The cameras flashed at the Children’s Television Workshop press conference. Reporters timidly dished tough questions while tears streamed down the cheeks of frumpy bearded puppeteers. It was a sad moment for puppets everywhere. For the first time in ages, the sun was not keeping the clouds away from Sesame Street. Naively, the cloth-caped humorists believed they were immune, instead they were reckless and empowered by their own perceived immunity and immortality, but now, finally, HIV/AIDS has befallen one of their own.

Paul Wong

Yes, a friggin’ puppet has HIV.

The unnamed female character (tentatively named “Whorio” at press time) is rumored to be an orphan and has indeed contracted the HIV virus. It is not known or has not been announced how Whorio contracted the illness, but it does lead doctors to believe that it might be possible that the HIV virus can be transferred through the hands. Whorio’s puppet-master has declined blood testing and has not returned my phone calls.

The character is set to debut on “Takalani Sesame” (South Africa’s own “Sesame Street”) and it is undecided what color the new character will be. God help us if they make her black, or white, or red, or any color that any group in the world can associate themselves with because then we’ll no doubt have an excessive amount of complaining about how all of the ‘orange’ people feel like they are being stereotyped as carrying the HIV virus. CTW Vice President Joel Schneider said the new puppet would be very confident and proud. They certainly don’t want to give the impression that HIV is something to be concerned about. Keep the morale high at any cost “Sesame Street.” At any cost.

The possibilities this character opens for the show are endless for the Sesame Street viewer (average ages between three and seven). Schneider maintains that the new character will not explicitly discuss anything about sex or anything that is inappropriate for children to watch. Nevermind the implications that a character with HIV brings along with it. Especially an orphan. Whorio could’ve been molested in a back alley after she was abandoned or seduced by the orphan-headmaster-person or raped by her Catholic priest. But how would a priest get AIDS? That’s for another time.

Let alone the possibilities when Mr. Snuffle-upagus’ trunk is thrown into the mix.

Contrasting news reports from Reuters have indicated that CTW has no plans to bring the character stateside, however, Reuters also reported that negotiations to introduce Whorio to the United States version of the program were already underway.

Special thanks to Reuters for making absolutely no sense with these reports.

In a nation like South Africa where in some areas as many as 40 percent of people have AIDS (again, this a Reuters fact, and it makes little sense. In America, in a hospital, which would be an ‘area’ by definition you could say that 90 percent of people have AIDS – see, worthless) there seems to be some cultural relevance to a character living with HIV. What makes an issue culturally relevant in South Africa doesn’t make it relevant or pressing in the United States. If Schneider’s remarks are true, and the U.S. branch of CTW is in negotiations to bring the character stateside, “Sesame Street” is setting itself up for a Mr. Hooper-like decline. Viewers will rightfully see no reason for their preschool age children to learn about HIV and dealing with an issue so complicated that the majority of adults can’t handle it. There is no reason to burden a child with information that it took a weeping Magic Johnson to break to the public, children don’t need to think about HIV, they need to be concerned with being children.

“Takalani Sesame” will likely deal with tough issues, like what to do when someone cuts their finger, how to properly care for someone carrying a disease, etc. Are these really things that 3-year-olds need to be concerned about? When little Billy cuts his finger open on the dump from his Tonka Truck, will Susie know what to do? These kids can’t even go poo-poo in the potty, let alone have minor medical training.

Another danger found in this is that it diminishes the reality of the disease. Kids will inevitably think, “Oh, the felt puppet has HIV, real people don’t” and yes, I know kids will think that because kids are stupid. And people who try to socialize children with burdensome social issues are stupider.

Yep, stupider.

Luke Smith can be reached at lukems@umich.edu.

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