Recently, as reported at Newshub, screenwriter Mark Saltzman, himself a gay man, told LGBT news site Queerty that the beloved Sesame Street characters Bert and Ernie were created based on his own loving relationship with a man. Of course, in the Newshub article, Saltzman back peddled a bit, but too late to quell the internet buzz, including on twitter.
Among other rumors was the idea that the two muppets were going to publicly come out as gay on the Sesame Street show and even get married.
Wait! What? On a television show made for pre-school age children?
Even the (in my opinion) left-leaning Snopes.com declared that rumor as false.
And yet, an opinion piece at Chron.com declares It matters that Bert and Ernie are a happy gay couple, and here’s why. Here’s the core of the article by Nora Reed:
In response, the official Sesame Street Twitter account posted that Bert and Ernie were merely “created to be best friends.” Creator Frank Oz addressed the issue with a dismissive shrug.
“They’re not, of course,” Oz wrote. “But why that question? Does it really matter? Why the need to define people as only gay?”
Queer people have been hearing these questions for our entire lives, especially when we seek images of ourselves in the media. We hear them most often when we zero in on characters who aren’t explicitly queer, and, frankly, very few are. What would it add if we learned that Xena is bisexual or Dumbledore is gay? Why do we need to know that Korra and Asami of “The Legend of Korra,” or Ruby and Sapphire of “Steven Universe,” or Princess Bubblegum and Marceline of “Adventure Time” are romantic couples, not just platonic friends?
The answer is, of course, that it’s affirming to see people like you in books and on screen. Most of the exposure kids get to queerness comes at them as playground slurs. When you’re desperate for something positive, sometimes you have to remake the world in your own image.
Okay, I get that. We all want to see a little bit of ourselves in the media. Recently, Deadpool 2 actor, teenager Julian Dennison (Firefist) said being in that film gave him a chance to see a “larger-sized” (my words, not his) teen in a superhero movie, when typically superheroes are depicted as more idealized body types. African-American actor Anthony Mackie (Sam Wilson/Falcon) said in an interview that he accepted the role in Captain America: Winter Soldier in part because he wanted his children to see people who looked like them as superheroes.
But if that’s true, there’s a problem here. Dennison played an overweight teenage superpowered mutant and in real life, he’s an overweight teen. Mackie played an African-American superhero and in real life he’s African-American. Both roles were deliberate and overt. But Bert and Ernie, on a television show whose target audience is pre-schoolers, were, to the best of my knowledge, never overtly (or even covertly) identified as gay.
Actually, given that they’re muppets, I’m not even sure how you’d depict them as a gay couple. Oh, I know. You could do it in a manner similar to the “relationship” between Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy. In numerous Muppet movies, Miss Piggy made it quite obvious that she is romantically pursuing Kermit, though Kermit doesn’t seem to return her feelings much of the time.
However, again, to the best of my knowledge (and I’ve been wrong before), no other Sesame Street or muppet related character has behaved similarly.
Projecting your identity on fictional/non-human children’s characters so you can be affirmed aside, if two guys live together, do they always have to be gay?
Neil Simon’s famous play “The Odd Couple,” which was later made into a 1968 film starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, and a 1970 TV series starring Tony Randall and Jack Klugman, clearly had two men, opposite personalities to be sure, living together but who were obviously not gay.
Also, in my younger days, I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area where I resided with two different households of people, one in Oakland and the other in SF. Basically, in the first, we rented rooms in a house to share the cost, and in the second, I, one other guy and two other gals, rented a four bedroom flat, again to share costs. In none of those situations, did anyone have a romantic/sexual relationship with anyone else we lived with. Of course, we had boyfriends and girlfriends, but not living in the household.
Yes, boys and girls, it’s possible for two men or two women to live together and not be romantically and/or sexually involved with each other. Imagine if all same sex roommates in college dorms HAD to be gay. The vast, vast majority of times, such is not the case.
So why assume that Bert and Ernie are gay and must be having “sex” (never mind that muppets don’t have “naughty bits”)?
In the Nora Reed article, she (sorry if that’s wrong, but I have trouble with fluid personal pronouns) states that:
Most of the exposure kids get to queerness comes at them as playground slurs. When you’re desperate for something positive, sometimes you have to remake the world in your own image.
Then she (sorry) says:
If you’re straight, Saltzman’s assertion of Bert and Ernie as a queer couple might not have meant much. But think about the thing he says after, that his own bond with his late partner was a “Bert & Ernie relationship.” But for queer people, it was a friendly “hello” in an otherwise alienating world; being able to see people like you in loving relationships is a balm against, say, a joke about AIDS. It’s easy to say that sexual and romantic orientation don’t matter when you already see examples of people like you everywhere. For an underrepresented group, it can be a huge boost to see people like you living happy lives.
Now, I’m not advocating for denigrating the LBGTQ+ community, but consider this. I’m over 60 years old and I have some pretty “traditional” ideas. One of them is to not expose children (especially pre-schoolers) to “adult” ideas and themes. To me, sex between two guys and two gals is “adult.”
Oh course, sex between opposite sex couples is also “adult” and we don’t give three and four year olds access to sexual content of any type. To do otherwise is irresponsible bordering on child abuse.
Now Reed would probably say it’s possible to present a gay couple as loving of each other just as we depict heterosexual couples in children’s stories. Of course about 96 percent of the childhood population of this country experiences their parents as heterosexual. Maybe the rationale is that it prepares very young children for encountering gay or queer people later on, say in junior high or high school (I’m not sure what sort of awareness a gay person would have of sexuality in pre-school or elementary school, and how that would appear to their non-gay classmates).
Maybe she (sorry) would even say that it would normalize the experience of a gay pre-schooler or slightly older child, though again, what would a gay three-year-old experience about their own sexuality? Does that question even make sense?
I don’t know.
I do know something, or at least I think I do. If someone experiences Bert and Ernie as a gay couple, that’s most likely projection. Reed even admitted that it was as an act of desperation. I think, to the vast, vast, vast majority of pre-school age children, their parents, and grandparent, they experience Bert and Ernie as Bert and Ernie. I know the presumption of a two guys or two gals living together as being straight is probably considered evil in progressive eyes, but the odds, frankly, support it.
I have no objection to the entertainment industry creating overtly gay characters in various genres for affirmation or other purposes, but that doesn’t mean your projections on characters not overtly gay makes them gay by default.
Batman and Robin are clearly not gay, and yes it’s possible for a single male parent to adopt a male minor and not have child sexual abuse in mind. Please keep in mind, when Bruce Wayne made Dick Grayson his ward in 1940 and Dick became Robin, he was about eight. Later, his age was adjusted to 12 or 13, but in both cases, he was a minor, and considering them as a gay couple at that stage in Dick’s life would make Bruce guilty of child sexual abuse, so let’s not go there.
I’m sure members of the LGBTQ+ community and straight allies will argue with me, but as the Grandpa of a nine-year-old boy and a three-year-old girl, I would not see exposing them to what I believe to be complex and adult related sex and gender roles as a positive act. My granddaughter is still developing her concept of sex/gender, and has the basic understanding that she is a girl, and her brother is a boy. She knows her Mom and Bubbe (my wife is Jewish and “Bubbe” is Yiddish for “Grandma”) are women, and Daddy and Grandpa are men.
I can’t even begin to imagine her confusion if anyone started introducing concepts of gayness, let alone the even more complicated idea of gender fluidity (and as an intelligent and educated adult, I still have trouble wrapping my brain around the latter).
Obviously, I can’t speak from an LGBTQ point of view. Maybe, it’s as Reed says, and that gay pre-school and elementary school children (still wrapping my brain around that one,too) are affirmed by seeing what they believe are gay characters in children’s shows. I know that gayness, for me, wasn’t a concept until I was in high school. I didn’t encounter the concept of being a transsexual until my mid-twenties, and gender fluidity seems to have sprung full grown in my awareness over just the last few years.
As a parent, you have the right to educate your children as you see fit, though I think exposing three-year-olds to concepts of gayness and gender fluidity, given that such children are still very unsophisticated in understanding all of that, is a mistake. I’d prefer you leave it off of Sesame Street and learn to accept that two men or two muppet males, can live together as roommates, be good friends, and not be sexually attracted to each other in the slightest. Being a male roommate to another male is a life experience I’ve had, so in my mind, there is no doubt of that possibility relative to Bert and Ernie.