Like everyone else out there, I’ve read the NYT article on Bert and Ernie, where a former writer for Sesame Street, Mark Saltzman, was interviewed. He said that, as a gay man, when he wrote the famous duo he did so as a loving couple, taking inspiration from his own relationship with his partner. His rational?
I didn’t have any other way to contextualize them.
This was immediately taken to mean that Bert and Ernie were gay, which Saltzman said was a misinterpretation of his words.
Why did this blow up?
You’ll hear me shout time and again that representation matters. You’ve probably also heard me joke about how there’s a great gay migration every time there’s a new TV show with a queer character. And you’ve likely heard Tracy complain that queer baiting and queer-coding characters is detrimental.
The long and short of it is that we are starved for representation, and we grab on to whatever we can as soon as possible. Did two female characters share a moment? We will ship it. Because for the longest time, we didn’t have any other choices. We had to make up the queer in our heads and hearts.
Sesame Street has been pretty progressive and in tune with the world from day one. They’ve shown kids that being weird is okay, that having make believe friends is normal, and that death is weird and confusing. They’ve walked kids through divorces and all of the events that kids feel strongly about, but don’t have the words for.
Which is why I’m rather surprised to see everyone making these claims that Bert and Ernie must be gay, or can’t be gay. It seems a bit contrary to how they’ve handled everything else.
In fact, Sesame Street‘s original statement on the matter was shockingly non-inclusive, stating that Bert and Ernie are “best friends” and, being that they are puppets, have no sexual orientation.
They’ve backtracked on that stance, likely because everyone pointed at Kermit and Miss Piggy, and came out with a new statement.
Does it matter?
The big question to many of us is… does it matter if Bert and Ernie, or really any Muppets, are gay? Even the famous Frank Oz weighed in on it, in a slightly tone-deaf way:
Let me clear this up for everyone. Yes. It absolutely matters if a Muppet on Sesame Street is queer.
There should be some openly queers on that show not for any reason but because they’re normal. They’ve got an autistic Muppet these days, after all, which means they’re very much aware that representation matters. Seeing yourself, or even a bit of yourself on TV is hugely important to kids. There are a tonne of studies about this, all of which reiterate that when kids don’t see representation growing up, when they can’t see themselves, it damages their psyche.
Should Bert and Ernie be gay?
I’m going to take a stance not everyone will agree with here and say no.
They’re best friends and that’s important too. Boys should see that two guys who aren’t related can love each other in a non-sexual way, and that’s also very important. My family absolutely gets that because our extended family is everyone we decided we love and keep in our lives, blood be damned.
Far too often, boys are told that loving each other is ‘gay’ (in the pejorative way), and they’re not supposed to express their emotions and feelings. This too is harmful to their development. It’s absolutely possible for two non-related men to love each other like family. That’s what close friendship is, after all. We love the people who bring meaning to our lives.
Having Bert and Ernie be two close friends who live together, who share a life, and who clearly love each other is no different than Chandler and Joey on Friends, and that is absolutely important too.
Thus my argument is not that Bert and Ernie need to be queer (though I certainly would support that), but that someone on the show needs to be queer. And if that means we leave our duo up for interpretation where they may be queer, but maybe not, that’s okay too. Its okay if it’s left to the viewer.
Sesame Street needs some queers.
See, regardless of how you interpret Bert and Ernie, it doesn’t solve the problem at hand. Sesame Street does need a queer character, specifically a queer Muppet. And it needs one yesterday. Preferably someone we’ve known all along, and it just never came up. Snuffy or Slimey (Oscar’s pet worm) come to mind.
From working on this site, I can tell you that queer characters of substance for kids are pretty lacking. And positive queer representation in general is still well short of what it could be. Too many queers die, or are evil, and if we have just two queer characters on Sesame Street, then we have a chance to reach out to children and show them that this too is normal.
Until I can count the queers on children’s shows on more than one hand, we don’t have enough. Kids can handle homosexuality. It’s just love, and I hope all children are able to recognize that.