Sunny Days?: Sesame Street, Prisons and the Politics of Justice – The Feminist Wire | The Feminist Wire

With Nelson Mandela’s funeral on the television, Sammy, who is 6, turned to me with a question that quickly grabbed my attention. Having already discussed his death, his activism, and apartheid, Sammy was very aware of Madiba’s struggles for justice. Listening to the commentators praise Mandela for his courage and beautiful spirit, he asked, “if he was so good, why would they put him in jail.” Inundated with messages that prisons are for bad people, he was clearly processing what felt like an incongruity of a heroic Mandela being locked up in a place that is suppose to be for bad people. This wasn’t the first time we’d engaged this topic, having pushed him to think about how PlayMobile imagines the world within its “police set,” which has police and robbers. We spent many minutes discussing why someone might steal and how such choices don’t inherently make someone a bad person. These conversations are never easy; they are messy and complex, which is made that much more difficult by the simplistic messages disseminated within kid’s culture. This past summer, I was hopeful when I learned that Sesame Street would shed light on the issue of mass incarceration.

Reflecting its history of engaging broader social realities (divorce, AIDS, death, perpetual war culture), Sesame Street broke the mainstream media’s relative silence regarding children of incarcerated parents in 2013. It introduces viewers to Alex, whose father is in jail. Upset by queries from friends about “where his Dad is,” Alex eventually tells the group that he’s in jail. Sofia notes that her dad was also “incarcerated” leading Abby Cadabby to ask, “what’s carcerate?” In response, she notes, “When someone breaks law, a grown-up rule, they have to go to prison or jail.” In another segment Murray and Nylo talk about the emotional difficulties of living with a family member in prison, emphasizing the importance of conversation and love. Another segment documents a little girl visiting her father, describing the bus ride, the rules, the sights, sounds, and emotional trauma of only getting to see a loved one within these conditions. Given the erasure of the impact of incarceration on families and the refusal to humanize those “made to disappear,” Sesame Street’s intervention is important.

The reaction to the Alex character was predicable; it highlights the importance of challenging dominant representations of prisons and incarcerated people and the dialects between America’s prison nation and its collective consciousness regarding those locked up.

Continue reading at Sunny Days?: Sesame Street, Prisons and the Politics of Justice – The Feminist Wire | The Feminist Wire.

“Can I Have Another Snack?” The Trials and Tribulations of Parents and Food | The Feminist Wire

“Can I Have Another Snack?” The Trials and Tribulations of Parents and Food

November 12, 2012

By David J. Leonard


Food is always a challenge on the parental grind. Whether competing with commercials that highlight the nutritional value of the latest sugary cereal (food coloring, sugar, corn syrup, and FIBER) or the newest cross marketing promotion that requires a burger to secure “that thing,” I often find myself fighting an uphill battle. If only fast food “restaurants” and tween characters were in the business of selling apples and broccoli, I might find the challenge a little less taxing.

While the challenges of competing with hyper-marketed, colorful, and processed sugar delivered in various shapes and sizes is nothing new, I have found the struggle to be especially difficult with my oldest daughter (almost 9) over the last year. Partially reflecting her increased independence – the ability to get her own food from the pantry – and her growing appetite that has not resulted in an expanded menu, I have really had to look inward to evaluate my own reactions. Is my concern about her intake a normal response to children’s insatiable desire for unhealthy yet appealing foods? Is this about my failures as a parent, as someone running around, pulled in different directions, and thus unable or unwilling to have the conversations and the battles over the difference between fresh fruit and packaged fruit snacks? Or is it a gendered reaction particular to my buying into society’s demands about female beauty and skinniness? In other words, is this specific to my daughter, whereupon my level of awareness when it comes to my son will be different? I don’t know the answer to these questions, which is telling in itself.

I have found myself in dialogue with myself, asking often if my reaction is wrapped up in the gendered policing of girls’ and women’s bodies? For example, is it two cookies is too much or two cookies for her is too much? In this regard, am I giving voice to the daily lessons widely disseminated in the media and countless other institutions? Am I serving as a conduit of these destructive and hurtful lessons? Whether I am subconsciously buying into these societal beauty standards, merely trying to “protect” her from a sexist society (or harmful foods), or simply just trying to get her to eat in healthy ways, these moments have forced introspection as a parent. They have forced me to think about my own capitulation, wondering if the lessons learned from media, from schools, from everyday interactions, those grounded in misogyny and sexism, are impacting my parental choices.

While the efforts to empower our children with food knowledge (yes, fruit snacks are not fruit; 100% fruit juice doesn’t mean right squeezed into the bottle) and to provide knowledge so that kids can make good choices about what they put in their bodies through their own lives, I also find myself worrying about how my parenting, how the arguments about food, how the struggles about soda or snacks, may have a deleterious impact on her in the long term. That is, is making food into a source of conflict a problem in itself? Anthony T. DeBenedet, explores the larger issues at work here:

Sure, promoting healthy eating, regardless of one’s weight or age, seems like a positive thing on the surface. But here’s the potential downside: We know kids and teens react differently than adults to external pressures like persistent messaging. Sometimes these pressures can translate into incredible waves of anxiety and fear. At the extreme, a healthy-weight youth could be pushed to monitor his weight more frequently or even begin an unsupervised diet — behaviors that might represent an impending eating disorder.

continue reading at “Can I Have Another Snack?” The Trials and Tribulations of Parents and Food | The Feminist Wire.

NewBlackMan: Permanent Markers: Race & The Cultural Politics of Tattoos


Permanent Markers: Race & The Cultural Politics of Tattoos

by Lisa Guerrero and David J. Leonard | NewBlackMan

We’re sports fans. We enjoy most sports, but basketball is really our true love. And typically during this time of year love is in the air. However, with the owners continuing to deny us our NBA (I want my, I want my NBA), we are forced to fill the void with something besides more football. Lucky for us, we’re also what’s known in the postmodern lexicon as “foodies,” so we have been distracting our lovelorn, NBA-deprived hearts with cooking shows. From the more competitive shows like Top Chef to the voyeuristic and instructional options on Food Network, we have found ourselves watching a lot more cooking shows than normal.

Besides becoming formidable cooks in our own right, our increased viewing of food television programming has brought to light interesting connections between the masters of the hard wood and the masters of the hard boil. Both are bound together by the shared creativity found in the kitchen and on the court, the competitive spirits, and the emphasis on spontaneity, but it is the prevalence of tattoos in both worlds that offers a particularly rich perspective on the popular discursive signs placed on racialized bodies, the continued absence of class in the framing of our understanding of pop culture, and the curiously linked, yet distinct place of the baller and the chef in the American consciousness of the 21st century.

In her 2010 story in LA Weekly: “Chefs with Tattoos: A colorful rebellion against kitchen rules,” Amy Scattergood says “Cooks turn to tattoos as a preferred expression of individualism, a form of rebellion against kitchen environments that demand conformity. For chefs, as for prisoners, soldiers, and NBA point guards, a tattoo is a mark that can be worn with the uniform.” And interesting list of tattoo aficionados, indeed; all in various ways are linked, albeit differentially, to notions of containment and discipline. Setting this differential aside for a moment, it is interesting to consider the sociocultural code of transgression mapped onto the very literal “markers” of tattoos. Focusing specifically on the popular trending of tattoo art in the late-20th century into the 21st century, the intersecting meanings of rebellion, creativity, and individualism are framed through selective lenses depending on who is “rebelling” or asserting their “individuality,” and against or for whom.

Chefs don’t typically invoke fear in the imagination of the public at large. Though the contemporary cliché surrounding the “chef narrative” is that they are the “new rock stars,” it is largely a romanticized version of professional chefs stoked by the ever-increasing fascination with commodified foodie culture, and is reified by a performative rebellion that isn’t linked to any substantive notions of danger (unless you count being afraid of a chef spitting in your food). Some trace this “bad boy” chef image to the emergence and popularity of Anthony Bourdain, whose own performative rebel persona, replete with foul mouth, cranky disposition, heavy drinking, and daredevil attitude toward food cultures, is actually elaborate window dressing for an articulate, thoughtful, passionate and skilled professional.

But the “bad boy” chef who is rude, rule-breaking, and crass, of which Bourdain is the originator, is a much hotter commodity than the staid notion of chefs as proper, regimented, and classy. And tattoos serve as a shorthand for this image. When you see a sleeve of tats peeking out from the crisp chef’s jacket the popular translation is that the food is somehow more adventurous, more desirable, more creative because there’s a dash of transgression in it. As Brendan Collins, chef-owner of Waterloo & City is quoted by Scattergood as saying: “We’re all degenerates at heart. If I hadn’t found cooking, I’d probably be in prison.” But of course, he’s not. He’s actually a classically-trained chef who, at 34, owns his own restaurant in Southern California. A real gangster.

This brings us back to the idea of the differential relationship to containment and discipline of various tattooed populations, and the two main reasons why the commodified image of the tattooed rebel chef is problematic. First, though it is true that many of today’s most popular and celebrated chefs have working class, hard-scrabble backgrounds, the elite training most (though not all) have, and the elite echelons they have reached professionally setting the palates of mainly monied classes, puts their tattooed markings in a very different light than those of prisoners, soldiers, and NBA point guards, just for example. For the chefs, it becomes a little like dress-up. Meanwhile, their rebel personas render invisible the class and labor realities of the line cooks, apprentices, and other kitchen staff who provide the central foundation for the success of the head chefs.

Continue reading @NewBlackMan: Permanent Markers: Race & The Cultural Politics of Tattoos.

My newest piece @NewBlackMan: Elmo and the “Beloved Community”: The Conservative Right’s Assault on Sesame Street

Elmo and the “Beloved Community”:

The Conservative Right’s Assault on Sesame Street

by David J. Leonard | NewBlackMan

Over the summer, Ben Shapiro, while making an appearance on Fox News’ Hannity, “jokingly” announced his desire to “cap” the characters of Sesame Street. He followed this up with more “serious” criticisms, denouncing America’s favorite kid’s show because of its “soft bigotry of low expectations,” its promotion of “gender neutral language,” and its advocacy to “give boys dolls and girls fire trucks.” The other members of Hannity’s “great all-American” panel similarly spoke about the downgrading of America’s moral fabric, seemingly linking the messages of Sesame Street to the cultural wars. The Huffington Post describes his criticism of Sesame Street in the following way:

Chief amongst Shapiro’s alleged liberal offenders is Sesame Street, the Jim Henson-created educational show carried on PBS, the public network with few conservative fans or defenders.

Citing interviews with one of the show’s creators, early episodes of the show featuring hippies and racial reconciliation and, more recently, incidents such as 2009’s “Pox News” controversy, Shapiro writes that “Sesame Street tried to tackle divorce, tackled ‘peaceful conflict resolution’ in the aftermath of 9/11 and had Neil Patrick Harris on the show playing the subtly-named ‘fairy shoeperson.'”

Patrick Harris, to Shapiro’s chagrin, is gay. And, even scarier, Cookie Monster says cookies are only a sometimes food now; the venerable sweets machine has added fruits and vegetables to his diet, indicating a major liberal plot.

On Martin Bashir’s show on MSNBC, Shapiro similarly denounced children’s television for promoting “a self-esteem ethos, the idea that, to paraphrase Barney ‘everyone is special’; an unearned self-esteem.”

The attacks on Sesame Street (and by extension the liberal media and big government intrusion in family matters) are nothing new. A 1992 column in The Economist similarly denounced Sesame Street as a liberal assault on American values:

The problem comes when the sensible tolerance and respect of “Sesame Street” are mutated into something less appealing. First, it becomes a kind of hypertolerance (which argues, for example, that the canon of black female authors is as rich as that of white male authors); which is merely silly. Second, it becomes an intolerance of those who do not practice this hyper-tolerance (so that anyone who argues that a canon of authors who happen to be white and male is better than the one picked by sex and skin color is a racist sexist); which is pernicious. It is the intolerance that has come to be called “political correctness”—or PC (Sesame Street, the acceptable face 1992, A30).

The criticisms that “multiculturalism” or “tolerance” represents a vehicle for the “intolerance” for dominant values (white, Christian, middle-class) that have purportedly been central to America’s historic greatness are common to the broader culture. Equally troubling to those critics of Sesame Street is not only tax-payer support for a program that is neither intended for white-middle class audiences (Shapiro notes the history behind Sesame Street), but in their mind devalues whiteness for the sake of multiculturalism agenda.

To understand this criticism and to comprehend the right’s denunciation of Sesame Street mandates an examination of this larger history and the ways in which Sesame Street has built upon the civil rights movements and those concerned with justice, equality, and fairness. In 1979, The New York Times identified the primary focus of Sesame Street as the “4-year-old inner-city black youngster.” Jennifer Mandel, in “The Production of a Beloved Community: Sesame Street’s Answer to America’s Inequalities,” argues that while the original intended audience for the show was “disadvantaged urban youth” who suffered because of “the limited availability of preschool education” the appeal and impact of the show transcended any particular demographic. While addressing structural inequalities and countering the systemic failures in America’s educational television was part of the show’s mission, it more masterfully offered a utopic vision of America and the broader world.

continue reading at NewBlackMan: Elmo and the “Beloved Community”: The Conservative Right’s Assault on Sesame Street.

NewBlackMan: Black Sambo 2.0? New Media Technology and the Persistence of Racist Representations


Black Sambo 2.0?

New Media Technology and the Persistence of Racist Representations

by David J. Leonard | NewBlackMan

New media technology is changing the landscape of television. At one level, the emergence of web-based television, along with platforms like YouTube, provides a space for historically ignored themes and silenced voices within popular culture. I previously wrote about the potential during a discussion of The LeBrons, which “highlights how new media technologies provide modern black athletes (among others) tools to define their own image and message, partially apart from those ‘restrictive script,’ yet bound by the dominant discourse and accepted images.”

Reflecting on this cultural and technological shift, Aymar Christen Jean argues that the golden age of black television has ended. He notes further that the potential afforded by new media technologies are significant in challenging the white hegemony of American television culture: “In this early stage, the writing and production values are uneven. But when you throw in social-networking possibilities online, the emergence of original Web programming can only be good news for black art and expression.” Writing about the brilliant and rightly celebrated The Misadventures of AWKWARD Black Girl, Britni Danielle highlights the transformative potential residing in Web 2.0. “It’s official, the best shows featuring Black people are not on BET, TVOne, NBC, or any other TV channel. The best shows featuring interesting Black characters are on the web,” writes Danielle. “In times like these, when TV shows and films featuring interesting Black characters are missing from most mainstream outlets, it’s nice to see that many (and I do mean many) are taking matters into their own hands and making their own way.”

While clear, from The Misadventures of AWKWARD Black Girl, The New 20s, The LeBrons, Kindred, and Road to the Alter, that the web is emerging as the promise land for the production of black-themed shows and the dissemination of counter-narratives and representations, the frontier of new media technology is also littered with dehumanizing shows as well.

The advance of new media technology, whether on YouTube, I-Tunes, or the totality of the Internet provides a space for the dissemination of racist shows of yesterday, narratives, stereotypes, and episodes that artists fought long and hard to remove from public consumption. William Van De Burg, in New Day in Babylon, documents the ways in which organizations, like the National Black Media Coalition and Black Citizens for Fair Media, fought the continued dissemination of racist imagery. They, along with Asian Americans for Fair Media and others, worked hard to counter those racial images that represented “an explosive psychological force that warps human relationships and wreaks havoc on one’s personal dignity” (Wei, 1993; 51). While movements of the 1960s and 1970s were successful in challenging the presence of dehumanizing representations within network television, the advance of new media has proven to given life to many shows of past generations.

On YouTube, you can find a number of cartoons from the mid-20th century, some of which are explicitly labeled as racist (or banned/censored) cartoons, while others lack specific marking. These cartoons bring into wide circulation the otherwise put into the grave racist televisual moments of yesteryear. For example, on YouTube, “Southern Fried Rabbit” where bugs sings, “I wish I was in Dixie,” also depicts the South as a beautiful oasis in juxtaposition to the barren wasteland of the North. In this episode, Bugs Bunny is presented in blackface, ultimately impersonating a happy slave. At one level, this particular episode is keeping “past” images and narratives alive (the happy slave is clear in circulation as evidence by “pledge”); at another level, it facilitates a space where commentators can rehash and deploy their own racial narratives and ideologies. Claims about permissibility of racist images back then, that it was just entertainment, and simply kid’s stuff are commonplace on YouTube. Likewise, in this episode and in countless others found on YouTube, the history of blackface, of imagining and depicting blackness through dehumanizing imagery is evident.

Continue reading at NewBlackMan: Black Sambo 2.0? New Media Technology and the Persistence of Racist Representations.