Three items in the news:
“Sesame Street” is 50 years old this year.
The new prime minister of Finland was raised by two moms.
The Hallmark Channel on Friday pulled an ad showing a lesbian wedding, buckling to pressure from a conservative group, then on Sunday restored the ad in the face of a backlash from millions of other Americans.
We think those three stories are related — in a good way.
We see further proof that what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said in 1956 is true: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” We are reminded again that changing hearts and minds, so often the work of pop culture, matters as much or more than changing laws.
Sanna Marin, who was elected the prime minister of Finland earlier this month, was raised in a working class family by her mother and her mother’s female partner. She credits her “rainbow family” for her confidence as a woman, her achievements and her values.
“For me, people have always been equal,” she told The Guardian. “It’s not a matter of opinion. That’s the foundation of everything.”
But though Marin is young — just 34 — she grew up in less accepting times and has experienced that slow bend toward justice. As a school child, she never talked about her family, aware of the stigma attached to LGBTQ people. Only “now in the 21st century,” she told the Guardian, are families like hers discussed in Finland “quite openly.”
Hallmark buckles to pressure
In a similar way in the United States, full equality for LGBTQ people remains a distant shore, but gains have been made and there’s no going back — as Hallmark has learned the hard way.
On Friday, the Hallmark Channel made a decision to pull advertising for the wedding site Zola that featured same-sex couples. Hallmark did not pull Zola’s ads featuring different-sex couple.
Hallmark’s decision followed pressure from One Million Moms, a part of the conservative American Family Association, that complained about the ads to Bill Abbott, the CEO of Hallmark’s parent company Crown Media Family Networks.
One Million Moms claimed on its website that Abbott said the ads “aired in error.”
Where’s the error? We can’t find it.
Are LGBTQ people an error? Is same-sex marriage — the law of the land — an error?
Hallmark gets schooled
Crown got an earful all weekend from advocacy and civil liberty groups and ordinary outraged Americans. In a tweet, the talk show host Ellen DeGeneres asked Hallmark and Abbot, “What are you thinking? Please explain. We’re all ears.”
On Sunday, Crown and Hallmark backed down and reinstated the ads.
“The Crown Media team has been agonizing over this decision as we’ve seen the hurt it has unintentionally caused,” Hallmark CEO Mike Perry said in a statement. “Said simply, they believe this was the wrong decision.”
We’re not privy to the inner sanctums of decision-making at Hallmark, but we’d bet two things turned the bosses around.
First, it’s all about money. Hallmark figured out the company would lose more viewers and customers by killing the ads than by running them.
Second, you can bet that hundreds of employees let it be known they had a problem with working for a company that would so easily buckle under. Corporate recruiters have learned that values matter when recruiting the best and brightest young employees.
Hallmark might have thought that One Million Moms speaks for mainstream America, but the group does not. It doesn’t speak for even 1 million moms. It has only 96,000 followers on Facebook.
Meanwhile, 63% of Americans, according to a Gallup Poll, support the legalization of same-sex marriage.
Diversity is just life
Which is where “Sesame Street,” and the power of popular culture in general, come into this.
Several generations of American children have grown up absorbing the show’s message of kindness and acceptance. They have met a Muppet named Lily who was homeless, a Muppet named Ari who was blind, and a Muppet named Julia who had autism. They have met Muppets and human beings of all colors and abilities — and disabilities.
Diversity on “Sesame Street” is just how life works.
“Sesame Street” has never included an overtly gay character, whether human or Muppet, unless you think of Bert and Ernie that way. But we like to believe — we would hope — that its message of inclusion and kindness has washed over 50 years of children in a more general way, helping to make them more compassionate adults.
It’s not just “Sesame Street.” It’s also “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.” And, when the kids got a bit older, pioneering shows like “Will & Grace” that made gay people just folks. And pioneering people like DeGeneres.
We could go on and on, but the point is made: Pop culture at its best is changing hearts and minds.
Hallmark’s initial mistake was to see One Million Moms as the “real” America and those who champion equal rights for LGBQT people — and people up against it in every way — as the elitist fringe. They got it backward.
We are a better nation than we give ourselves credit, regardless of groups like One Million Moms and the moral ugliness of President Donald Trump.
It will be our salvation, we can only hope, in next year’s presidential election.
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