Geek Pride

Exploring the intersection of pop culture, mass media and the geek/gamer mind

Sesame Street as Psychological Primer

The characters on Sesame Street suffer from many disorders in the DSM-IV.

Geek Pride welcomes guest blogger Kevin O'Kelly, a writer whose work has appeared in the Boston Globe and the literary journal Alligator Juniper.

When Mitt Romney said he would "fire Big Bird" in the first presidential debate, he was threatening to cancel a show that has been proven crucial to the education of American children.

But the instructional benefits of Sesame Street go beyond basic vocabulary and math. Arguably, it also educates American children about an issue that will affect many of them as adults: mental illness. The characters on Sesame Street suffer from many of the disorders described in the American Pyschiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-IV).

Or as a college roommate of mine put it: "Sesame Street is nothing less than a window into madness."

Let's start with the obvious: Cookie Monster has an eating disorder and Count von Count is OCD. Grover, who sometimes thinks he's a superhero, has some kind of delusional disorder.

Ernie and Bert present more difficult cases. Most amateur psychologists on the Internet believe Ernie has a case of Attention Deficit Disorder, which accounts for some (but not all) of his bizarre behavior. Remember the time Bert couldn't sleep because of the sound of a dripping faucet, and Ernie's response was to turn on the radio to drown out the faucet?

I suspect some profound mental disability.

Bert's various compulsions and obsessions (exercising, collecting paper clips, the letter W) point to Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder. Individuals who suffer from OCPD often have intimacy issues, which would explain why Ernie and Bert have been sleeping in separate beds for forty years.

The contrasting personalities and behaviors of Ernie and Bert also serve as an introduction to Freud's concepts of the id and the superego. Ernie is all impulse; Bert is overly concerned with following rules.

There's no consensus on Oscar the Grouch. Some say Anti-Social Personality Disorder. But the author of the website A DSM-IV Look at Sesame Street disputes this diagnosis, making a compelling case that Oscar suffers from Oppositional Defiant Disorder.

And finally, let's turn to the character who embodies Sesame Street for most of us, Big Bird. He's usually diagnosed as a schizophrenic, given that for most of Sesame Street's history his best friend, the Snuffleupagus (who is often severely depressed), seems to have been a hallucination. That Snuffy became visible to everyone else on Sesame Street in 1985 would appear to undercut this assessment, but the author of A DSM-IV Look argues that this is a case of Shared Psychotic Disorder, the transference of a delusion to others.

By now I'm sure you're wondering what psychological disorders the rest of the cast of Sesame Street illustrate. Don't think too hard about it. As Freud might have said, "Sometimes a muppet really is just a muppet."

Kevin O'Kelly lives in Somerville, Massachusetts. His writing has appeared in the Boston Globe and the literary journal Alligator Juniper.

Ethan Gilsdorf is a journalist, teacher, poet, geek, and the author of Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks.

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