Breastfeeding On TV Peaked in 1976 and Went Downhill from There

Buffy Sainte-Marie in 1978 (AP Photo/Dave Pickoff)

Sesame Street, long known for fostering inclusion and busting stereotypes, took on breastfeeding back in 1976. In a little-remembered segment featuring signer Buffy Saint-Marie feeding her son Cody, endearing educational foil Big Bird looks on, asking pertinent questions for the benefit of all. At Hazlitt, Mayukh Sen reports on this first and arguably best depiction of breastfeeding in the history of television.

The scene, which appears midway through the 116th episode of season eight, unfolds with mundane calm. Big Bird was horribly jealous of Cody, and that had become a running gag during Sainte-Marie’s time on the show: KEEP OUT! a sign outside Big Bird’s nest read, referring to Cody. THAT MEANS YOU. But during this segment, merely 150 words and 56 seconds long, Big Bird softens. He comes upon Sainte-Marie breastfeeding her child. Big Bird is taken with this gesture he’d never seen, the sight of a kid huddled at his mother’s bosom, nibbling for nutrition and comfort.

“Whatcha doin’, Buffy?” Big Bird asks, craning his neck and peeking at Sainte-Marie from his nest.

“Feeding the baby,” she responds. “See? He’s drinking milk from my breast.”

He sidles up next to her, compelled and bewildered by the sight unfolding in front of him. “That’s a funny way to feed a baby,” he tells her.

The camera closes in on Sainte-Marie cradling her son as she explains that many mothers feed their babies this way, though not all mothers. The reason Cody likes the milk from her breast, though, is because it’s “nice and warm and sweet and natural, and it’s good for him. And I get to hug him while I do it, see?”

“Looking back, having an Indigenous woman … be the mainstream television depiction of breastfeeding feels radical,” Angela Garbes, a Seattle-based writer currently working on a cultural history of breastfeeding, says. “These days, breastfeeding, if it’s portrayed on television at all, almost always invokes a male gaze, or at least a gaze that includes discomfort, confusion about the use of breasts for something non-sexual, and judgment, and is almost exclusively done by white women.” She cites a 2011 episode of Game of Thrones that depicts a grown woman breastfeeding a six-year-old, a scene that deliberately perverts the act of breastfeeding and portrays it as monstrous social behavior.

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