Special thanks to @awomanskwarned for capturing the level of seriousness that I think is warranted by the latest internet outrage.
The other day, one of the writers for Sesame Street said in an interview with Queerty that he always thought of Bert and Ernie as gay.
Ok, so we have to address—that’s the big question, right? In the writer’s room, you’re all adults. Were you thinking of Bert & Ernie as a gay couple? Did that question ever come up?
I remember one time that a column from The San Francisco Chronicle, a preschooler in the city turned to mom and asked “are Bert & Ernie lovers?” And that, coming from a preschooler was fun. And that got passed around, and everyone had their chuckle and went back to it. And I always felt that without a huge agenda, when I was writing Bert & Ernie, they were. I didn’t have any other way to contextualize them. The other thing was, more than one person referred to Arnie & I as “Bert & Ernie.”https://www.queerty.com/exclusive-bert-ernie-couple-finally-answer-20180916
But later the New York Times followed up on those remarks which sent the internet into fits.
“Somehow, in the uproar, that turned into Bert and Ernie being gay,” he said. “There is a difference.”
Mr. Saltzman is among a group of writers who have written scripts and songs for all the “Sesame Street” characters.
He said he did not restrict Bert and Ernie to one sexual orientation, or any at all. While he believes that “Sesame Street” should include a gay couple in its programming, he said it should be done with human characters, not puppets.https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/18/arts/television/bert-ernie-gay-sesame-street.html
And that’s pretty much what I started this blog post to say. But I see now that I’ve done some more googling that he already said it.
Oh well. I’ve started the post and I intend to finish it.
Bert and Ernie are not gay. They are puppets. They do not have inner lives — nor even outer lives — beyond what the writers present to us. And as a children’s show, Bert and Ernie never engage in romantic coupling or anything. They are presented on the show as simply best friends. Yes, the clearly love one another, but so do brothers and best friends. So, that’s all that can be said about their relationship. Because they’re puppets!
But the writers had to have some mental image of the relationship they’re portraying. And my read on Mr. Saltzman’s comments is simply that he thought of them as a couple, not that they actually were a couple.
Frank Oz, who created these characters, responded to the ruckus via Twitter:
I think it’s useful to compare and contrast the Bert and Ernie situation with Dumbledore.
JK Rowling said back in 2007 that she thought Dumbledore was gay and the internet went nuts.
Speaking at Carnegie Hall on Friday night in her first U.S. tour in seven years, Rowling confirmed what some fans had always suspected — that she “always thought Dumbledore was gay”, reported entertainment Web site E! Online.
Rowling said Dumbledore fell in love with the charming wizard Gellert Grindelwald but when Grindelwald turned out to be more interested in the dark arts than good, Dumbledore was “terribly let down” and went on to destroy his rival.https://www.reuters.com/article/us-rowling/jk-rowling-says-wizard-dumbledore-is-gay-idUSN2052004020071020
The two situations are similar in that writers of these characters have said that they think of the characters as gay even though it is never explicitly stated in any of the “text” where the characters actually “live.”
I think that’s where any significant similarities between the two situations ends. Here are some crucial differences:
- Dumbledore is the creation of a single writer who has full control and authority over the character. Bert and Ernie, in spite of being conceived of by one person, are the product of a team of writers, each of whom probably have their own ideas about the backstory of the characters.
- Dumbledore exists in a middle grade to YA series of stories in which the writer sought to portray rich, fully-developed characters with the full range of human emotions and experiences. Bert and Ernie are part of a children’s puppet program and are written to portray best friends who are foils to one another and their differences is what make them work for one another.
- Dumbledore has a full character arc and a life with a beginning, middle, and end. Bert and Ernie are ageless and timeless and do not evolve as characters.
I also think it’s important to point out that there are some subtle hints that Dumbledore is in love with Grindelwald in the books themselves. I know that when I read the books I wondered if they weren’t boyfriends. Their emotional investments in one another simply struck my ear as being more intimate than we typically see in platonic friendships, but others have taken a broader and much looser view of the “evidence.”
I completely understand the urge that people have to make Bert and Ernie gay. Or to make any beloved characters gay. The urge comes from the desire to see ourselves in our heroes and loved ones. And I am sure some people would dismiss being gay as a frivolous detail, but bless those people’s hearts for having the luxury to imagine that sexual identity isn’t all that important to someone’s life. Any adult with even a pinch of self awareness knows that sex and love are vitally important aspects of our lives.
And I sympathize deeply with the urge to make sure that children know that they are welcome and loved in the world. However, I don’t think Bert and Ernie, specifically, really fit the bill.
My sense is that the adults on Sesame Street represent the future to children, what they will some day become. The puppets, though, represent how they are in various ways. Children can love very deeply and sweetly, but I do not believe it is the same emotional experience we have as adults toward our romantic partners. So, it’s just weird to me to think of Bert & Ernie as actually being gay because they’ve always been young children in my mind. (As a kid, I always wondered where their parents were. And I also wanted to know more about the Twiddlebug infestation at their house.)
My argument is emphatically not that puppet characters cannot or should not be portrayed as having romantic relationships. Sesame Street does have some puppet characters in romantic relationships. But not all of them. Not Bert and Ernie. I see this as at least in part a function of the fact that the various puppet characters are different ages. Elmo is very young. The Count is almost grown. Kermit is grown. Bert and Ernie are kids.
I just get so tired of the way people half jokingly project adult labels and intentions on children. Like how if you see two babies playing together and they’re a boy and a girl, adults will make cutesy jokes about them dating. I know the intention isn’t to sexualize babies, but it still kind of is. And I wish we could just let people be.
There are strong arguments on both sides of this debate, but I think it has to be settled by looking at the text. And there isn’t anything in the text that suggests that Bert and Ernie are involved in a romantic relationship nor even that they have the maturity to be in a romantic relationship. And when we look beyond the text, we have to acknowledge that they’re puppets. It’s like how Cookie Monster never ACTUALLY ate any cookies. He couldn’t. Because he’s a puppet.
If people want to think of Bert and Ernie as lovers, there’s nothing anyone can do to stop them. And I don’t think there’s really any harm in thinking that. In fact, I guess if it helps someone to think Bert & Ernie are gay, then they should go on thinking that. But I think this whole dustup is pretty dumb because Bert and Ernie just are not gay. As characters, they are not written to portray fully-developed human beings with sexual/romantic feelings at all. They’re written to portray children who are best friends and that’s it.
Photo credit: Photo by Sharon McCutcheon from Pexels