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Does Sesame Street Promote Killer Whale Abuse? The Answer is Complicated

With its' new attraction at SeaWorld, Sesame Street is dubiously connected to things we'd rather not think about.

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If you are as unhealthily obsessed with Sesame Street as I am, that means the new attraction in fabulous Orlando, Florida sounds pretty damn irresistible. It offers friendly neighbors an opportunity to stroll down a tourist fantasy version of Sesame Street full of rides from everyone’s favorite Muppets. Cookie Monster’s Cookie Drop! Big Bird’s Twirl n’ Whirl! Super Grover’s Box Car Derby! Rubber Duckie Water Works! But there’s a twist. If you want to check this ride out, you’re going to have to be cool with the systematic abuse of killer whales. And that’s because this new Sesame Street attraction is connected to SeaWorld. 

Yes, this new Sesame Street theme park would be ideal were it not for one very big problem: all of these fabulous rides and trains and playgrounds are in Sea World. And ever since I saw the muckraking expose Blackfish back in 2013 I have associated Sea World with the captivity, cruelty, exploitation, and abuse of killer whales. The controversial documentary chronicles the miserable lives of magnificent creatures taken from the wild and forced to live in captivity and perform for the amusement of tourists, a trauma that plays havoc with their lives, health and happiness, as well as the lives, health and happiness of the trainers who work with them, some of whom have died in the line of duty.

I’m not the only person deeply moved by the high-profile documentary. Blackfish was a huge black eye for the American institution. In the wake of the documentary’s horrifying revelations involving the abuse of killer whales, a score of big-name musicians canceled gigs at SeaWorld, including Willie Nelson, the Beach Boys, and Cheap Trick. Scenes at Sea World were cut out of the feature film adaptation of John Green’s Paper Towns and the company’s stock price took a huge hit.

SeaWorld fought back with an aggressive two-front marketing and public relations blitz that simultaneously aggressively emphasized the good work the company did in terms of conservation and attacked the motivations, tactics, and ethics of Blackfish, its makers and its subjects.

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I know that for years I encountered sponsored tweets from Sea World desperately trying to counter Blackfish’s damning portrait of a company that abuses and mistreats the very animals it is sworn to protect. It must have worked. Sea World’s reputation is certainly tarnished but it has nevertheless been rehabilitated to the point where a prestigious organization dedicated to the public good as well as selling your children tons of shit with Elmo’s face on it like Sesame Street was willing to get into business with it in a very big way, in a manner that ensures that their names will be synonymous for years to come.

Here’s the thing: Sesame Street was never really just a television show, or if it was just a television show, it was just a television show for a very brief period of time, a speck in the grand scheme of things. Even at the very beginning Sesame Street was a television show but also children’s books and records and singles and puppets and dolls and a way of seeing the world that was, and remains, deeply kind and humane.

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Those ancillary products made a lot of money and helped the show maintain incredible production values and an unprecedented level of quality and ambition but they also helped spread the humanitarian gospel of Sesame Street, its idealistic, utopian vision of a world where people of all different races and religions and genders could live in harmony with monsters and Muppets and grouches.

These products and projects didn’t just pump money into the organization: they also filled the market with quality children’s books and best-selling videos that are as educational as they are entertaining. Sesame Street is a beloved children’s institution. But it’s also very big business with furry tentacles all over the world.

Sesame Street makes deals. They make lots and lots of deals in lots of different fields all over the world. Some of those deals are very, very good for society as well as Sesame Street, like a Lego-funded 100 million dollar grant to help teach refugee children. Some of those deals are less ambiguously good for society, even if they are good for Sesame Street’s coffers, like when it made the big move to HBO, trading public television for premium cable. And some of those deals are downright problematic, like when Sesame Street decided to partner up with a company with an unfortunate reputation for evil, for abuse, for prioritizing attendance and revenue over the dignity and safety of its underwater stars.

Every day we’re faced with ethical quandaries that force us to make difficult choices. Do we prioritize being a strong ally to the LGTBQ community over our love of the delicious fried chicken of Chick-Fil-A? What is ultimately more important to us as human beings, trans rights or those delicious waffle fries that pair perfectly with the signature sauce?

Companies have to make those tough ethical choices on a daily basis as well. Sesame Street buddying up with folks with a seedy reputation for subjecting poor Flipper and his pals to all sorts of underwater horrors sure feels like the wrong move ethically if not financially.

I will most assuredly not be visiting the new Sesame Street attractions at Sea World but I also won’t be boycotting Sesame Street either. Even with the occasional bum deal and unfortunate association, they’re still overwhelmingly a force for good in the universe and Sea World has cleaned up their act a bit in the aftermath of Blackfish in terms of no longer breeding orcas or forcing them to perform, or at least that’s what SeaWorld’s very intense, very expensive and very successful public relations arm would have you believe.