I have to admit that the whole “Should Ernie and Bert marry?” nonsense has managed to capture my imagination. In case you have more serious reading habits than I, here is the story: an online petition asking the Sesame Street Workshop to “allow” the muppet roomies to come out of the closet and get married got so much attention that the Sesame Workshop was forced to issue a statement about it.
I like their response, which does a good job walking the tightrope of saying Ernie and Bert are not gay without implying that there would be anything wrong with it if they were:
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.
I am not among those advocating for a Bert and Ernie wedding. The whole thing, however, got me reflecting on how differently we discuss and think about same sex and opposite sex unions.
It is, of course, not true that puppets (or fictional children’s characters in general) do not have sexual orientation.
Miss Piggy, not a Sesame Street character but still a puppet and a muppet, was a huge flirt who made no bones about her attraction to Kermit the Frog. The puppet couple even had a wedding in The Muppets Take Manhattan.
Miss Piggy is, in fact, one of the few female muppets and just about the only well-known female muppet. I can only think of that hippie chick from the Dr. Tooth band and a fairly unmemorable blonde haired puppet from Sesame Street episodes when I was a child. (Was her name Prarie Dawn?)
Giving my hero Jim Henson the benefit of the doubt, I will assume the lack of female puppets was due largely to the fact that the puppeteers were men and found it more convincing to voice “male” monsters and frogs and dogs and… whatever Gonzo is. (By the way, didn’t Gonzo have a romantic relationship with a chicken?)
The fact remains that the main character trait of the only famous female muppet is a romantic one. As with a great deal of children’s entertainment there are people (males) and then there are love interests (females).
(In 1992 Sesame Street added Zoe to increase the number of female muppets and again in 2006 Sesame Street added a female fairy to its mix for the same reason.)
Some of the comments on the many Ernie and Bert stories were from people who argued that the whole topic of sexual orientation was inappropriate for pre-schoolers. One commenter noted that the original petition mentioned the prevention LGBT teen suicides as a reason that the puppets should come out of the closet. She wanted to know, and I am paraphrasing from memory, what teen suicides had to do with a pre-school program.
Teenagers who take their lives because they believe they will have to exist as social outcasts do so because of messages they assimilated throughout childhood about what is normal and accepted in our culture.
Far from steering away from sexual orientation, children’s entertainment thrives on it— when it is heterosexual. There are all those princes seeking their beautiful princesses. The stories end in lavish dream weddings. Romantic attraction and attainment of marriage is the primary story we tell to little girls. That is the great drama and what life is about.
Sesame Street has, to a large extent, steered away from that. Yet it does have, among its human population, a number of married characters.
We do not see opposite sex married characters in children’s entertainment as being examples of “heterosexual orientation.” They are examples of family.
We are perfectly able to recognize the beauty of innocent romance and to offer it up to kids in the form of Micky and Minnie Mouse, or Pepe Le Pew mistakenly chasing after a cat, or Miss Piggy and her mostly unrequited love for Kermit.
When the subject is a marriage between two male children’s characters, however, we stop imagining innocent romance and family. “Marriage” becomes a question of sex.
One commenter (whose post I agreed with overall) said that Ernie and Bert were an example of friendship and a world where people who are different from each other love and respect one another. She went on to say that making them a married gay couple would “demean their friendship.”
Have you ever heard anyone say that it would demean the friendship of a man and a woman if they were to marry? Probably not. Instead, we see marriage as the highest expression of a relationship. It is a sexual union. We understand that, but that is not our focus.
I hope that some time in the not too distant future that all of this will change. We will be able to see same sex marriages with the same kind of innocent romance as the opposite sex kind. Committed couples, gay or straight, will represent not “sex” but “family.” It may well begin with the stories we tell our children.
So why don’t I think Ernie and Bert should get married?
Maybe a child growing up in a home with two daddies would interpret them as a couple, and that is fine. There is nothing to say they cannot be understood that way. The married human couples on Sesame Street don’t go around all the time saying, “Hey, we’re married” and kissing and holding hands. Their relationship is inferred and understood.
Yet Ernie and Bert represent something more important. They are roomies and best friends. Soon enough boys start to get the message that there is something “unmanly” about being too close to another male. They will pick up that they can play sports and punch each other, but that sharing warm affection with each other is a bit weird. Society will start to tell them that they can have a roommate in college but their closest emotional bonds better be with women by the time they’re, say, 25. Girls can talk about their “girlfriends” and cry on each other’s shoulders and take vacation trips together as friends. Boys have to be careful.
Wouldn’t it be a much better place if guys could be more like Ernie and Bert? I hope that the Sesame Street Workshop will not be tempted to downplay Ernie and Bert’s love for each other in an attempt to quell gay rumors. There are few things in life more beautiful than true friendship.