So what to do? I could have avoided the issue entirely by not posting anything today, or by posting a solo sketch/song by either Bert or Ernie, or by posting an Ernie & Cookie Monster sketch, etc. But then I said to myself, "You know what? This is probably going to come up eventually no matter what I do, so why don't I just address this issue head-on, since everyone is going to be thinking about it on Valentine's Day anyway."
So today, in a pageant about emotions, Bert sings a beautiful song about love:
A few random comments before I get to the main issue:
- "Maybe I should have had ol' buddy Bert do 'Angry'!" Rookie mistake there, Ernie.
- Bert really should have brought up his creative differences prior to the final dress rehearsal
- Usually Prairie Dawn is implied to be the director of these pageants, but if Bert had started yelling at her like that, he would have come across as a bully and a jerk.
At the end of The Dark Knight, Batman says, "I'm whatever Gotham needs me to be," and I think the same can be said for Sesame Street characters. They can be whatever we need them to be based on our own individual situations and perceptions; therefore, no individual interpretation is superior to any other interpretation. I think if you asked everyone who has ever watched Sesame Street, everyone would have at least one alternative character interpretation based on individual need rather than textual evidence. A good example of this is Street Gang author Michael Davis. In the book, he advances the theory that Grover represents a second-born child. In interviews, Davis has explained that he himself is a second-born child and identified with Grover, interpreting Grover's boundless determination to please others as a bid for parental attention. To my knowledge, there has never been any mention on the show of Grover having any siblings at all, (from my point of view, he seems to be the only child of a single mother), but it doesn't matter; Davis needs Grover to be a second-born child, and so Grover is a second-born child to him.
Now, in my case, when I was a young child, I needed to learn how to share a bedroom with a sibling who has essentially the opposite personality to mine, so I needed Bert & Ernie to be brothers. In my heart, even though the textual evidence indicates otherwise, I still interpret them that way. This wouldn't preclude the possibility of them being gay, but it would prevent them from being a couple. With that said, I understand why those in the GLBT* community who do interpret Bert & Ernie as a couple would identify with them as strongly as I do, and so I try to respect that interpretation, just as I would want my own interpretation to be respected.1
Consider this hypothetical scenario: If people were constantly asking you questions about your sexual orientation/identity, and then ignored your answers completely, you would probably get pretty annoyed and frustrated. I know that I would, and I would also get annoyed and frustrated if people kept pressuring me to get married to my best friend; even if she and I were interested in the prospect, what business is it of anybody else's? So I get annoyed and frustrated on Bert & Ernie's behalf, and on the behalf of those responsible for speaking for them, either as performers or representatives of the show itself.
Generally speaking,2 I get annoyed and frustrated by the widespread cultural assumption that love automatically implies sex. If your response to the previous sentence was to say, "But what about love of family?" then congratulations, and thank you for proving my point for me: this is a widespread cultural assumption in spite of the fact that we all know it to be false.
When love automatically implies sex, then friendship necessarily becomes something separate and distinct from love. And when friendship becomes separate from love, it's all too easy to make friendship something inferior to love. We do this in our culture all the time. Think about it: when two otherwise unrelated people are very close but not romantically involved, how do we describe them? We say they're "just friends," as though friendship were some sort of consolation prize. If two people are romantically involved, we might say they are "more than friends," which proves my point explicitly. If two people who are already friends become romantically involved, we might say they got a "relationship upgrade," which makes it sound like they traded in their old, obsolete relationship for a newer model.
I'm all in favor of teaching kids to be aware of and sensitive to GLBT issues.3 But I also think it's extremely important to teach kids the value of friendship and to model ways to cultivate healthy friendships. Now, I have to say that Bert & Ernie are not always the best role models that Sesame Street has to offer in that regard. However, one thing that I really appreciate about Bert & Ernie is that they talk openly and honestly to one another about their feelings instead of expressing themselves through combative gestures and verbal put-downs. I understand that there are certain relationships and certain cultural contexts in which that sort of behavior is acceptable, but I think it's important to show kids that it's not required for a true and healthy friendship, and in some cases may even be detrimental.
There are many conspiracy theories with regard to Bert & Ernie's relationship, from both ends of the political spectrum. To conspiracy theorists on the right, Bert & Ernie represent a subversive "gay agenda"; to those on the left, Bert & Ernie represent suppression of sexual identity by an oppressive hegemony. What follows is my response to both sides:
While I may not necessarily agree with all of Sesame Workshop's decisions, I trust that those decisions are always made with the best intentions, and I know that the Workshop constantly conducts research to determine how they can serve the best interests of children, parents and educators.
Sesame Street has always been willing to talk directly to children and their families about sensitive subject matter, including death, disability, divorce, and many other issues that don't begin with the letter D. So I find it ridiculous to the point of being insulting to insinuate that they would suddenly resort to subterfuge on this specific issue, i.e., that they would depict a gay couple without openly acknowledging it. I am confident that if/when they decide to depict a gay couple on Sesame Street, they will do so without ambiguity.
Furthermore, Sesame Street has demonstrated its commitment to diversity from day one, defying cultural norms with its depiction of a racially integrated neighborhood and with the inclusion of Americans with disabilities, to name only a few examples. Therefore, it is reasonable to expect that they will deal with GLBT issues eventually, specifically issues facing GLBT parents and their kids. While there's no way to determine a definite timeframe, I believe it will happen when their research shows that a significant number of families with preschool children are affected by these issues, and when they feel they can do it justice. Keep in mind that it took 20 years for them to figure out how to effectively deal with the topic of divorce.
As for Ernie and Bert, it is agreed upon by those with first- and second-hand knowledge that their friendship is a reflection of that between Jim Henson and Frank Oz. If there's a better example of a truly loving friendship, I don't know what it would be. I don't feel comfortable linking to it, but if you're amenable to the prospect of weeping profusely, go to YouTube and look up the video of Frank Oz speaking at Jim Henson's memorial service. I defy anyone to watch the video and tell me that that's not love, that it's "just" friendship. We should all aspire to that depth of loving trust, devoted loyalty, and mutual respect in all our close relationships. That's love. Despite all our efforts to categorize and contain and complicate it, Bert is right when he sings that "love's a simple thing to see." And, as Jim Henson used to say, "simple is good."
*Add any additional letters to the acronym as needed.
1For an excellent article on this topic from an LGBTQ perspective, click here.
2Here I'm thinking in terms of American culture because that is what I know best.
3I would even be in favor of depicting a same-sex wedding on Sesame Street...between two humans. I think a Muppet wedding would undermine the seriousness of the issue.