I grew up, as many other members of my generation did, watching PBS; up until early elementary school that was literally the only thing I watched. It stands to reason then that TV personalities like Mr. Rogers and the characters on “Sesame Street” became huge parts of my life, and I think of those times often, especially now that I’m more grown up and can see the influence they have on current generations. While I was always more of an Elmo fan myself, Bert and Ernie, with their shared apartment and constant, loving squabbling was something that entertained me just as much, and which I took for granted after growing up. However, when you start reevaluating your own sexuality, you start looking at things from your childhood from a different perspective. Suddenly things make a lot more sense, like when it’s pointed out that Ursula from “The Little Mermaid” was based on a drag queen, or that many Disney villains are queer-coded, meaning they’re given stereotypically gay mannerisms that are linked with their evilness.
Or, as has happened most recently, when former “Sesame Street” writer Mark Saltzman stated on Sept. 16 in a Queerty.com interview that he didn’t “think [he’d] know how else to write [Bert and Ernie], but as a loving couple.” Saltzman continued on to say that he’d based many of Bert and Ernie’s interactions on ones he’d have with his partner of over twenty years, Arnold Glassman, saying that, “I didn’t have any other way to contextualize them… more than one person referred to Arnie & I as ‘Bert & Ernie.’”
I mentioned before that, as I got older and started noticing more of what you could call “gay undertones” to things in my childhood, the more I took Bert and Ernie for granted. Just looking at them and how they cared for each other, of course they were a couple; maybe a dysfunctional one, but one that loved each other at the end of the day. It may be strange to think of puppets in this way, but if we can all acknowledge that Kermit and Miss Piggy have had a forty year long, well-documented, tempestuous relationship, why is it such a leap then to accept the given that is Bert and Ernie? And why then did “Sesame Street” itself have to poke such a large hole in this innocent bubble by releasing a statement on Twitter denying Saltzman’s words, saying that, “Bert and Ernie were created to be best friends, and to teach young children that people can get along with those who are very different from themselves.” Frank Oz, an original co-creator of Bert and Ernie’s characters, also added on Twitter, “It seems Mr. Mark Saltzman was asked if Bert & Ernie are gay. It’s fine that he feels they are. They’re not, of course. But why that question? Does it really matter? Why the need to define people as only gay? There’s much more to a human being than just straightness or gayness.”
I’d like to first off pose a question in response to Mr. Oz and “Sesame Street” alike: both of you claim you stand for inclusion, the statement from “Sesame Street” even starting by saying, “Sesame Street has always stood for inclusion and acceptance.” And you may think that it doesn’t matter that you’ve flatly denied the fact that Bert and Ernie are gay, but if it matters so little to you whether they are or not, why can’t you leave it up to what your audience wants? Saltzman’s interview was met with much enthusiasm, especially among those who identify as LGBTQ+. Why does it matter so much that these revelations are denied on multiple fronts? I’m going to submit it’s because, as much as “Sesame Street” likes to label itself as inclusive and as much as I felt that they did just that as I grew up watching their program, being gay is still something that is thought of as shameful, a notion that large corporations haven’t dispelled.
This could’ve been handled in a vastly different way; I’ve seen it happen before, where fans could walk away happy without having creators of characters they thought of as reflections of themselves reject them outright.
Mark Hamill, the actor who since the original films has portrayed Luke Skywalker in “Star Wars,” has discussed the subject of Luke’s sexuality multiple times on both Twitter and during Comic Con panels. In an interview with Britain’s The Sun, Hamill revealed that, “…fans are writing and ask all these questions, ‘I’m bullied in school… I’m afraid to come out.’ They say to me, ‘Could Luke be gay?’ I’d say it is meant to be interpreted by the viewer… If you think Luke is gay, of course he is. You should not be ashamed of it. Judge Luke by his character, not by who he loves.”
This is exactly how fan theories need to be addressed. It is understandable if conclusions are drawn by fans that weren’t originally intended by the writers or creators, but when it comes to a matter of sexuality, the most important aspect that must be emphasized is exactly how Hamill himself put it: fans shouldn’t feel ashamed for thinking of their favorite characters the way they see themselves, and those in charge should take a neutral stance to leave things up to interpretation.
This is all not even to mention “Sesame Street’s” original statement on Twitter, which was quoted on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert on Sept. 19 but was later taken down and replaced with the one I mentioned previously. The original statement said, “As we have always said, Bert and Ernie are best friends. They were created to teach preschoolers that people can be good friends with those who are very different from themselves. Even though they are identified as male characters and possess many human traits and characteristics (as most Sesame Street Muppets™ do), they remain puppets, and do not have a sexual orientation.”
The argument could be made that this tweet is almost better, that the distinction being made of a lack of a sexuality leaves room for those who identify as asexual. While I fully support those who identify as asexual or aromantic, and find these identities completely valid, I encourage people to seek better representations of these identities than to try and find it in a technicality here. Also, to again bring in Kermit and Miss Piggy, they’re proof that puppets do have sexual orientations – as long as that orientation is heterosexual.
Let’s call this what it is: it’s homophobia, a visceral claim that may not seem to match what’s happened here, but that’s what it is all the same. Homophobia, like other means of discrimination, have subtler, more veiled ways of appearing in this day and age. In this case, It’s the reinforcement of the stigma of shame around gay people, about emphasizing the sexual nature of their identities to make them seem unsavory and not appropriate for exposure to children, a kinder way of calling gays pedophiles as they’ve been labelled for decades. I love “Sesame Street,” I really do; my memories of Big Bird in his nest, Elmo chatting with Maya Angelou or Cookie Monster losing control over chocolate-chip cookies will always be dear to me. But whether “Sesame Street” likes it or not, we’ve entered an age where many families watching these characters can include gay parents, and what message does that send to children, that the love their parents share is something shameful, something they can’t even find reflected in Bert and Ernie?