Picture this: two men have been together for 49 years, they frequently wear matching sweaters, they banter while never being malicious, they enjoy taking baths together, they sleep in the same room, they’re rarely seen without each other, they often hug, they decorate their home with pictures of the two of them, they exchange gifts, and they sing duets…but they’re not gay.
Hard to imagine, right? We thought so too.
And no, we’re not talking about your uncle who brings the same “friend” to all the family holiday parties. We’re talking about the “Sesame Street” characters, Bert and Ernie.
For some time now, the sexual-orientation of the orange and yellow duo has been called into question. Programs like “The Simpsons,” “Friends,” “Family Guy” and “Saturday Night Live!” have all poked fun at the sexual-orientation of Bert and Ernie, and let’s not forget The New Yorker’s iconic cover following the Supreme Court’s passing of same-sex marriage.But most recently, Bert and Ernie’s relationship has been called into question following comments from long-time “Sesame Street” street writer Mark Saltzman, saying that he found inspiration from his own homosexual relationship while writing the characters.
“Sesame Street” has since denied the relationship, by basically saying that they’re puppets and puppets don’t have a sexuality—valid. However, it doesn’t really matter what “Sesame Street” has to say, and it doesn’t matter if the puppets have a sexuality or not. What matters is their portrayal and what viewers get out of it, and what adult viewers, who have grown up with the show, have decided is that they’re gay.
Ultimately, a TV show’s job is to entertain an audience through storytelling, and “Sesame Street” is no different. If a story is sending a message to the viewers, intentionally or not, they’re going to pick it up and roll with it. If viewers have come to believe something about a show, just saying it isn’t so won’t always fly. For example, “Family Guy” killed off their famous talking dog, Brian, but they brought him back after fans got pissed. Fans theorized that the fictional Land of Ooo in Cartoon Network’s “Adventure Time” was actually a post-apocalyptic Earth, and the creator liked that idea so much he wrote it into show.
Viewers have power.
How viewers perceive a show and what they want matters. If adult viewers are already perceiving Bert and Ernie as gay, why not give kids the opportunity to have a positive, early introduction to homosexuality? It’s not as if the characters’ bond is typical to most platonic relationships, and it’s not like kids haven’t seen Bert and Ernie-like duos on TV before.
Look at SpongeBob and Patrick from “SpongeBob SquarePants.” An episode was released in 2002 showing SpongeBob and Patrick simulate a married couple that take care of a baby clam. Now SpongeBob and Patrick’s relationship is a whole story for another time, but the point is that this was an often-run episode showing two males in a domestic partnership.
What if instead of perpetuating this odd guy-friend-who’s-also-like-a-partner relationship, like in “SpongeBob,” “Sesame Street” decided to be more like Cartoon Network’s “Steven Universe” and talk about LGBTQ topics in an open and normal manner? Identifying the relationship for what it is allows for kids to have a positive association between what they see on TV and what they see in real life.
The purpose of acknowledging Bert and Ernie as gay isn’t about the “sex” in sexuality—it’s about a positive representation of a certain identity. Of course, when you were eight, you probably didn’t look at SpongeBob and Patrick’s relationship as sexual. And when you were three or five you probably didn’t look at Bert and Ernie’s relationship like you would now, either.
However, if you were to go back in time and see Bert and Ernie acknowledging themselves as being openly gay––especially if “Sesame Street” explained it in their traditional informative, light, and positive manner––you probably would have recognized the term, while still viewing Bert and Ernie as the same, old pals. There simply would have been a positive introduction to homosexuality.
For children who grow up to be gay, Bert and Ernie can offer two positive, wholesome characters to admire. For young viewers who grow up to be straight, they’d have these two characters to give them a positive understanding of homosexuality as something normal and accepted.
Face it, a whole lot of us view Bert and Ernie as gay (and if you don’t, well, one of the writers who literally wrote the character’s behaviors said they’re gay). It’s time for “Sesame Street” to have Bert and Ernie come out of their matching-sweater-filled closet and share all of the positive teachings that will come out with them.