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12 August 2011, 2:00 pm 2 Comments

Television: Tales of the Street: Bert, Ernie, and Marriage Equality

Submission by Patrick Hamilton

I’m Gay, and I love puppets. I especially love the Muppets. On my yet-to-be completed web site, I cite the late great Jim Henson as one of the people who inspires me, for his ability to harness the incredible power of humor to educate, with childlike sweetness and grown-up wit. He was one of those people whose never-ending imagination kindled my own before I even realized how or why. He and his team created worlds as rich and consistent as Rowling’s Hogwarts, without Imax, 3-D or CGI.

My love of the Muppets, of Henson, and yes, even of Bert and Ernie, started on the same street where so many discovered them: Sesame Street. As a kid, it was a daily highlight, one part silly, one part lesson, whether I knew it or not. Even my TV-hating Dad could not disapprove.

Sesame Street was a place where people had familiar traits but without anything sinister, evil, or unhappy. The Count was no Team Edward member. And while there were plenty of monsters, none ever lived under the bed.

It never talked down to kids, and the lessons were clear, sweet and innocent. Learn your numbers, learn your letters, get to know your neighbors (even the grumpy ones), don’t make fun of someone’s imaginary friend, treat animals with respect. It was also the first place I saw kids of different color, from around the world, and the first place this Miami suburbanite learned words like “stoop” and “stickball” and “hydrant.”

At the time, my two most prized possessions were life-size Bert and Ernie hand puppets. And while I did indeed spend an inordinate amount of time with my G.I. Joe out of uniform, (out of curiosity and some funny tingling I couldn’t quite understand or explain), I never made Bert and Ernie kiss, hold hands, or do anything other than do what I saw them do on TV… bicker in the way longtime friends, yes, perhaps even couples do. As a true GIT (Gay In Training), I even had them lipsynch to their 45 records, and the three of us did a mean rendition of “Rubber Duckie” and “The People in Your Neighborhood.” Snap.

But the world of Bert, Ernie, Big Bird and Cookie Monster (even of Bob and Maria) was never saccharine, patronizing or naïve. Oscar lived in a garbage pail. Big Bird forgot things. Grover lost his temper (and taught us all how silly it really is to do so). Bert and Ernie debated why a mashed-up banana with ice cubes and gravy was a poor substitute for a banana split, in one of the first games of compare and contrast I remember.

So you’d think I’d be a natural candidate to endorse the current petition rage to get longtime companions Bert and Ernie to tie the knot, in the wake of New York’s passage of Marriage Equality. But, dear neighbors, you’d be wrong.

A few things, first. I trust Sesame Street, IMPLICITLY, if they chose to, to Out Bert and Ernie. They would know how to do it with grace and clarity, the same sweet way Grover explains marriage or “near and far.” The issue would be woven easily and seamlessly into life on the Street. Which is how it should be woven in on ours. It’s not to say that Sesame Street hasn’t dealt with reality and Big Life Lessons before, even death. They addressed the loss of Mr. Hooper, and did it without preaching, without treading on religious sanctity, without complication, and with the calm assurance with which we all hope we can teach our kids. So it’s not that I don’t trust the good folks at the Children’s Television Workshop. I do.

But making Bert and Ernie marry would, undeniably, make many shut the TV off when those familiar bars of music start to play. Are they right to do so? Of course not. Will they do so? Absolutely. That would be a loss, for so many.

The puppet wedding would also just give more fuel to the zealots who want to disban public funding of PBS, and if we criticize THAT thinking, aren’t we doing what we blame them for doing? It seems a bit hypocritical to me to do so: so many of us are so quick to find fault with Republican or religious claims that the Teletubbies or SpongeBob are part of an evil pastel-colored plot, animated soldiers trying to brainwash our kids into a life of circuit parties and shirtless, sweaty Pride Parades. Well, if we think THAT’S just plain silly, aren’t we doing a bit of the same thing, forcing gender roles (even good ones) onto, um, puppets?

If this bit of reality creeps in over the cobblestones and hopscotch grids on Sesame Street, where do you draw the line for the other people in this fictional neighborhood? If reality hits Sesame Street, are we ready for the consequences? Cookie Monster is binge eater and possibly suffering from Juvenile Diabetes. (And before you go all ballistic, on me, NO, I am not comparing Sexual Identity with a behavior OR a disease.) Big Bird sees things and probably is safer back in the canary cage. And don’t even start on the frog-pig love (dose of reality: There are many who say, with straight face and conviction, that Gay marriage opens the door to an endorsement of bestiality. I am not making that up.) What’s next? A petition to ban fracking on Fraggle Rock?

So where do you draw the line? Gay marriage may be high on my and your git’er-done list, but a lot of other people have things they feel just as passionately about. Do you want those doors to be opened, above a stoop on Sesame Street? If that’s what you want, head to “Jersey Shore” or DVR “16 and Pregnant.” Let the Avenue Q puppet parodies of what “real life” (with worry, STDs, rent, breakups, hangovers and let downs) would do to Sesame Street be the statement, with its own publicized same-sex wedding of Rod and Ricky. That, I have no issue with. It’s part of their schtick (and it’s funny as hell).

But now, this little “innocent” poll is placing these two little puppets at the center of big controversy, and that’s not a place they should be. My main issue with involving Bert and Ernie in the marriage debate is that the discussion, right now, is heated and ugly. I am witness to lots of discussion threads where horrible things are said (even by “grown ups”), hateful words are used too easily, and the feeling is far more battleground than playground. This is not a place I think Muppets should be.

And if you don’t think, even among proponents, that there aren’t jokes circulating about which is the Top and which is the Bottom in the Bert and Ernie relationship, then you live in a bigger fantasy world than the street of Sesame. I don’t like it.

So, like for many couples, I think it’s just too soon to make anything more of Bert and Ernie’s relationship than it is… for now. I’m sure (I hope?) the time will come, in my lifetime, where same-sex marriage is a non-issue, where it just is. And while some may (plausibly) argue that a coming out on Sesame Street would pave the way for that understanding to happen faster, I think it’s too ugly an issue, right now, to make its way onto a street where time has been kind, and life’s lessons are still innocent and easy. There aren’t many places like that left out there, in case you haven’t noticed.

So no, I’m not signing the petition, or sharing the link, even out of good-natured fun. Call me Oscar. I’ve been called worse.

There are some places I hope are never spoiled by reality, and Sesame Street is high on that list. While we can’t seem to keep the Church out of our State, it would be nice to keep politics, for now, off of Sesame Street. Let Bert and Ernie have their peace. Let them simply go on sharing a funny little room with wallpaper and twin beds, where they drift off to sleep in pajamas and night caps, and never age a day. Give the world around them a chance to grow up. Our kids grow up too fast, already.

To be crystal clear, I think “loss of innocence” is not about “discovery of shame,” and I am not equating same-sex marriage with anything shameful, wrong or naughty. But let the lessons be taught by real-world couples who live with dignity, out of love, and with the occasional marriage license. Let the lesson be taught because OUR neighbors live life honestly, in the open. This is our fight, this is our opportunity. Do we really want to hand the job over to, well, hand puppets?

If Gay human characters were introduced to Sesame Street, this would all sit better with me. But let’s leave the lovely, simple, innocent fantasy of the not-so-human side of the street out of the equation. As they end each performance of Avenue Q, if only for now.

Maybe I’ll change my mind in, vun, two, three! years. For now, just tell me how to get to Sesame Street.

Now Batman and Robin… THAT’S another story. That’s a wedding I’d happily attend. I may even start a petition.



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  • Chris said:

    PBS and the multimillion dollar industry that is Sesame Street can look after itself. The children’s programming industry is beset by some flash in the pan controversy every year. More often the not by wacko right wingers (http://bit.ly/pOFdmr).

    No they aren’t going to jeopardize it all for an adventure on social activism. And unfortunately, they are not going to stick with their originally ground braking aim, of simply reflecting the make up of most kids communities in a TV show.

    I think the more burning question that I would prefer to be having and reading about on this site, is why is this all so abhorrent? Many children are living in families and communities that include same sex couples, why exclude them in a TV show?

  • Sesame Street The Street said:

    [...] The New Gay » Television: Tales of the Street: Bert, Ernie, and … Sesame Street was a place where people had familiar traits but without anything sinister, evil, or unhappy. The Count was no Team Edward member. And while there were plenty of monsters, none ever lived under the bed. [...]