A heartwarming viral Twitter thread involving a tender moment between children at a swimming pool and a Muppet with autism is being hailed for showing why media representation, specifically for children, is so powerful.
“Don’t tell me representation doesn’t matter,” wrote Twitter user @shiphitsthefan, who goes by Ship and uses the pronouns they/them. Ship shared the swim class story of their son, who’s nicknamed Action Kid, and a little girl who wanted to play with him because he reminded her of a character on “Sesame Street.”
Ship was “trying my best not to cry because I was so happy” watching the swimming pool scene, they told HuffPost, and wanted to share the story on Twitter. Ship has talked about “Action Kid” on social media since he was a baby, and knew friends and followers “would understand the significance.”
“I figured it might get a few retweets and help other parents know how to, I guess approach their own preschoolers, and where to look for guidance,” Ship said. “I wanted there to be something happy on the timeline.”
“I shared that little moment because it’s the opposite of discrimination,” Ship continued. “It’s an abled child not seeing a person to help, but someone to coexist with. The reason the story ‘feels good’ is because it’s active participation. Neither party is passive. It’s unqualified acceptance, because the playing field has been leveled through education and understanding.”
TV networks, Hollywood, and other parts of the media industry have long struggled to portray people of color, the disabled, the LGBTQ community, and others.
“Sesame Street’s” Julia shows the push for more inclusive representation. Still, the trend isn’t without convulsions. Last week, Scarlett Johansson pulled out of a movie project after backlash for signing on to portray a trans man, but retail chain American Eagle was celebrated for including a disabled model in advertising for lingerie brand Aerie.
Of Julia’s arrival on “Sesame Street,” Jeanette Betancourt, the senior vice president of U.S. social impact at Sesame Workshop, told People at the time: “Children with autism are five times more likely to get bullied, and with one in 68 children having autism, that’s a lot of bullying. Our goal is to bring forth what all children share in common, not their differences. Children with autism share in the joy of playing and loving and being friends and being part of a group.”
Ship said in a follow-up to the initial tweet-thread that they were initially “pissed at Sesame Street’s portrayal of an autistic child, because it hit so many tropes, and every autistic kid is different (It’s not a spectrum; it’s a sundae bar.)”
But that was “looking at it like an adult,” Ship tweeted.
Many people cheered Ship for sharing the story.
Ship was “blown away” by the response.
“I never expected it to go viral, or reach so many people, or instigate the conversations it has,” they said.
“In a span of hours, I’ve had to take on a more active advocacy―which is exciting! Terrifying, but heartening to think I get to help beyond calling my congresspersons and retweeting disability advocates.”
Ship said Action Kid’s interaction with the little girl in the pool lasted just a minute or so, and Action Kid didn’t acknowledge her.
“She took it in stride,” Ship said. “I encouraged her and encouraged him, and that was enough. A short but special moment.”
There is quite literally a body of research and a term known as “symbolic annihilation,” which means that “if you don’t see people like you in the media you consume, you must somehow be unimportant.”
As Ship’s story shows, on-screen representation operates as an important (if undervalued) way to glean information about the world.
“Kids are smarter than we acknowledge. The earlier we learn to accept and make the world accessible for people like my son, the easier it is for all of us. The story gives warm fuzzies for the right reasons. It isn’t inspiring; it just *is*, and that’s how it should be,” says Ship.
“I’m happy that Action Kid gets to continue his swim classes, because I want to foster that sense of independence. I want him to learn that it’s okay that he experiences the world differently, and that he doesn’t have to change himself in order to live his life. I want him to understand that he isn’t lesser, or lacking. I want him to have the confidence I never had as a child. And being an active character in his own story is the best way to teach him.”