‘Don’t you look nice! Did you get any breakfast this morning?’
The answer was yes and we chorused it with a will. Our enthusiasm might seem surprising but the thing is, our interlocutor was a puppet. Or rather, a muppet. That’s correct. Do not adjust your sets. It was Day 1, members’ day, of the 2018 AVPN Conference in Singapore. On stage were Naina Batra, AVPN CEO, Sherrie Westin of the Sesame Street Workshop and Chamki, a puppet – or rather, a muppet – from the Indian co-production of Sesame Street, Galli Galli Sim Sim. Oh, and Ghazal Javel, her puppeteer.
Sherrie Westin, with some help from Chamki, was explaining the success of the Sesame Street model in educating – quite consciously – children at the critical age of 4-5 (Chamki is a 6 year-old girl – well, muppet). The appetite for it has been a global one. There are versions of Sesame Street in countries across virtually all continents. Puppets like Chamki provide role models for girls that age in societies where such models are often absent. And it’s not only the girls. Carefully set in local cultures and produced in local languages, they also pattern positive behaviour among boys and adults; boys helping with the cooking, fathers getting children ready for school and they are framed in such a way as to appeal both to children and grown-up so that parents will watch with their offspring and the lessons are therefore reinforced. Characters like Chamki are designed to be strong enough to be aspirational, but sufficiently rooted in real circumstances to be believable. In the Afghan version, said Westin, the girl muppet is the most popular TV character among both girls and boys and the boys who watch the show test 29 per cent higher in gender attitudes than those who don’t.
It was testimony, she said, to the power of the media – and, in this case, of muppets – in determining attitudes and behaviour. You could see what she meant. Chamki wouldn’t be put upon. She played to the gallery. She was sassy and not frightened of sharing her opinion. ‘Good speech!’ she told Naina, who introduced the session. Never act with children or animals, they used to say. Or puppets. Or muppets, though Naina dealt with the situation with great aplomb. It also struck me that working a puppet gives you some latitude. It allows you to create a separate persona which somehow everyone else buys into the illusion of. You can take liberties you couldn’t take as yourself. So maybe non-profits should have a puppet with them when they want to tell funders unpalatable truths. The puppet could tell the funders that their reporting requirements are onerous and irrelevant, that they should be funding for longer periods, that they are throwing their weight about too much when it comes to saying how and what should be done…come to think of it, maybe we should all have one.
Andrew Milner is associate editor of Alliance magazine