There’s been a lot in the news this week, and while some stories have been just plain surreal (see any development in the Aaron Hernandez or Paula Deen sagas), others a have made me pretty goddamn proud to be an American. I’m speaking of an actual filibuster (I’m not a fan of the filibuster in principle, but at least legislators should be made to stand there) and, of course, a watershed moment in the gay rights movement after the rulings in the Windsor and Perry cases. Those rulings deserve our celebration; there’s much, much more ground to cover as far as gay marriage is concerned, but any step in the right direction only points to a brighter future for all people: gay, straight, bi, whatever. Certainly the successes at the Supreme Court are a boon for headline writers and photographers–and it turns out, cartoonists. You may have already seen what the next issue of The New Yorker will feature on its cover: Bert and Ernie cuddling in a dark room, watching the TV news air a picture of the nine justices.
There’s one problem: Bert and Ernie aren’t gay, and our collective understanding of the distinctions between friendships and romantic relationships (same- and different-sex relationships both, but same-sex relationships especially) suffers by continuing to insist that they are. We need cultural icons reflective of the heartening and rapid gains we’ve made with regard to gay rights, but Bert and Ernie ain’t them; they’re instead emblematic of friendship, not any sexual coming-to-our-senses. With gay culture thankfully beginning to enter the mainstream, we do ourselves a disservice by unnecessarily projecting onto Bert and Ernie—it’s unnecessary because there is no shortage of gay icons to pick from now, and there will only be more in time. (That’s aside from the disservice done to Sesame Street and Bert and Ernie individually through misunderstanding their association.) If you wanted to pick another pair to grace next week’s cover, I’ve got some ideas.
Full Disclosure, Part One: I have a serious soft spot for Sesame Street, and for Ernie in particular. Ernie is the best and funniest muppet on the show; I will accept no other arguments. I went to Sesame Place when I was two, hugged Ernie, and my mom wept. The thing that has more sentimental value than anything else in the world to me is a ragged Ernie doll that’s still sitting on my shelf at my parents’ house. If you picked that thing up it would probably fall to pieces, it’s so well-worn. If you need further proof of why Ernie is the best, you don’t need to take my word for it, you can take Jim Henson’s—Sesame Street‘s creator was Ernie’s puppeteer and voice.
Full Disclosure, Part Two: I have a serious soft spot for The New Yorker—I’m a subscriber now, thanks to some thoughtful generosity (my cousin said he’d pass along an extra gift subscription he’d received to “the most pretentious person he knows”). Its critics are pointed and top-notch, even if they err on the side of verbosity, and its long-form pieces are must-reads that paint stunning pictures of the most underreported areas of the globe. And the covers. Play word association with The New Yorker: You’d probably blurt out “COVERS” immediately (or second, after you blurted out “CARTOONS”—both “Covers” and “Cartoons” have their own section headings on The New Yorker‘s Wikipedia page). Some New Yorker covers are famous in their own right, most prominently Saul Steinberg’s View of the World from Ninth Avenue and the magazine’s recurring use of the Monopoly-Man-like Eustace Tilly. Most covers contain more than a touch of wit—as someone who hates the Yankees, this cover mocking the bandaged Yankees in their old age was funny at the time and is proving prophetic this season despite the one month Vernon Wells, in defiance of all logic, hit well. Nor do the covers always remain immune from controversy—you might recall this cover of the Obamas fist-bumping. HE’S COMIN’ FOR YOUR GUNZ, AMURRICA.
Calling Bert and Ernie gay is nothing new. We’ve probably all made that joke at some point, but it’s important to remember that it’s just a joke, that if you spend more than ten seconds thinking about it, it would be preposterous if Bert and Ernie were gay (or, frankly, straight). When is the last time you watched Sesame Street? Unless you have a kid, probably before you started kindergarten, right? Remember when you were a horny three year old and discovering your sexuality and looked to Bert and Ernie as role models who told you it was perfectly fine to be gay? Yeah, ME TOO.
Sarcasm aside, what I mean to say is that Sesame Street isn’t just a kids show, its a show for kids who are too young to have any idea what sex, gender, and orientation really mean. It is perfectly fine to be gay, of course, but Bert and Ernie weren’t the pair that made it cool to be gay. What makes it cool is the courage of gay people who have come out of the closet, their friends (gay and straight) and families who accept them no matter what, and the emergence of other cultural indicators, like characters on TV shows targeted to more mature audiences—that is, to audiences older than three who have a better idea of what being gay entails. Bert and Ernie show up on and recede from our cultural radar much earlier than that, and they’re not gay just because they sleep in the same room. The kids who watch Sesame Street can wait a few years before they go see Avenue Q.
Bert and Ernie do stand for something important, even if it’s not that LGBT people are wonderful people. Bert and Ernie tell little kids that it’s cool to be friends with others who are different from you. Given that when you’re three, your friends are literally chosen for you by your parents, this is a valuable lesson to learn. When you’re that young, you might have friends who aren’t of your gender or race or class, and if you’re a shy kid you might have friends who are quite talkative (or vice-versa). Now, when you’re that young, you’re too underdeveloped to fully appreciate the more significant differences (most of which are purely arbitrary social constructs) between you and your friends—this is one of the many, many joys of being a kid—but it still only helps to have an educational show feature two characters who are unalike in so many ways (primarily that Ernie is much, much more awesome than Bert, who can be pretty fucking annoying) but get along so well because they share much more than they’d admit.
Friendship isn’t a theme that receives a lot of serious treatment in movies and TV. Most of the time a movie ostensibly about friendship is something like a buddy comedy—something played for laughs. That’s not surprising—in fact, it’s pretty appropriate—because, if you’re anything like me and my friends, most of your time spent with your friends is spent making fun of each other and making fun of other people. Friendship is something we take seriously, and it can often be the subject of our own personal dramas, but the tenor of the majority of conversations you have with your friends probably isn’t gloomy, it’s boisterous and profane and lively—that’s why they’re your friends. But if there are some cultural touchstones that reliably discuss friendship seriously (meaning, not always for laughs), they are probably the first TV shows you watched when you were little, like Sesame Street or cartoons (I didn’t watch cartoons because I was weird and moved straight to ESPN after Sesame Street, so I can’t speak to that). After education, the primary goal of stuff like Sesame Street is to give you a glimpse into what friendship is all about.
If Sesame Street is about learning and making friends and it’s too early for kids to make Bert and Ernie into sexualized beings, then I’d venture that us adults should stop projecting our views as to what should be culturally acceptable onto them. It bears repeating that Ernie and Bert aren’t human beings, so we should recognize that the laws of nature and anatomy probably don’t apply to them like they do to us. Kids are meant to identify with Bert and Ernie, so it would be pointless to demand that Sesame Street turn them into a gay couple before kids have really begun to process their sexuality.
If you did want to introduce differences in sexual orientation to kids on Sesame Street, there’s an even better solution. Whenever Sesame Street has done shows about weighty and very human topics like death and marriage, it has involved the ACTUAL HUMAN BEINGS who act on the show, maybe for the reason that introducing such topics to kids makes more sense when it comes from humans themselves rather than a giant bird or an orange puppet. (For example, it was the adults who had to explain to Big Bird, who has the mind of a child, that Mr. Hooper had died and wasn’t coming back.) Unlike with the muppets, kids are not meant to identify with the adult characters, who are essentially there to teach. It would be odd for Bert and Ernie, who like the other non-humans don’t fully understand sexuality, to serve as kids’ role models where that is concerned; what Sesame Street could and should do is introduce a gay couple (humans, that is) to the show’s cast.
To me, it’s a little weird that The New Yorker‘s editorial board, a group you’d associate with a strong intellectual bent, didn’t take the ten seconds needed to think through the Bert-and-Ernie-are-gay trope, and pick an actual gay couple to appear on the cover instead if they had their mind set on a particular image. Assuming they didn’t want to run with anything from I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, why not Modern Family‘s Cam and Mitchell, who live in California, a state directly affected by the Perry result? Why not anybody from Glee? It’s a little old for our short-attention-span culture, but Will and Grace is, to my knowledge, the first mainstream gay sitcom, and I’d bet The New Yorker readership would get the allusion. And those are just TV couples. There are the two couples who were the name plaintiffs in the Perry case—they’d make a fine choice. Or the magazine could have abstracted a little bit and taken a tack used by The New Republic when it published Andrew Sullivan’s cover story arguing for the legalization of gay marriage in 1989; all it would need is an artist to come up with a concept that involved two tuxes or two white dresses, and go from there.
Basically, Bert and Ernie shouldn’t be gay icons because we don’t need them as placeholders for real gay icons anymore—the well is only starting to fill up with more and more choices. Bert and Ernie weren’t needed for a provocative, reflective, and witty cover, and they’re not needed to tell us that there’s nothing wrong with being gay, even if they help us recognize that there’s nothing wrong with being your own unique self. I’m grateful that we’ve evolved past the point that we need to insist on clarifying Bert and Ernie’s sexuality, and I’m grateful that we have a lot more gay heroes and heroines. Let’s celebrate them, and leave Ernie, who doesn’t know any better, to squeak Rubber Duckie.