A Sesame Street divorce episode — not the show’s first grapple with the topic — is one that is a potentially touchy topic for the legacy children’s show in 2012 when “family values” is a word that often leads to spittle-laced ranting about the erosion of wholesome topics and alleged brainwashing of kids.
But in context, the Sesame Street divorce arc makes total sense. In some ways, Sesame Street has become a touchstone for American families, a not-always-idealized look into the modern family in this nation and their joys and struggles alike.
Last year, before the Sesame Street divorce topic was introduced, the show was accused of espousing unacceptable levels of liberal compassion when it covered the sad but very real topic of food insecurity — in a time when many American children don’t know where their next meal is coming from and fear hunger. A new muppet named Lily, who was 7 and “food insecure,” appeared on a PBS special to address the topic to small kids in similar situations.
But that’s not the first time that Sesame Street has tackled a topic that is difficult. I am old enough to have been four when the “Farewell, Mr. Hooper” episode aired to deal with the real-life death of the man who portrayed the show’s kindly grocery vendor. And for us 80s kids, it was a definitely positive bit of honesty when death inevitably came to be a real issue for us as well.
The Sesame Street divorce episode confronts a topic (like death or hunger) that is a sometimes-unfortunate reality for many American families. While no one likes to discuss the end of a marriage, a great number do indeed end — and kids often struggle to contextualize their own feelings on the matter.
Sesame Street tried to tackle divorce in the early 80s as it became a larger concern for American families, but the episode — titled “Snuffy’s Parents Get A Divorce” — was ultimately shelved as too controversial when test groups were perplexed by the topic. And indeed, the 1982 divorce framing is, by 2012 standards, a bit raw, real, and honest for small kids.
TIME and Tumblr grabbed a bit of dialogue that is, in retrospect, heartbreaking:
“‘My dad is moving out of our cave,’ Snuffy confides to Big Bird one afternoon, distraught after knocking over a house built of blocks. ‘I’m not sure where,’ he continues, crying. ‘Some cave across town.’
“Big Bird, naturally, is horrified. ‘But why?’ he asks his friend.
“Snuffy blinks his long, dark eyelashes and pauses. We know what’s coming. Well, he explains, ‘because of something called a divorce.’ “
For today, the Sesame Street divorce discussion will be handled a bit more organically and casually, using the popular new character Abby Cadabby. It still tugs at the heartstrings — my own niece, also named Abby, adores the show and the puppet who bears her name. And like Abby Cadabby, my Abby also is a toddler with two homes, one who would be thrilled to know her television counterpart’s life looks a bit like hers.
Below, you can watch a clip on the Sesame Street divorce topic handling both then and now. Do you think it’s a good time for the show to address a topic so many kids face in 2012?