On Bert & Ernie, marriage & “Love” among Muppets

So last week the online petition for Bert & Ernie to get married on Sesame Street provoked the following response from Sesame Workshop:

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 Muppetsâ„¢ do), they remain puppets, and do not have a sexual orientation.

There’s been a ton of commentary between then and now, but I think most of it constrained narrowly (and I’m summarizing here): marriage seems a bit much to show to little kids, but Sesame Street ought to recognize something more meaningful about their relationship.

I tried to suss this out for myself on Facebook:

I’d be a little happier if this note stated that Bert & Ernie LOVE one another – which they obviously do – and that it’s OK for friends to feel something more than “Like” for one another, even when they’re the same gender. They don’t need to be gay (or straight or bi) to love one another. They’ve lived together forever for crying out loud. What’s so wrong with a little “I love you, man” between Muppets?

As far as I can tell, the only marriage on Sesame Street is between Luis & Maria. The full story of their relationship, wedding & kids is interesting and sheds some light on the thinking of the producers & educators behind the show:

As Dulcy Singer said, “I thought it would be better to do it with Luis because I didn’t want to open another kettle of fish. It was enough to get a wedding on the show and have a family without opening ourselves to more difficulties. And I thought it would be a good and helpful thing to show a stable Latino family.”

I can’t think of any of the Muppets in a romantic relationship (save for Kermit the Frog & Miss Piggy on The Muppet Show) but plenty of Muppets on Sesame Street have very close relationships with other Muppets & people on Sesame Street. In fact, I’d argue that modeling close, loving relationships & friendships is one of the core tenets of the show.

As a parent of 4 (3 of whom are aged 4 and younger) I wouldn’t be averse to Sesame Street somehow recognizing or codifying the relationship that clearly exists between Bert & Ernie. Not one bit.

What I fear would happen – and what is already happening – is pushback from folks who oppose gay marriage (and, frankly, gay people in general) and another assault on public television. If you think folks are fired up about a latino Spider-Man, they’d absolutely lose their shit that two characters made of felt (not flesh) were getting married. Vapors, fainting couches, breathless commentary on the cable news and maybe even a mention on Capitol Hill.

No amount of Fred Rogers could bring us back from that precipice. If it ever could or ever will, now that folks in this country believe public radio & public TV to be a drain on resources, despite getting 15-20% of funding for CPB/PBS and only 2% for NPR.

But enough about my fears. Whatever would or could happen likely won’t happen now that Sesame Workshop has released their statement. And while it’s likely the most politically expedient thing to do – and certain people are finding ways to make it seem more sensible than it is – I still believe it doesn’t go far enough.

Snuffy & Big Bird hug one another all the time, and they’re both male, so why are Bert & Ernie so polarizing and associated with this issue? Because they live together?

Other characters show love, kindness, respect and affection for one another. It’s in every single episode. Friendship, love and caring are always mentioned and shown.

Whether they get married or not is ultimately irrelevant, I think. The fact that an entire generation grew up with Bert & Ernie’s loving cohabitation (and the fact that most of my friends would identify them as gay) is proof positive that acceptance comes at the margins. Whether Henson, CPB or CTW meant for us to reach that conclusion, we could see it in the episodes as children and understand it as adolescent and later adults.

I’m sure some would call that subversive. I’m sure some are already upset that two male Muppets are roommates, never mind that they have separate beds and they performers’ hands up their asses. Maybe that’s what bothers folks most: that deep down Muppets are already perverse enough to be in to fisting.

I jest, but folks are wacky out there.

We can all see the love of these characters and it’s important to our children to see healthy relationships modeled, relationships of all kinds. To think that our kids will inherit a world where they’ll have to interact with only those who are identical to them is asinine and narrow-minded in the extreme.

Sesame Street has always been about inclusion and safety. Showing us the ordinary and the everyday and reassuring kids about the humanity and goodness of all people, even (especially) the people who aren’t people: the monsters and Muppets.

In the end, people who really dislike the ideas behind the petition probably aren’t paying attention anyhow. Your kids are learning to love, honor & respect one another (and all relationships) whether there’s a “marriage” or not.

Did anyone sign the petition? I haven’t yet.

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