yup, Sesame Street. Sisimpur, the Bangladesh extension of Sesame Street, premiered in 2006. 

When I walked into their office I was prepared to face the same barriers I had faced in all my prior interviews. After all, this is the office of a children's program. If there were ever a group of people that would want to employ as neutral language as possible I assumed it would have to be these guys. It is a testament to the investment and the high intellectual regard Sisimpur (and Sesame Street in general) has for children that these directors of programming had absolutely no qualms about utilizing candid and graphic language to discuss the issues they hoped to address through their workshops and television programs. When speaking with these two men there was never a moment's hesitation for them in using words like menstruation, diarrhea, poop, feces, shit, period, tampons, pads, etc. This acceptance and attention to the needs of women and girls is reflected in Sisimpur's programming. One of the core characters of their show is the character Tuktuki. Tuktuki is the muppet the most closely resembles a human child and is a she. TukTuki was designed to be a clear example for little girls and women all over Bangladesh. It is through her and her skits and actions on the show that message of female empowerment and health are communicated. 

                                             (Me and my new hero Tuktuki)

I've never before truly appreciated the power of a muppet to transform a society. Maybe it's because I grew up with Sesame Street, never analyzing it from on objective perspective, that I've failed to realize thw immense impact it must have had on shaping my ideas and values. Sesame Street and its international counterparts tackle those subjects that other outlets struggle to address. In the South African Version of Sesame Street, Takalani Sesame, they use one of their muppets to dispel harmful myths about HIV, using the muppets to teach children that it's perfectly safe to be friends with, play with, and hold the hands of an HIV positive child. Sisimpur uses Tuktuki to demonstrate how girls should maintain proper hygiene standards, how they should stay in school, and how they should take pride in themselves. What an utterly beautiful use of the power of media and branding. 

            (In a little corner of the office is an ode to all th Sesame Street's all over the world)

There's something transformative that these muppets are able to ignite. They do it across nations from Bangladesh to Israel to South Africa to the US of A. They are not just characters on a children's show. They are the craftsmen of a space that safely allows adults and children to learn and evolve together. As a theater maker and a proponent of the social obligation of theater, I think that Sesame Street and friends are demonstrative of theater at its finest. They are so much more than a kid's show. They are a revolutionary force for a better world. So next time you son or daughter flips on Sesame Street, wherever you are in the world, do yourself a favor and watch it with them. You won't regret it. 

                              (A picture of a Sisimpur workshop)


  1. How much of your ability to become comfortable with these graphic words is due to your experience as an actress? I have found it liberating to be able to assign responsibility for the words I'm using to an author (rather than myself). That comfort eventually spreads to my own words. I'll bet that Sesame Street writers get that same feeling because "Tuktuki said that, not me."

  2. In many ways the Muppets use the process of theater as a kind of reverse medical narrative - by telling personal stories people are able to relate to the information - and they are able to get graphic.