Sesame Saturday: How Sesame Workshop Should Address the Matter of Sexuality

I want to take a moment to reiterate my reader-response-informed theory of criticism: it is neither the creator of an artistic work nor the audience that confers meaning upon it; rather, meaning is created when the intention of the author meets the interpretation of the audience. This is not to say that the creator of a work cannot have his or her own interpretation of its meaning; rather, it means that the creator’s interpretation is not the “only” correct interpretation.

I bring this up again because the matter of Bert and Ernie’s sexuality became an issue again this week. I’ve written about this extensively elsewhere. I believe that, much like Batman in The Dark Knight, Bert, Ernie, and all the other Muppets are whatever each of us, as individual viewers, need them to be.

Last week or so, Mark Saltzman, a former Sesame Street writer who also happens to be gay, gave an interview in which he said that, in writing Bert and Ernie sketches, he drew upon the relationship between him and his partner. Now, there’s nothing too remarkable about that in itself; all writers draw from first-hand experience and personal relationships. If I were writing Bert and Ernie sketches, I would probably draw on my relationship with my older sister (in which I would be Ernie to my sister’s Bert) or my younger brother (in which I would be Bert to my brother’s Ernie).

But, as is often the case, people on the Internet overreacted and started sharing it around stating that it offered proof–PROOF!–of Bert and Ernie having been gay all the time. In reality, however, Saltzman didn’t intend to say that Bert and Ernie were gay and later clarified this in an interview with the New York Times, but by that time the uproar had already reached fever pitch.

Then Frank Oz chimed in on Twitter:

Apparently the replies to that tweet got a little heated, but I didn’t read them so I can’t comment. Frank, however, didn’t seem offended and in fact seemed to welcome the lively discussion. He further clarified his original remark in a few more tweets, and I’d advise you to check those out on your own (also, follow him on Twitter if you don’t already; he’s delightful).

I don’t mean to privilege Frank’s interpretation, but I will point out that it is probably the closest interpretation to my own. As a child growing up in a large family, I had to learn how to share a small living space with siblings whose personalities are vastly different from my own, so I’ve always perceived Bert and Ernie as being brothers. Therefore, the question of whether or not they are gay is a nonissue for me, but the idea of them being in a romantic and/or sexual relationship is extremely squicky.

Then I read an article…and I don’t want to critique it too harshly because I know that it came from a history of being disenfranchised and undervalued, but in it the author rather crankily opined that Sesame Street should just affirm what “everybody” already knows and have Bert and Ernie come out, thereby invalidating the opinions of everybody (including me) who, for one reason or another, does not see Bert and Ernie as a gay couple. I did not appreciate this because I work so hard to respect the opinions of others, even when they are counter to my own, and I expect the same courtesy. More importantly, I don’t think it would be a good idea for Sesame Street to give in to peer pressure on the issue of Bert and Ernie’s relationship; sexuality is such an intensely personal matter, something that one discovers for oneself, that I think giving the impression that it can be changed by petition or decided via Internet poll sends a very wrong and confusing message.

Furthermore, I think it’s worth pointing out that there are objective impediments to Bert and Ernie’s relationship being romantic/sexual/matrimonial, the most egregious being that there is no consistency when it comes to Bert and Ernie’s ages. Based on the needs of each individual sketch, their ages seem to fluctuate; sometimes they seem like adults or adolescents, while at other times they seem like little kids. Take, for example, the street story in which Bert learns to ride a bicycle without training wheels (which, unfortunately, I cannot find online in its entirety, but here are some significant clips). Bert seems like he’s only about six or seven, whereas Ernie seems to be going through puberty because his voice has suddenly changed. But I digress.

Meanwhile, Sesame Workshop responded to the controversy the way they’ve always responded when this matter comes up, by saying that Bert and Ernie are puppets and do not have a sexual orientation. In the past, I’ve always taken this to mean that the Workshop doesn’t want to invalidate anyone’s interpretation. I’ve always been sympathetic to the Workshop on this issue because I’ve always appreciated the difficult position that it puts them in. Due to circumstances beyond their control, they undergo scrutiny from pundits and conspiracy theorists on both the right and the left, nothing they say or do ever seems to be good enough, and the stakes are high not only for the show but potentially for the future of the entire PBS network (which is somewhat ironic as the future of Sesame Street is no longer dependent on the future of PBS, although the future of PBS may well be dependent on the future of Sesame Street).

With that said, this time around Sesame Workshop’s response frustrated me. For one thing, I don’t understand why they responded with the exact same words they’ve used in the past when the previous statement was obviously insufficient in convincing anyone. “As a wise old Observer once said, ‘To constantly repeat the same action and expect a variant reaction is surely a sign of madness.'”

Furthermore, I feel like I’m seeing subtextual implications in the statement that I never noticed before. It could be unintentional–I HOPE it’s unintentional–but it’s starting to seem as though Sesame Workshop thinks that having gay characters on Sesame Street would be a shameful thing. I hope that I’m wrong about that, but if I’m right, it’s extremely troubling. Just because I think it would be problematic–objectively as well as subjectively–to officially encode Bert and Ernie as a gay couple doesn’t mean that I think there is no room on Sesame Street for any gay characters at all. But that’s the vibe that I’m starting to get from the Workshop.

Clearly, the response the Workshop has given in the past is inadequate. In attempting to satisfy everyone, they’ve succeeded in satisfying no one. If they are going to resolve this issue, as well as preserve their reputation for inclusivity, they have to revise their response. First, they have to say something definitive about Bert and Ernie. Second, they have to address the issue directly on the show.

If I worked in Sesame Workshop’s public relations department, here is what I would say about Bert and Ernie: “Like at least 1% of the population, Bert and Ernie’s orientation is asexual...” Not only would that go a long way towards putting the issue to rest once and for all, without completely invalidating anyone’s individual interpretation, but the Workshop could take advantage of the teachable moment to educate the public on asexuality, which is sometimes forgotten or misunderstood even by the LGBT community.

Second, Sesame Street should acknowledge same-sex relationships in a significant way on the show. There are at least three ways that they can do that:

  1. Just as they had Maria and Luis fall in love and get married when actress Sonia Manzano became pregnant approximately 30 years ago (?!?), they could have two of the existing human characters fall in love, decide to get married, and have a special episode devoted to the wedding. It should be human characters, not Bert and Ernie or any Muppet characters, as I believe that the inherent silliness of a Muppet wedding would undermine the seriousness of the issue.
  2. Choose a major Muppet character whose parents we have not yet met on the show and introduce that character’s parents as a gay couple. In this case, the parents can be Muppets or, to work in another prosocial message about adoption, the parents can be human.
  3. Introduce a new (preferably human) gay couple into the neighborhood.

My suggestion would be to have existing characters fall in love rather than introducing new gay characters. There are two reasons for this: (a) regardless of how carefully they try to introduce a new gay couple and flesh them out as well-rounded characters, people are bound to fixate on their sexuality as the only thing that matters about them; (b) if the only thing you know about someone is their sexual orientation, it is much easier to reject them than if someone whom you already know and care about comes out; I know this from personal experience.

I’ve often thought about how I would respond if somebody, particularly a child with genuine uncertainty, were to ask me if Bert and Ernie were gay. I think that, regardless of who asked me, my response would be basically the same: “I do not know if Bert and Ernie are gay, and it makes no difference to me because I love them no matter what.”

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