You are here: American University School of International Service Big World podcast Episode 4: The Soft Power of Muppets

The Soft Power of Muppets

Generations of Americans grew up in front of Sesame Street, but it might surprise you to learn that children all around the world are reciting “Rubber Ducky,” too – in many different languages and alongside characters we’ve never seen.

In this episode Professor Moland joins us to discuss just how Nigeria’s Sesame Square presents a unique case study for the soft power of educational programming abroad, including what the United States hopes to gain by funding the program (03:57) and how the history of Nigeria’s educational infrastructure influences viewership (06:02).

Learn how Big Bird is breaking down barriers and unifying Nigerian identities (15:09) while actively combating extremism amid kidnappings by the terrorist organization Boko Haram (17:14). Also, find out how the revolutionary program is tackling country-specific sensitivities and challenges with local Muppets like the HIV-positive Kami (20:05).

We ask Moland about the peace education policies she would implement to help combat conflict in our “Take Five” segment (08:31), and we learn to understand more about the nuances of identity, including how they help and hinder othering.

0:07    Kay Summers: From the School of International Service at American University in Washington, this is Big World, where we talk about something in the world that truly matters.

0:15    KS: Generations of US children have grown up with Sesame Street. The friendly and approachable adults, the lessons about letters and numbers, and most importantly to some, the Muppet characters like Bert and Ernie, and Oscar the Grouch. But you may not know that many countries have their own versions of Sesame Street, and that the US government helps fund these productions.

0:33    KS: So today, we're talking about the soft power of Muppets. I'm Kay Summers and I'm joined by Naomi Moland. Naomi is a professor in the School of International Service. She researches and teaches on global media and international education, and she's also author of the forthcoming book, "Can Big Bird Fight Terrorism? Children's Television as Soft Power in Nigeria."

0:53    KS: Naomi, thanks for joining Big World.

0:55     Naomi Moland: Thanks so much for having me. I'm excited to be here.

0:59    KS: Naomi, Sesame Street is as close to a shared cultural experience as many Americans can claim. What people may not know is that the US government funds versions abroad. Tell me a little bit about these other versions. Do they have the same names? Do they have the same characters? Would US people recognize them? Just tell us about those.

1:19     NM: So it's a little hard to keep track of the count, because some come on and off production over the years and what not, but right now I think there's about more than 30 versions of the show around the world that are viewed in 150+ countries. So I would say that most American viewers would recognize it as being related to Sesame, but the programs do have some of the same characters. So usually what Sesame Workshop, which is the organization that helps to produce these versions around the world ... They aim to have at least 50% of the content on any given show be locally produced, and then about 50% comes from what they call library assets, which are pieces of the American version of Sesame Street that might be put in there, or pieces of other global versions of Sesame Street. So the Nigerian version of Sesame Street might have a segment on it that was produced for Gali Gali Sim Sim in India, which is one of the programs.

2:14     NM: So, for example, on the Nigerian version of Sesame Street, they have two of their own Muppets, Kami and Zobi. Kami is an orange monster about six years old, and Zobi is a blue monster of indeterminate age. He's kind of a Cookie Monster type character. He's large. They call him a sack puppet. I would say that even though they're very localized to different countries, there's definitely common themes that make them look somewhat the same.

2:39     NM: I would also say that their goals overall fall into a few different categories that generally are the same around the world. Early academic skills, like counting and your alphabet, and early social skills, like cooperation, taking turns, the importance of emotions and understanding our emotions. And then also in the American show, and really around the world, there's been a major focus on mutual respect and understanding between diverse groups.

3:07     NM: So in the United States, it was really a revolutionary show in the late 1960s because it had an integrated cast, and that was seen as very revolutionary at the time to the extent that it was even banned in certain states because it was seen as too radical, of having black and white characters who lived on the same street, but that's been a focus around the world of trying to promote integration of ethnic groups, religions, or whatever the sort of lines of difference are.

3:32    KS: So let's talk a little bit about the government's role in this. So in your upcoming book about the Nigerian version of Sesame Street called Sesame Square, you write the the US government believes in the power of education as a form of soft power and a way to spread American goodwill. So what role does children's education and media play in US foreign policy, and what do you think the US is attempting to achieve through programming like Sesame Square?

3:57     NM: I'll start with the answer that I don't know exactly what the US government is trying to accomplish. I have some ideas. I've spoken with some people at USAID over the course of my research, and I hope to continue to do that more. Usually when I ask them about their purposes in funding programs like Sesame Street, they really talk about the importance of education, and how education is a major tool to prevent conflict as well as to promote equality in different societies and what not, and so they're really focused on especially countries that have a lot of difficulties with education, or a lot of children who aren't in schools that way.

4:38     NM: But I also know from my research and from other ... That of course that kind of development project, like using education as a form of, quote-unquote, "developing a country" is always tied to American interests as well. And so Nigeria, for example, is a country of great national interest to the United States. It has an enormous amount of oil resources. It's also just a powerhouse in West Africa, and really throughout the continent as the most populous country in sub-Saharan Africa and Africa in general.

5:06    KS: Talking a little bit about the audience. So, tell us what you know about Sesame Square's Nigerian audience, as in how many children are watching Sesame Square, what kind of reach does it have, and are these kids located throughout Nigeria and spanning ethnic groups? Tell us a little bit about them.

5:25     NM: So getting kind of ratings data is very difficult in Nigeria. It's difficult here, but in Nigeria there's nothing like Nielsen's ratings, or that sort of thing. But Sesame Workshop and a research organization called Market Research Consultancy did a viewership study in 2014. So the program was originally launched in 2011, and they did a viewership study in 2014, and they found that Sesame Square was the second most watched children's TV show in Nigeria. It's hard to gauge. I mean, Nigeria has 190+ million people, so it's hard to kind of gauge that in terms of what the overall target audience is.

6:02     NM: The country is often divided into the north and the south, with the north being predominantly Muslim, and the south being predominantly Christian. It's much more complicated than that, but that's the way that many people sort of perceive the divisions in the country. And ethnic groups also line up to that to some degree. Not completely, but to some degree, so that the north is predominantly Hausa and Muslim, and the south is predominantly Igbo in the southeast and Yoruba in the southwest, and predominantly Christian. And, again, there's hundreds of ethnic groups in Nigeria. I'm just naming a few of the big ones.

6:39     NM: But in the viewership study that was done in 2014, it actually showed the the program was more popular in the north of Nigeria, which is the part of Nigeria that's been traditionally less developed. It has lower levels of education. And one of the reasons that they stated for that was many parts of that country up there have less access to cable and less access to DSTV, digital TV. So a lot of children in the south, especially that are more wealthy or maybe more connected in some ways to western media, they are watching Cartoon Network and the Disney Channel, and Sesame Square has more to compete with.

7:20    KS: So in the north it's more like it was in the US in the '60s and '70s, with no cable, and you had PBS, right?

7:25     NM: Perhaps. Yeah, where you've got very limited children's television, and you might have five channels on your TV, and what not. So it might have more popularity.

7:36     NM: But also in northern Nigeria, especially northeast Nigeria, has been the site where Boko Haram has been most active, and so millions ... Like two and a half million, probably more at this point, of people have fled. Electricity is intermittent throughout the country, but especially in parts of northeast Nigeria, so of course you wonder are children who are fleeing their homes who are under attack in some ways who don't have electricity, obviously they're not likely to be watching television, having access to television at all.

8:13    KS: Naomi, it's time to take five. Time to reorder the world as you'd like it to be. If you could right now single handedly institute five policies that would change the world for the better, what would they be? And specifically, for you, what five ways would you use peace education to counter conflict?

8:31     NM: So, number one: I would say in a larger way is that we have to protect education from being attacked. So in Nigeria, for example, 1,200 schools have been destroyed in the last five or six years or so, mostly by Boko Haram, but also in fights between the Nigerian government and Boko Haram. So you're talking about almost three million children in Nigeria without access to education, so at a very basic level, we have to protect children's right to go to school. If they can't go to school, then that's going to cause all kinds of long term problems in preventing or countering conflict in the future.

9:10     NM: So the second one, which I think is related to that, is just that we need to both focus on the quote-unquote "hard skills" in schools, as well as the soft skills. So the hard academic access. We know that children who have higher levels of literacy and numeracy and the academic skills are less likely to enter into conflict.

9:34     NM: Another way, kind of zooming in more on education, is really thinking about how can we foster integration in education? So many places around the world, schools are segregated, and that has all kinds of long term effects for segregation in society. Certain ethnic groups or religious groups go to certain schools, which means they don't interact with each other. They don't know each other, which really feeds into the kind of "othering" and "us versus them."

10:02     NM: Another one I would say, and this is a complex one, is in educational efforts, to really focus on hybrid identities and on commonalities between groups, and so one of my critiques that I raise of sort of multicultural education in general is this celebration of diversity, which oftentimes means reifying boundaries between groups, and saying, "This is African American History month," and "This is what the Arab people do," and sort of categorizing that way in a way that's meant to try to start educating people about characteristics of a group, but can end up exacerbating stereotypes, and sort of remarking lines between groups.

10:43     NM: And this is something that Sesame tries to do is really to show the commonalities between kids, and also show that, even at a very young age, kids can understand we're all parts of different identity groups, and some of those identity groups overlap, and some of them don't. But trying to sort of present more complex examples of identities that way, I think, is a really important goal.

11:07     NM: And then last ... So because what I was looking at was what happens when outsiders bring peace education into sort of a conflict area, I would say that in an ideal world, I would love for every educational organization or media organizations doing a project in another country to have someone from that organization to live there for a year. And we've been talking for decades about the importance of localization, the importance of understanding the context where you work, and that's just something that's not feasible for most organizations. So at Sesame Workshop, if they have programs that are in 150 countries now around the world, they can't have their producers or educators or script writers spend that much time in any one of those given countries, and so I see easily what the barriers are to that, but I also think that it's so crucial to understand that deep context. So I think that those are some of the complexities.

12:05     NM: So I think that was five.

12:06    KS: Wow, the world that you run is really complicated.

12:11     NM: Yeah, it keeps me up at night.

12:18    KS: Thank you.

12:18    KS: So I think that you write that Sesame Square, in addition to being intended to promote ethnic and religious tolerance, is also intended to promote a sense of national unity in Nigeria. So pulling back from the show and taking a wider look at Nigeria's history as a former British colony, and as the home of, as you mentioned, lots of non-majority ethno-religious groups of people, why is the message of national unity especially difficult to craft and have heard in Nigeria? And do you think the show is having any success in that endeavor?

12:57     NM: So there's very key historical reasons for divisions in Nigeria, which are, in some ways, very similar to the post colonial story around the world, that there are the northern parts of Nigeria and the southern parts of Nigeria were governed very differently by British colonists. The northern part already had a very successful and established Islamic caliphate when the British came, and so the British sort of ruled that area more indirectly, saying "They already have their own political system. We're not going to really mess with this so much." Whereas in southern Nigeria, it was much more small and isolated kingdoms and what not, where the colonists were much more direct colonialism, including building schools, building churches. They allowed missionaries into southern Nigeria, and they did not in northern Nigeria because they knew that that would cause conflict with the Muslim majority there.

13:51     NM: As a result, though, because missionaries were the only ones running schools in those days, as a result, at independence in 1960, there were huge educational discrepancies between southern Nigeria and northern Nigeria.

14:04     NM: So one statistic that sticks in my mind ... I hope I have this approximately right ... Is in northeast Nigeria now, where Boko Haram is most active, the literacy rates are about 17% for people over 15, and in southwest Nigeria, it's like 70%. So just enormous gaps. So those kinds of economic and educational gaps continue to divide the country.

14:28     NM: And then the fact, like I mentioned before, that religion, ethnicity, and region kind of map onto each other in a lot of ways. I think some political scientists would talk about those boundaries as sort of triple or quadruple marked, so there's very little integration where the same ethnic group is the same religion in the same region of the country, and they're unlikely to be integrated or to be exposed to people in other parts of the country. So that in many parts of Nigeria, people think of themselves as Yoruba, then as Christian, then maybe as their state or something, and then maybe last as Nigerian.

15:06    KS: This is a bigger issue than one children's program could possibly hope to ...

15:09     NM: Absolutely. Yeah. And so there are very explicit national unity messages on Sesame Square. There's songs about "I love my country," "I know a lot about my country because I care," "Nigeria, my beloved country, your future is you and me." I would sing it for you, but that would be painful.

15:27    KS: Maybe some trademark issues, too. I don't know.

15:30     NM: Exactly, right?

15:31     NM: Briefly on the point of language ... And so one of the goals like I had said earlier was to have the whole program in English as a way to promote national unity in some ways, because that was seen as the national language. But, again, because of the educational discrepancies I spoke of earlier, many children in northern Nigeria don't speak English. Many fewer speak English in the north than in the south, because there's been less education, there's been less westernization, et cetera. And so after they did the viewership study in 2014, they got a lot of feedback that more kids would watch if it was in Hausa. So then in 2015, they launched the Hausa version of the show, and they started broadcasting some of the episodes that were dubbed completely into Hausa.

16:15     NM: But that was very controversial among the creators, because some of the creators of the show said, "Hey, if kids want to be a part of this country, they need to learn English. English is our national language. If we're ever going to be able to communicate with one another and build any sort of nation feeling, we need to have a shared language." But then, ultimately, that was seen to be contradictory with the educational goals of the program because kids in the north couldn't understand.

16:39    KS: You mentioned 2015 when that Hausa version began airing. Previous year is when extremist group Boko Haram, as you've mentioned, kidnapped 300 school age girls and brought international attention to their attacks across Nigeria. So do you think that Sesame Square creators see themselves as producing shows that are responding to terrorism in any way, perhaps by helping children make sense of extremist violence, or teaching lessons that they thought could prevent future violence? Are they addressing this in any overt way?

17:14     NM: In terms of how Sesame saw themselves as addressing that, I would say it was never overt. They never mentioned Boko Haram on the program. They never mentioned terrorism, of course.

17:25     NM: So Boko Haram, the name is translated into "Western Education is Forbidden," which presents a particularly intense context for education on Sesame in general, of course. So I think in some ways, they saw just the provision of education in some way, even if it's via this television show, might be a way to help equalize different inequalities in Nigeria as well as a way to, of course, give children the kinds of skills and literacies that they need to be able to resist extremist messages that way.

18:03    KS: The basic idea that has held true across different cultures is that education is kind of the antidote to extreme behavior, right?

18:12     NM: Definitely, yeah. And we can critique that idea, or we can talk about how it's much more complicated than that, but there you're not even talking necessarily ... That's just basic, basic academic messages.

18:22    KS: So a little bit more about Sesame Square. Sesame Street in the US has always tried to help kids understand the world and the people in it, and reflect a picture in which everyone can see themselves. We talked about how radical that was at the time, and it's been something that Sesame Street has built into their core, and has continued to do over time. So the show introduced Julia, a Muppet with autism, in 2017 to help children watching understand kids with autism. So I know on Sesame Square the Muppet Kami is a young HIV-positive girl, and I'm imagining the creators had to carefully design her to avoid suggesting that certain groups of people have HIV, which is always a danger. What kinds of other real world consequences do creators have to think through as they balance producing shows on a schedule, and being sensitive to potential negative impacts of their characters and stories? And I guess, kind of in a larger sense, what concerns are specific to Nigeria?

19:25     NM: Sesame does a phenomenal job of breaking it into a couple of very key messages. I haven't learned a ton about Julia, but Julia is sensitive to loud noises, and she reacts differently than some kids, and sometimes she needs alone time. Very simple messages that don't go into anything super complicated, but ...

19:49    KS: And introducing her brought it out into the public discourse in a way that people had not discussed children with autism before. That was the first time I heard the word "neuro typical." I had never heard that before, so I think that's part of the power of that with that character. Is that the same thing in Nigeria, I guess?

20:05     NM: Comparing it to the situation with the HIV Muppet ... So, Kami, the HIV Muppet, was first developed in South Africa for the show Takalani Sesame, and there the curriculum around her was much broader and much more deliberate and evolved. I think this was like 2004 or so, and it was very much the height of the HIV crisis. In terms of how do you choose a character that then represents that, and what are the messages, how do you break that down into very simple messages for children about ... And they do, they break it down into very simple ... Like, "Be careful around blood. Whenever you cut yourself, you should tell a parent." And the main message is really you can be friends with someone who's HIV positive, and you can't catch the disease from being friends with them, or hugging them. Boom, that's it. Very simple messages that are put out that way.

20:56     NM: But there was I know in South Africa this question of "Do we make this character black? Do we make this character white? Do we make this character look like he or she is from a certain ethnic group?" And then it was sort of like, "Bingo! We'll make her orange." And so in a way, that was a way that they could escape the discussions about ethnicity.

21:15     NM: But with Kami and Zobi, including their names, because usually you can tell somebody's ethnicity by their name, so they chose their names to be ethnically neutral so they didn't refer to any one ethnic group. Their clothing ... Kami wears a vest sometimes. Zobi doesn't wear anything. So that's not an issue. But the way that they talk, everything was very much seen to be ethnically neutral, which was for the purposes of making the show look pan Nigeria, appeal to everybody. But in this case, it also served to make sure that Kami, as an HIV positive character, wasn't tied to any ethnic group, or socioeconomic class, or region of the country, or anything like that.

21:54    KS: So kind of pulling back, as you look at the role of children's education in media in US foreign policy, kind of bringing us back to where we started with the US funding some of these different versions, what are the positive impacts? What does the US feel they have achieved here?

22:15     NM: I think there is definitely positive impacts. I think one of the huge things with the Sesame Co. Productions is ... Some people ask me, "Isn't it American imperialism in some kind of ways? Does the show look American? Is the show teaching American values to kids abroad?" And what not. I think all of those are good questions to ask, and questions that I ask myself, but also the fact that these programs, in many ways, are the most localized thing on television because most children's television ...

22:48     NM: So let's just say Nigeria, for example. So even though, yes, of course it has a lot of American influence, it has tons of segments with Nigerian children in it. Nigerian children from across the country, from rural areas, from urban areas. The rest of what kids are watching in Nigeria, and we know from this viewership study and in general, Barney is huge. Dora the Explorer. Tom and Jerry. Tom and Jerry is really popular. But so of all those shows, those are not localized at all. Those are completely the way that they have always been, and so even by creating a partially localized show ...

23:26     NM: And I mean, I've always been pretty impressed with Sesame's efforts to really ... They work deeply with local production teams, with advisors, educational advisers, health advisers, what not — in country — to really create a program that looks local to the country. Again, with the belief that kids will see themselves in it and be more likely to watch it, and be more likely to learn from it that way.

23:50     NM: So I think that's a huge positive impact that the program is having around the world is localized media. Even though that's kind of ironic, that the United States is the one that's funding it in some cases. But they have that dedication to local that way.

24:10     NM: It's a big question mark right now to see where our government, our current administration, goes with soft power in general. Trump and Haley, the current ambassador to the UN, has been quoted as saying we don't do soft power. There's been conversations about decreasing aid to other countries, and what's the point of this. So I think that's a real question mark. In some ways, I can sort of critique a lot of these soft power and cultural diplomacy efforts because they're very fraught in many ways, but I also believe that sort of abandoning them whole scale would be disastrous.

24:44     NM: And many people are talking right now about the end of diplomacy, and what's happened in terms of ... And what are the possible long term consequences of that, and the risks of that. It's really hard to know. If a child in Nigeria watches, or a child in Afghanistan watches Sesame Street in their country, are they more likely to like the United States better? Or to say, "Oh, the United States is a place where they value education, and they value children, and they value tolerance, and peace..." I don't know. I think that's a very hard question to ask. Impossible to measure.

25:21     NM: But I also don't think that the only good things in the world are things that can be measured.

25:27    KS: All right. This is the absolute last question. I lied before.

25:30     NM: Okay. It's okay.

25:30    KS: Are you a chaos Muppet or an order Muppet? Very important.

25:33     NM: Okay, good. Hmm. I don't think I've ever quite classified them in that way. I'm going to say usually I tend ... I really love Grover.

25:45    KS: Me, too!

25:46     NM: Yeah. I'm guessing he'd fall into the chaos.

25:48    KS: I think he is. I've always thought of him as kind of an orderly chaos though, right? He's always trying to make sense of it, even though he's right in the middle of the of whirlwind, yeah.

25:56     NM: But he's also trying to ... Yeah. He's causing a lot of the chaos sometimes, but he's not aware that he is or whatever. Yeah. And there was a Grover in Nigeria.

26:06    KS: Oh, that's awesome.

26:07     NM: He did this great segment called Global Grover, where he travels around the world, and brings back different artifacts.

26:13    KS: I love it.

26:13     NM: Yeah.

26:14    KS: Naomi, thank you for joining Big World and talking with me about the soft power of Muppets.

26:19     NM: You're very welcome. I enjoyed it. Thank you.

26:21    KS: Big World is a production of the School of International Service and American University. Our theme music is "It Was Just Cold" by [Andrew Codeman 00:26:27]. Until next time.

Episode Guest

Naomi Moland,
Professor, SIS

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