Are Sesame Street’s Bert and Ernie gay? A dialogue.
News broke this week that a writer at Sesame Street said the popular characters Bert and Ernie, two single guys who live together, are gay. The shows producers denied it. Who’s right? Here’s a dialogue between representatives of both perspectives, to help us all understand the crucial issues at stake.
Of course they are: It’s time for puppets to stop denying their natural urges. My name is Octa, and I’m here to present the case for Bert and Ernie being gay.
Don’t be absurd: Oh, really. Well, it’s a good thing I’m here to set you straight. My name is Dba, and my job is to show that a cherished children’s show is not corrupting our youth.
Octa: I’m sure we all suspected. I mean, these guys are obviously pretty close. Why would Bert put up with Ernie’s antics if they weren’t a couple? The whole idea is such an in-joke that The New Yorker turned it into a cover illustration when the Supreme Court ruled to keep gay marriage legal.
Mark Saltzman, a writer for Sesame Street, said he had based his scripts about Bert and Ernie on his relationship with his lover Arnold Glassman. As he told Queerty, “I always felt that without a huge agenda, when I was writing Bert & Ernie, they were [a couple]. I didn’t have any other way to contextualize them. . . . I was already with Arnie when I came to Sesame Street. So I don’t think I’d know how else to write them, but as a loving couple.”
Dba: You’re ignoring a few facts here. Sesame Workshop, which produces Sesame Street, put out a statement denying it on Twitter. Here’s what it said:
As we have always said, 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.
So gay doesn’t enter into it. In fact, Saltzman himself has backtracked on his own statement. As he told The New York Times, “As a writer, you just bring what you know into your work . . . Somehow, in the uproar, that turned into Bert and Ernie being gay. . . . There is a difference.” And he told the Times he did not restrict Bert and Ernie to any particular sexual orientation.
Octa: Perhaps it is not as black and white as you think, Dba. Saltzman is not the only one backtracking here. Sesame Workshop issued a second statement that at least references inclusion.
Sesame Street has always stood for inclusion and acceptance. It’s a place where all cultures and backgrounds are welcome. Bert and Ernie were created to be best friends, and to teach young children that people can get along with those who are very different from themselves.
Dba: I can’t believe we’re talking about this at all. These are puppets made of felt with a person’s hand stuck up their butts. Urp, that came out wrong. Anyway, they’re puppets. Puppets don’t have sex. They can’t be gay lovers because they can’t have sex.
Octa: Oh, how wrong you are. They are not just puppets. They are characters. Characters have lives. They have backstories. When Harry Potter author JK Rowling says that Dumbledore was gay, he was gay, because she created him and can make him anything she wants, including gay. And if Saltzman thought Bert and Ernie were gay, that makes them gay, because he wrote them that way.
Dba: They are children’s puppets. They don’t exist when they’re not being performed by somebody. Frank Oz was the original creator of Bert and Ernie, and he performed Bert. And here’s what he says:
When I wrote “They’re not, of course”, did you think I was saying something like, “They’re straight like everyone else.” ? What I was actually saying was “They’re not, of course. Jim and I never created them to be gay”. Just a misunderstanding. Thanks for for the discussion. https://t.co/148yb3BuUk
— Frank Oz (@TheFrankOzJam) September 19, 2018
Octa: Let’s look at this from the point of view of the characters. They live together. They drive each other crazy. Ernie is an asshole and Bert has OCD. There is no way that roommates like that would stay together unless there was something more going on.
Dba: So from that you draw the conclusion that they are lovers? All the people involved with Sesame Street have said they were friends.
Octa: You’re so narrow-minded. It is possible to have a loving relationship with another person and not have it be sexual. No one on Sesame Street has a sex life — it’s for preschool children, and they don’t want to talk about that. So it’s clear to me that Bert and Ernie have a loving relationship. They may be friends, but they are more than friends. It has nothing to do with sex. Get your mind out of the gutter.
Dba: Why do you have to bring “gay” into it. They are close friends, who happen to be made out of felt. Two guys can be close friends without bringing “gay” into it.
Octa: Well, bringing the word “gay” into it will help people to feel included. It matters. So if Bert and Ernie are gay, they ought to be able to talk about it. But as soon as Saltzman started talking about it, he had to get shut down, and all the Sesame Workshop people had to write their non-denial denial. They ought to be out and proud.
Dba: There is no place on preschool TV for gay activism. There is no “out and proud” for puppets.
Octa: It’s pretty simple. I know they’re gay. We all know they are. The New Yorker knows they are. Their writer knows they are. I love their relationship, and it inspires me. We should use it to help gay people know they are accepted just like everyone else.
Dba: You’re right that it’s simple. Sex doesn’t belong in preschool TV. They’re friends. I know they’re friends. My kids know they’re friends. Two very different guys can be friends, and that’s cool. That’s what kids are learning here.
Octa: I guess we can all project what we want onto this. We can use our imaginations. Maybe that’s what Saltzman and Oz and Jim Henson and the rest of the Sesame Street creators were thinking we all ought to do … especially children.
Dba: I agree. In kids’ imaginations, people can be what they want to be. I can get behind that.
[A moment passes. Octa and Dba slowly shake hands and move out of the spotlight. Suddenly we hear a commotion . . . ]
Ernie: Bert! I love you Bert! I love you! I can say it now . . . I love you.
Bert: Well, Ernie, you did it again. You made a mess of things with your big mouth. Do you know how long it’s going to take to clean this up? Acch. Just don’t talk about it any more, okay?
Ernie: Okay, I guess I won’t talk about it.
Ernie: But I do love you. [Laughs maniacally.]
Bert: I love you too. Now just shut up.
The Muppet team can have Miss Piggy and Kermit involved in a loving relationship. Why not Bert and Ernie?
Miss Piggy was not on Sesame Street. Different productions.
And the longer we consider even viewing a loving, functional gay couple as “corrupting our youth”, the more damage we do to those who are LGBT.
Just in case it wasn’t clear, the characters I created in this post do not reflect my own point of view. Or at least one of them doesn’t.
It’s so annoying when these characters insist of having lives of their own.
I did not believe it to be your point of view. However, it is a common point of view, as expressed by your character, and this makes me both sad and mad.
“Puppets don’t have sex.” They did in Team America: World Police. Rather graphically. Search YouTube for the following:
Team America sex
You’ve written a lot of great blogs, Josh. This one I’ve enjoyed the best, so far.
Thanks for injecting humor into an otherwise humdrum day.
Great fiction inspires imagination and discussion.
Nora Reed has a related essay in today’s Washington Post: Why Bert and Ernie’s sexuality matters to LGBTQ people.
Since I had sisters who made me a little crazy, but I loved, I always thought they were brothers. The gay conversation was not common when Sesame was first on.
How marvelous that we now live in a society where the sexual orientation of inanimate, imaginary beings can stimulate such controversy.