Friday, August 12, 2011


A petition to have Sesame Street Muppets Ernie and Burt legally wed.


Some things are just mind-boggling. True, there have been jokes about the nature of those two characters for as long as I can remember (as far back as the early 80's in fact), which is a point I will get to in a minute. But why Burt and Ernie? Because they’re two men who live together and happen to, having an undefined relationship, co-habitate? But why stop there? After all, wouldn’t the more logical homosexual analogy be Big Bird and Mr. Snuffalopagus? After all, “Snuff” (a nickname which could carry its own disturbingly pornographic connotations) would “hang out” with Big Bird unless someone else would come near, and then he would conveniently “disappear” and hide (possibly back into his “closet”)? Or reading this further, is Oscar so grouchy because he hasn’t had any sexual intercourse? After all, what woman would want someone as dirty as him, wherein his only loved companion is “Slimy the Worm” (perhaps phallic symbolism regarding inadequate genitalia?); or how about Grover’s unrequited affections for Kermit the Frog? Kermit almost always seemed embarrassed whenever Grover showed up. No one addresses Cookie Monster’s obvious cookie addiction (possibly "Molly"-laced), or the fact that his eyes roll around as though in perpetual orgasm. Okay, to be fair Cookie nowadays does address the need of eating more wholesome foods, but it smacks of the type of speech given by a Betty Ford Clinic graduate, doesn't it?  How about the Count's counting fetish? Is he only laughing when he reaches his "climax" count number? These permutations are absurdist and plentiful, yet arguments can be made that the subtext is there if that is what you want to see.

That said, I want to ask those of you who read this to take a moment to follow this instruction:  Remember when you first encountered these characters as a child. When you were first exposed to E&B, did such considerations of sexuality cross your mind or did you accept the conceit as it was: two male puppets who shared an apartment and slept in separate beds? It's only after one gets an introduction and understanding of sexuality, with its requisite permutations that one starts to wonder/imagine as to the specificity of said relationship. We add on to our perception as our experience of the world grows. Hence, Ernie and Burt go from two guys who share a living space to [fill in the blank].

It isn’t mind-boggling that the producers of Sesame Street recently issued a statement definitively quelling any possibility of a marriage, much less a homosexual relationship, between Ernie and Burt. That it was brought to that point is. While it’s a show that can be enjoyed by all ages, at its heart Sesame Street is a show aimed at children; designed to stimulate not only a love for education and learning but also that of imagination…the latter of which obviously works if adults are engaging in tongue-in-cheek theories about the Muppets as evidenced above. But is it not selfishly self-serving to try to pigeon-hole these characters, who have gone for decades without such ultimately limiting labels, to one particular view point? After all, Ernie and Bert are, in a sense, the “Felix Unger" and "Oscar Madison” of the preschool world, but only in the sense that they bicker and share a living space. They're neither "Fred and Ethyl" nor are they a divorced couple (if they're even old enough to marry in-story, contextually).

The statement from the producers states: "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”. No more, no less. Anything further can be extrapolated by a preschooler’s, and even an adult's, imagination. Foundationally, they’re two males who have a close bond and share an apartment on Sesame Street. That’s it. It’s just as arguable to say that "they’re gay" to say "they’re just best friends" (or even brothers, before the statement was issued). Not one interpretation is “better” or more valid than the other. That’s the beauty of these characters. The vagueness of their relationship allows for the imagination to play, with each scenario as justifiable as the next. To classify theirs as LGBT is not wrong in a moral sense, mind you; however, it limits, and does a disservice to, the characters’ ability to reach all children across all genders and of nascent orientation.

If such representation is warranted and required of Sesame Street, there is no reason for the producers not to go the Archie Comics route, wherein a specifically gay character was introduced; one who has received overwhelming acceptance (try turning Betty and Veronica into lesbians or Archie and Reggie into a gay couple and see how well received that would have been…at least by the parents). But imagination is all about construction, not destruction. So the issue here really is not whether Burt and Ernie are gay (and the producers flat-out stated that, as puppets, they’re not real and, therefore, not sexually oriented) but that some want to push their own impression(s) or agenda(s) about such universal characters over that of others, is. Reverse discrimination? That’s too extreme of a statement and probably not what the petitioners intended, but in the final analysis that's the implication. Perhaps the producers of Sesame Street will see this as an opportunity to reflect the popular zeitgeist and create a LGBT character in much the same way as they created an HIV-infected character a few years ago. Or, they can go along as they always have, and hope that the culture-at-large will remember the fact that this is a children’s show wherein everyone, human and Muppet alike, get along and are accepted for who they are despite their differences (stated or otherwise), wherein those differences are not spoken of because, at the end of the day, in the context of friendship and good will, they’re immaterial.

The petition only shows that we’re still a long way from learning the lessons Sesame Street attempts to impart.