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23 August 2011, 12:00 pm 5 Comments

Television: We Are The People In Your Neighborhood

This post was submitted by Gella Solomon

The non-issue of whether Bert and Ernie — the beloved characters on Sesame street who share an apartment and a bedroom, who bicker over things like putting away the groceries or eating cookies in bed — are in fact two gay men living together in their Brooklyn apartment, is not what I want to write about. It’s not important. As many have said, they’re puppets, for God’s sake (though Avenue Q has sort of robbed that point of its meaning, or Team America, World Police for that matter).

It is not at all clear what Bert and Ernie’s ages are supposed to be. The fact that they share an apartment without adult supervision says nothing on this score given that Big Bird, who is eternally 6 years old, lives alone in his nest and is cared for by the community. The monster characters all seem to be at some stage of what we understand as childhood, with the adult (and sometimes child) human characters explaining the basics of emotions and numbers and relational concepts to them for the benefit of viewers. Bert and Ernie, however, are not monsters. They look as though they were designed as representative of human characters, and therefore we may feel more of a need to investigate and understand the truth of their narrative in human terms than we do of absurd characters like a green furry grouch living in a garbage can or a red furry monster with a speech delay.

The question for me, however, is not whether Ernie and Bert are a gay couple. I will admit that years ago I wrote a short story about the two puppets as actors on the show with their own off-camera life as a couple, talking about how they wished they could be “out” on Sesame Street… however, it was not an expression of my desire for them to reveal any such truth on the show. I wrote it after reading a news story similar to the ones generated by the petitions to have the characters marry now that gay marriage has been legalized in our state. An independent film had been shown at a festival in which it was satirically suggested that Ernie and Bert were gay. Then, as now, it was not the suggestion itself, but rather to The Children’s Television Workshop’s response to the suggestion that had got me riled.

Back then, CTW’s response was much more hostile in its defensiveness. This time it seems they’ve taken a more diplomatic tone, but the reaction still strikes my ears as laced with a certain sense of dismissal if not disgust, the brushing off of a patently absurd idea. The attitude that I perceive is echoed by responses from the public: How could anyone suggest that these characters might be gay? Why would we introduce this subject to a children’s show? Why must these innocent best friends be sexualized? Why should sexuality come up at all in a children’s show? Don’t our kids grow up too fast already?

These questions belie the very societal prejudice that they seem so fastidiously to avoid stating explicitly. “There’s nothing wrong with being gay but…” doesn’t remove the inherent homophobia implicit in the rejection of the “preposterous” suggestion that Bert and Ernie could be gay. The fact is, sexuality is, and always has been, a central theme of Sesame Street. We don’t see it as such of course, because we don’t think of Gordon and Susan’s marriage, Maria and Luis’s engagement and marriage, Bob’s relationship with Linda, Maria’s pregnancy and the birth of Gabby, or the adoption of Susan and Gordon’s son Miles, as having to do with sexuality… these events are about relationships and families, about love and attachment, things that children experience and process in their daily lives. But a gay relationship? That is seen as just sex, and something that children need not be exposed to.

I don’t need Ernie and Bert to be gay. I think it is a good thing that they are two best friends living together as roommates, teaching kids about compare and contrast, about agreeing and disagreeing, about friendship despite, or in light of, differences between people. I think that non-sexual, platonic, close friendship is something that needs to be depicted in the world of Sesame Street and I think that Ernie and Bert are the perfect vehicle for the lessons of friendship.

What bothers me, is that Sesame Street has always been openly about diversity, about relating to people different from you. The fact that the central families on the show are African-American and Hispanic is not a coincidence. There was a reason that American Sign Language and Spanish were emphasized. Jim Henson’s vision for Sesame Street was that it should both reflect the child’s life, and broaden her horizons, teaching her not only tolerance, but acceptance, and appreciation for differences between people, and recognizing at the same time the things that make us all the same. That is precisely what Bert and Ernie have taught us all since we were children.

Instead of getting up-in-arms about the suggestion that Bert and Ernie come out of a closet that they may or may not be occupying, perhaps we should all take a step back and realize that this is not about the orange and yellow, short and tall, messy and neat, type b and type a best friends who live in the basement apartment of 123 Sesame Street, and their sexual orientation. This is about a reality of our children’s lives that they are not seeing reflected in the show that helped us all understand and process lifecycle events and emotional truths and the variety of humanity. All of the families on Sesame Street are heteronormative. Why can’t we let those of our children with two mommies or two daddies see their lives normalized? After all, aren’t LGBTQ folks the people in your neighborhood… the people that you meet each day?

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  • mim said:

    I agree, but the first paragraph (they’re puppets, for god’s sake) strikes me as reflective of the attitudes of the people who are against this kind of representation. Yes, they’re puppets. Yes, their age is ambiguous. So…? We’ve gotten so used to talk about same sex attraction as sex, a strictly adult question, that we can’t seem to see it as anything but. What about the homoromatic asexuals out there? Can’t they be thought of as gay? And don’t we all see heaps upon heaps of romantic interaction between straight children on TV all the time? Heck, the boy badn worship even springs from it. The only way we can teach children that same sex attraction is equal to opposite attraction is if it’s actually trated what way, which in turn means that we can’t limit ourselves to kids having two mommies and two daddies. To really identify, we have to see kids having these feelings as well.

  • claire said:

    you should check out the work of jessica max stein.

    She has lots of research about puppets gay creators and their intentions with these characters.

  • Gella Solomon (author) said:

    Mim, thank you for your comment.

    My point about Ernie and Bert being puppets of indeterminate age was not so much in reference to the idea that if they can’t have sex they can’t have attraction or romance, but rather in reference to the fact that I couldn’t think of any examples of puppet characters on Sesame Street being in non-platonic relationships of any sort… however, after a bit of research, I find that I am incorrect… Count Von Count did, apparently, have a girlfriend in 1980… and now I remember Oscar’s girlfriend Grungetta. And now I’ve just learned that baby Natasha has married parents Ingrid and Humphrey.

    I generally try to refrain from writing in the comments section of my own posts, but it is important to me that you understand that you are reiterating precisely the point that I was trying to make above… my first paragraph was not intended to underscore any sort of “ick sex” factor (which would undermine the entire article) but was rather basd on my mistaken impression that the puppets on Sesame Street don’t have non-platonic relationships. I now stand corrected on that score, thank you for pushing me to research further.