I know that a lot of people interpret Bert and Ernie as a gay couple. I, however, do not... and I would be happy to provide a detailed explanation as to why I do not if anyone is interested in reading it. Nevertheless, I know that my interpretation is not the only valid interpretation, and I try to be respectful of other people's viewpoints.2 Even so, it really bothers me when people speak so cavalierly about Bert and Ernie's perceived sexuality. I'm not completely sure why it bothers me so much, but I think part of the reason is that I don't like seeing Sesame Street characters being co-opted to advance a political agenda, even if it's an agenda with which I am in sympathy. By coincidence, the same kind of thing is happening right now with Big Bird being used as a pawn in the Mitt Romney vs. PBS showdown, and as much as it nauseates me to hear Romney invoke Big Bird's name to somehow make his vile plan seem less diabolical, it nauseates me just as much to see Big Bird's identity being hijacked by Romney's naysayers in order to attack Romney. As far as I'm concerned, when it comes to politics, Sesame Street characters should be in a separate, protected category.
To be perfectly honest, I don't really see why people3 are so fixated on Bert and Ernie as The Unofficial Token Gay Couple of Sesame Street. I mean, I understand why people think they're gay, even though I do not agree. But if people will insist on assigning sexual identities to asexual puppets, why stop there? Big Bird and Snuffy are just as warm and affectionate with one another as Bert and Ernie are--if not more so--and yet nobody thinks they're gay. There was once a scene in which Elmo is having a sleepover at Telly's house and Telly and Elmo are seen SHARING THE SAME BED, a line which Bert and Ernie have crossed only rarely and only briefly, and yet nobody said a word about it one way or the other. What about the Two-Headed Monster? Two apparently male characters literally joined at the hip: what's that supposed to make us think of? What about Placido Flamingo, for crying out loud? It gets to the point where the hypocrisy is so absurd that you just have to laugh at it: here's this giant, pink, flamboyant, opera-singing bird character performed by a puppeteer who was actually gay, and this warrants nary a whisper or an insinuation because everybody's too busy harrassing Bert and Ernie, hanging on their every word or gesture, always on guard for some offhanded, miniscule detail that they can then blow completely out of proportion.
By the way, am I the only one seeing a definite gender-based double standard here? Would anyone question Bert and Ernie's relationship if they were two female friends4 sharing an apartment? (I'm sure that at this point the feminists would be quick to point out that we'll never know because there aren't enough female Muppets on the show.)
Be that as it may, I'm not opposed to the idea of an openly gay couple on Sesame Street, but I don't think it should be Bert and Ernie, and I'm disinclined to think it should be Muppets at all because, generally speaking, the Sesame Muppets represent kids, and I hope that we can all agree that kids shouldn't be involved in romantic entanglements. If it were up to me to introduce the topic, I'd probably do exactly what they did with Maria and Luis in the '80s: take two existing human characters and create a storyline in which they fall in love and get married.5
I have mixed feelings as to whether or not Sesame Workshop should tackle this issue. Sometimes I think that they should, sometimes I get angry at them that they haven't yet, but then I think about how risky it would be for them and I get cold feet. It was risky for them to have a racially integrated cast in 1969, but at that point they had nothing to lose; now, 43 years later, the stakes are so much higher. With that said, I think that, as a side benefit, if there were an official gay couple on Sesame Street, people would finally leave Bert and Ernie alone. What makes that story so persistently interesting to people is the idea of Sesame Street having an illicit agenda or hidden angle. If they were to embrace the topic openly, gossiping about Bert and Ernie would lose its appeal.
1I'd be willing to bet on it, though. Their parodies of Glee and Saturday Night Live are SOOOO much funnier than the source material. By the way, that's Avenue Q's Stephanie D'Abruzzo as the Lea Michele Muppet in the Glee parody.
2I'm not interested in debating the issue. If it's meaningful and helpful to you to interpret Bert and Ernie as gay, I respect that and I hope that we can simply agree to disagree.
3In this paragraph, I'm talking primarily about conservative types who use these kinds of claims for fearmongering purposes and the journalists who enjoy fanning the flames of fear and controversy for their own benefit.
4Apparently in the early '80s there was indeed a duo of female monsters named Pearl and Deena who lived together in a cave and were supposed to be sort of a female Bert and Ernie. I don't remember the characters myself; this was in 1980-1981, so I would have been an infant at the time. The Muppet Wiki reports that they were discontinued after one season but it doesn't explain why. It does say that Deena was supposed to be the younger of the two, with Pearl as an older caretaker. This is interesting because, although most people are not aware of it, the original concept behind Ernie and Bert was very similar; i.e., Ernie was supposed to be a child and Bert was supposed to be an adult, which makes the idea of a romantic relationship between them even squickier than it already is.
Incidentally, would anyone be willing/able to translate this Deena and Pearl sketch for me? I assume it's in Dutch, based on the fact that it says it's from Sesamstraat.
5Or possibly one existing character and one new character. My point is that I probably wouldn't introduce two new characters to be the Official Token Gay Couple because that would probably become their defining characteristic in people's minds and get in the way of any further character development.