Today, the makers of Sesame Street felt compelled to release a statement in which they confirmed not only that Bert and Ernie are best friends, not life partners, but also that they are puppets and therefore don’t have any sexual orientation. I’m not the only one who’s sad that it’s come to this, right?
The announcement was made in response to a number of online fan petitions demanding that Bert and Ernie be allowed to marry. There are countless problems with this, not least of which that this idea needed more than one petition, but the one that actually bothers me is: Why do fans always seem to feel that ambiguity should always be replaced with some particular definition of certainty?
I’m a fan of Sesame Street, even now, three decades past the intended age of its viewership. I grew up watching it, like so many other people, and although it’s not as if I still occasionally dip in on a regular basis — I just can’t deal with Elmo’s World, I’m sorry — I still have a remarkable amount of respect and affection for the show and its characters because they were so well drawn, and yet so vague that you could project whatever you needed to onto them. In particular, it’s the beauty of Bert and Ernie as characters: They can be gay if you want them to be, they can be straight, they can be best friends, they can be brothers, they can be anything and everything the viewer wants or needs to project onto them, and yet keep their particular character. It’s a mark of genius, really.
If I’m honest, the Bert/Ernie are gay thing is pretty much my own personal canon; it amuses me and reminds me of friends and, you know, it’s one of those things that you think about and either just agree with totally or utterly deny to the point of anger, judging from my experience. But I’d never be crazy enough to demand that the Sesame Workshop make a point of saying that in the show itself, because… it’s not true. Even ignoring the reality that, hey, they’re puppets and don’t have any sexual orientation, there’s the fact that outing Bert and Ernie means that the characters become more specific, and less universal, with that announcement – with any announcement, whether it’s religion or race (They’re orange for a reason, after all) or whatever – and therefore, they become less useful for the purpose for which they were created.
Demanding that Bert and Ernie be nailed down to one specific interpretation, for whatever purpose, misses the greatness of the muppets on the show but, worse, it’s selfish: “Bert and Ernie must mean what I want them to mean,” it says, and… there’s no real reason why. To prove a point? Maybe, but why can’t that point be proven elsewhere, in ways that make more sense and are more respectful of the subject? Enforcing one particular definition of any of the Sesame Street characters is kidnapping what’s there for yourself, and forcing them into areas they’re not supposed to go into. Bert and Ernie and all of the Sesame puppets have no firm sexuality, ethnicity, and in some cases even gender; they’re not meant to. To claim otherwise is just purposefully misunderstanding something for your own purposes.
(The whole thing reminds me of the “Batman and Robin are obviously gay” meme. No, they’re not. They’re not even real.)
For me – and I know that this is a ridiculously sensitive area, and the world and its domestic partner of choice will likely disagree with me on this – Sesame’s announcement is almost funny, except for the inevitable backlash and claims of homophobia and bigotry that it’ll bring. But it doesn’t really make either character less of a positive gay role model for kids, because there’s nothing stopping parents telling their kids that they’re gay themselves if they want to (Or, for kids to decide that for themselves, despite what their parents say). All it does is stop Bert and Ernie becoming overtaken by one agenda and remain open to all of them, leaving that choice to the viewers. It keeps them available for everyone (especially Rubber Duckie), and surely that’s what they were created for.