Ernie and I have a long history together. My mother watched early episodes of Children’s Television Workshop series and similar programming when I was still in utero, and I spent many hours of my childhood immersed in the worlds of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, The Electric Company, Zoom, and, of course, Sesame Street.
I loved Ernie and Bert, who were among the first muppets to appear on the series when it launched in 1969. I had my own puppets of both characters (as well as Cookie Monster), and later got legs sewn onto my Bert puppet because I so loved his “Doin’ the Pigeon” dance.
Watching Sesame Street as a young child, I had no thoughts about Bert and Ernie being a couple; I just enjoyed their antics. As I grew up, it seemed clear to me that Bert was a mature (if quirky) adult, and Ernie was a child. I likened the relationship to one of uncle and nephew. I didn’t have any particular headcanon about what happened to Ernie’s parents to cause him to move in with uncle Bert, it just made sense to me. The fact that they shared a bedroom did not strike me as unusual or suggestive, as families with limited incomes sometimes live this way out of necessity, and the show portrays a working-class neighborhood.
Fast-forward to adulthood, and I started reading rumors about Ernie and Bert being a gay couple. Many seemed to think that this relationship was entirely obvious. The Sesame Street spokespeople continually shut these rumors down, especially after these muppets were featured on the New Yorker cover that celebrated the 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage. Sesame Workshop insisted that Bert and Ernie were just puppets, and as such, didn’t have a sexual orientation. But that didn’t stop people from insisting that these particular puppets were gay.
As I’d been openly queer since the early 90s, and following my gender transition in 2013 was in a same-sex marriage myself, you’d think I’d be supportive of the idea of Ernie and Bert being a couple. But I was not, because I still saw Ernie as a child and Bert as an adult, so the idea of them being lovers was creepy. I’m certainly not implying that those who say they’re a couple are promoting pedophilia; I assume that such people see the two as mature, consenting adults.
That’s how Mark Saltzman, the openly gay writer who worked for Sesame Street for a number of years, envisioned the couple. Saltzman is in the news this week because in his interview with Queerty, he said that when he was writing for Bert and Ernie, he modeled them after his own relationship with his partner, editor Arnold Glassman. It’s worth seeing Saltzman’s quote from the original article in context:
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.”
There are some important things to note here, as I feel most of the news headlines stemming from this interview have been somewhat misleading. For one, Saltzman did not join the crew of Sesame Street until 1984, many years after the characters of Bert and Ernie were created. He was clear in the interview that he brought his own interpretation to these established characters. Saltzman did say that “the New Yorker cover was kind of vindication”, but also said that it was a shame the show wasn’t “leading the charge” as they had in other areas of diversity.
After reading the original interview, I felt that it was a far stretch from the many headlines that stated or implied that Bert and Ernie’s gay relationship was now confirmed. And indeed, in an article posted yesterday in The New York Times, Saltzman said his comments were misinterpreted, stating “As a writer, you just bring what you know into your work”, and “Somehow, in the uproar, that turned into Bert and Ernie being gay… There is a difference.” Frank Oz, who helped create the original characters, also weighed in on Twitter, saying in part “It’s fine that [Saltzman] feels they are [gay]. They’re not, of course. But why that question? Does it really matter?”
Representation absolutely does matter, particularly for the LGBTQ community at a time when our rights are under attack. As many have pointed out, it’s hypocritical of Sesame Workshop representatives to state that puppets don’t have a sexual orientation when you look at other examples, like Miss Piggy lusting after Kermit the Frog. Sesame Street has even featured an autistic muppet, so the producers are clearly aware that complex human characteristics can be represented in puppet form.
I respect the interpretation of Ernie and Bert as a gay couple, even though I’ve personally never seen them that way. But in terms of representation, I would prefer that the show feature a couple — either in muppet or human form — that is clearly and openly in a same-sex relationship. This can be done in an age-appropriate manner, by simply portraying them in the same way as (presumably) heterosexual characters like Luis and Maria, who fell in love and married during the course of the show.
Of course, being in a same-sex relationship is not a defining characteristic of being gay, and there is much more to LGBTQ rights than marriage. But the nuances of human sexuality are beyond the scope of a television show aimed at preschoolers. The goal should be to illustrate and welcome the diversity of relationships that already exist within our population, not to provide a substitute for sex education that should later be provided by a parent or teacher.
While homo-antagonistic conservatives and religious fundamentalists are undoubtedly up in arms over this latest evidence of a “gay agenda”, I’m glad that people are having conversations about these issues. Sesame Street is an enduring legacy in the United States; its influence has shaped the lives of millions of children. Extending that influence to explicitly acknowledge gender and sexual diversity would be a welcome development.
But in the meantime, I’ll continue to think of Ernie as Bert’s goofy young nephew, not as his lover. Your headcanon may differ from mine, and that’s OK.