There was a fairly silly online petition going around proposing that “Sesame Street” marry off Bert and Ernie. I found it silly because Bert and Ernie are not necessarily adult characters but a child’s fantasy of what it would be like to live with your best friend. However, the reaction to this mostly benign petition is even sillier.
“Sesame Street” released a statement on Thursday regarding the petition that struck me as defensive and misguided.
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.
Peter Roff of U.S. News and World Report further reinforced the Sesame Workshop’s assertion that “puppets” do not have “sexual orientation.”
(Bert and Ernie) are funny, engaging characters who demonstrate to children that people—no matter how different they might be in temperament, likes, dislikes and personalities—can still be the best of friends. But they are also, as apparently has been lost on some people, Muppets—a combination marionette and foam rubber puppet invented decades ago—by the legendary Jim Henson and his wife Jane. Muppets are not people, and while they are in many cases gender specific they, as the Sesame Workshop felt compelled to point out Thursday, “Do not have a sexual orientation.” Nonetheless someone out there thinks they would be useful to further a point about sexual identity.
However, as writer MaryAnn Johanson points out, this retroactive neutering of the Muppets is demonstrably false.
But… Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy are puppets, too, and yet they clearly have sexual orientations (not to mention the other more problematic issue of transspeciesism). And Kermit was originally a Sesame Street Muppet. And Elmo has parents, Mae and Louis. So clearly Sesame Street Muppets can have sexual orientation… as long as its hetero.
Johnson is correct and shines a light on one of the more insidious undercurrents regarding how many heterosexuals view homosexuals: They are defined by their sexual identity and that sexual identity is unsettling. Thus, Kermit and Miss Piggy’s relationship, a core component of most of the films and TV shows involving them, is both normal and appropriate for children. Bert and Ernie as a couple would, as Roff fears, “further the end of childhood innocence in America.”
There’s no logical reason why a child could comprehend a heterosexual couple more easily than a homosexual one. True, there is the relatability of a male and female couple but how much of that is a ramification of most children growing up in such an environment compared to its being a dominant image in books, TV, and film? Also, when children see a couple, their minds don’t generally move directly to what the couple does in the bedroom. Without their parents’ hangups influencing them, they would probably see a homosexual couple through the same lens as a heterosexual couple: Two people who live together and are a family.
Upon reflection, I think the petition’s goal was to show children that a gay couple is not just normal but is as capable of innocence as a heterosexual couple (I also found Miss Piggy’s romantic aggressiveness rather forward-thinking at the time). This is what Roff and others like him wish to deny gays, so they make the specious argument that if “Sesame Street” decided to make Bert and Ernie a couple, the show is suddenly no longer for kids. It’s essentially “Queer as Folk” in felt. Gays are nothing more than their sexuality, the deviant behavior the Bachmanns of the world wish to “cure.” Love, commitment, and family are all the province of heterosexuals.
The petition also makes the valid point that the “indoctrination” Roff fears is not a negative. If we believe that children are not simply sociopaths — I’m not entirely convinced — then we must understand that they are naturally inclined to mock what they don’t understand or what’s different. “Sesame Street” has for years played a part in minimizing those areas of ignorance. If Roff thinks that children are not “sophisticated” enough to be exposed to a gay couple, then what did he think of Christopher Reeve’s appearance on the show, during which Reeve explained his paralysis to Big Bird?
I have no issue with “Sesame Street” choosing to keep Bert and Ernie as heterosexuals. Frankly, the obvious jokes about their relationship was as tiresome and off-the-mark as the ones about Batman and Robin. It’s just unfortunate that the Sesame Workshop would have to fall into the even more tiresome and off-the-mark perspectives of homosexuality.