Bert and Ernie Are Gay—Get Over It

At long last.

This week, the New Yorker came out with a cover that has already caused an uproar on the level of the of the Obama fist-bump cover in 2008. According to this illustration, Sesame Street characters and longtime companions Ernie and Bert have more than just a passing interest in the outcome of the DOMA case.

The rumors about Ernie and Bert’s sexuality have been around since at least the early 80’s (and for gay people, probably since the inception of the show in 1969).

As usual, however, we have the Religious Right to thank for interpreting these beloved characters as left-wing operatives, luring your children down the rabbit hole into a Godless world of homosexuality, free abortions for kids, communism, sharing, and compassion.

In this case, according to Muppetwiki, it was Rev. Joseph Chambers, a North Carolina radio minister who fulminated in 1994 that, “Bert and Ernie are two grown men sharing a house and a bedroom. They share clothes, eat and cook together and have blatantly effeminate characteristics. In one show Bert teaches Ernie how to sew. In another they tend plants together. If this isn’t meant to represent a homosexual union, I can’t imagine what it’s supposed to represent.”

Tend plants together! My God! Next they’ll be sweeping the front porch, washing the dishes, building a bookshelf from Ikea, or God knows what other perverted household chores those kind do.

The response to these accusations of homomuppetry from the creators of Sesame Street has hardly been inspiring. I once attended a talk by Frank Oz, the original puppeteer of Bert and creator of his character. I found Oz to be irascible and snappish, more like the high-powered Hollywood director he’s become than the creator of lovable creatures like Yoda and Miss Piggy. When asked the by-then-inevitable question about Bert and Ernie’s sexuality, he was just short of apoplectic. I can’t remember exact words, but he suggested the very idea was offensive—not just silly or an example of reading too much into things.

It would be fine if this were just the reaction of one difficult creative type to what he considers to be a misinterpretation of his work. But this has been a running theme among even liberal commentators in reaction to the Ernie/Bert relationship. June Thomas, culture critic for wrote on June 28th that the New Yorker cover is “a terrible way to commemorate a major civil rights victory.”

“You see,” she explains, “Bert and Ernie aren’t lovers. Back in 2007, the president of the Children’s Television Workshop said that they ‘do not exist beneath the waist.’ Then, two years ago, the Children’s Television Workshop declared:

‘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.’”

Thomas further explains that Ernie and Bert’s longtime companionship, “doesn’t mean that every pair of cohabiting friends is madly making out on a nightly basis.”

The trademark on the term Sesame Street Muppets ™ should tell us a lot. Children’s Television Workshop and The Muppets are trying to protect a very lucrative product. This doesn’t explain why a lesbian culture critic, or the director of In and Out, would be so offended.

Gonzo and Camilla: at least they’re not…you know…gay.

After all, several Muppets clearly have sexual orientations. On Sesame Street, Oscar the Grouch has a girlfriend named Grundgetta. The central relationship in the Muppet universe is the on-again, off-again romance between Miss Piggy and Kermit the Frog. I’m not aware of any radio preachers railing against this interspecies abomination. Nor am I aware of parents of preschoolers or the Children’s Television Workshop worrying whether these heterosexual relationships will lead to an assumption that the puppets are “madly making out on a nightly basis.”

I wouldn’t be so insistent on this if “best friends” and “don’t exist below the waist” weren’t classic evasions for explaining longtime roommate relationships between people of the same sex.

I think about the Presbyterian minister who baptized me when I was a baby—a man I was too young to know, but whom everyone in my church spoke of in my lifetime with great affection and respect. He also had someone he lived with, a handsome deacon in the church who, in those just-barely-post-Stonewall days, everyone assumed to be just his roommate and “best friend.” Then the deacon died. And everyone gave condolences to our pastor on losing his roommate; but our pastor could never speak about the true depth of his grief at losing the love of his life.

Or the two gentlemen who lived together down the street from me when I was growing up: one a funeral director, one a hairdresser. The hairdresser came around with bottles of wine, cigarettes, and smutty jokes for the desperate housewives of the neighborhood. “Doesn’t exist below the waist” might have been his moniker as well, as the wacky effeminate neighbor who lightened the world’s drudgery as long as no one thought about what his and the funeral director’s relationship was really all about.

The chief reason for people not wanting Bert and Ernie to be gay seems to be that they’re for kids, dammit, and therefore don’t need to have all that complicated sexuality stuff brought into it. But kids notice how adults structure their sexual relationships, even if they’re not yet fully aware of the range of physical expression of those relationships. Why else would Sesame Street have had Maria and Luis get married in 1988–after actress Sonia Manzano got pregnant–with as much fanfare as Luke and Laura on General Hospital?

You’re never going to be able to account for how a kid—or anyone else—interprets TV. It may be kids have been looking at Bert and Ernie for years and wondering if they were married. Perhaps, now that real structural changes are happening in society around same-sex marriage, these questions don’t need to be so awkward. Would it be so terrible if a preschooler asked a parent if Bert and Ernie were married and without batting an eyelash, Mom or Dad answered, “I don’t know. Some boys fall in love with other boys. Some boys fall in love with girls. What do you think?”

Or how about just answering, “Yes.”  

  • Rob Lindsay

    Brother Rick.

    There’s a story here that comes to mind. Back in the 1980s, Big Bird made an appearance on “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood.” He came to visit King Friday in the “Neighborhood of Make-Believe” segment. Muppeteer Carrol Spinney performed Big Bird on the “Mr. Rogers” show, and he and Fred Rogers worked very well together in the segment.

    However, there was one thing that Spinney objected to doing. Fred Rogers asked him to do a segment at Rogers “TV house,” where Spinney would take off his Big Bird costume and show the kids how it worked.

    Spinney said he couldn’t do this. He told Rogers, “To many children, Big Bird is not just a puppet. He’s a very real person, who just happens to be a bird. If I took off my costume, it would spoil the sense of childhood wonder that kids have about Big Bird. It would be like a Santa Claus taking off his beard in front of kids at a department store. It’s very important that we preserve the sense of fantasy that kids have about Big Bird, because it doesn’t last very long for them.”

    Fred Rogers agreed with Spinney on this point, and they decided that Big Bird would only appear as himself on Mr. Rogers’ program.

    I personally don’t care if Bert & Ernie are gay or not. But I think I can understand Frank Oz’s objections to suggestions that they are gay.

    These are supposed to be children’s TV characters. Bert & Ernie are supposed to provide comedy relief on “Sesame Street,” sing a few songs (like “Rubber Duckie” and “Doin’ the Pigeon”), and maybe teach an occasional lesson about friendship and sharing between friends.

    So I think Frank Oz’s objection might be along the lines of, “Why do you adults always have to SPOIL things for kids? Why do you have to ruin a child’s sense of wonder about these characters with your stupid sociology arguments?! Can’t you just let the kids enjoy Bert and Ernie in those brief years when they still HAVE a sense of fantasy?”

    So while I personally wouldn’t care if Bert & Ernie were gay, I think the whole discussion of whether or not they are gay overlooks their intended purpose. First and foremost, Bert & Ernie are supposed to be FUN for the children who watch them, and we “rain on the kids parade” when we get into these silly arguments about their sexuality.
    Think about it. When you were four years old, wouldn’t it have killed you if you’d seen a bunch of adults arguing over whether or not Bert and Ernie were “a bad influence” on you, because they were living together? You wouldn’t have understood the “gay vs. straight” argument. You would only think that these adults were spoiling your fun by trashing your friends on “Sesame Street.”

    • Ian

      Wow, so much homophobic presuppositions throughout that comment. Not sure whether you intended them, or whether you’re just reporting them, but they stink.

      The comparison with Miss Piggy and Kermit is well made. “Miss Piggy and Kermit are supposed to be fun! Why do you adults have to SPOIL things for kids by having them be a couple?”

      The idea that a gay couple can’t be fun, that a gay relationship would spoil things for children, that exposure to a gay couple is somehow breaking childhood innocence, that showing characters as being gay somehow unduly brings the adult world into children’s lives. Yeah, that’s the problem right there.

      So yeah, let’s just let Bert and Ernie be who they are, husbands, lovers, friends, roomies, whoever, and say so what? We don’t need to know whether Miss Piggy and Kermit are married, lovers, friends with benefits, or what. It simply doesn’t matter.

      If anyone’s reaction to Bert and Ernie being gay is a variation on “oh, why do you have to go and spoil my childhood”, then you know everything you need to know about how deeply their respect for gay people really is, regardless of what open and egalitarian views they claim to have.

      • Rob Lindsay

        You’re missing the point. The point is not whether Ernie and Bert being gay is controversial. The point is that the whole debate is *ridiculous*, since we’re talking about a couple of puppets here.

        I have the same reaction to this debate as I did to Jerry Falwell’s claim that Tinky Winky of the Teletubbies was a “Gay Pride” symbol. And that is, “Don’t we have better things to focus on? Like promoting acceptance of *real* gay people in American society? Like preventing real honest-to-goodness discrimination against gays?”

        My point is that the *argument itself* intrudes on children’s fantasy world. You talk about the argument over whether Kermit and Miss Piggy could be lovers. Well, when I was a kid, nobody ever made the argument that a frog and a pig couldn’t marry. Why not? Because it would have been a *ridiculous* argument to have in the first place!
        If anyone *had* made that argument, my adolescent reaction would have been, “These people are crazy! We’re talking about a couple of puppets here! Why can’t these people just enjoy Kermit and Piggy and have fun watching them?”
        (I would have felt the same way about the argument that X the Owl and Henrietta Pussycat were “living together out of wedlock” in X’s tree on “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.”)
        If you want to teach children to be accepting of gays, your best strategy is to teach them to accept the gay people they know in real life, not try to project your own suppositions onto certain TV characters.
        (I think that was what Frank Oz was objecting to when someone asked him about Bert & Ernie being gay. He was objecting to people projecting their own suppositions onto these characters that he created. It would be like someone telling a gay person, “I think you’re secretly heterosexual. You just don’t know it.” What right does that person have to tell *you* who you are, and what you should be?)

        • Ian

          People *were* making the point that people of different races shouldn’t marry. As a kid the specifics pass you by, but Miss Piggy and Kermit were not politically neutral.
          Gordon Robinson was a very intentional character choice. None of them were real. If you think that children’s TV makers don’t have (and know they have) a responsibility for portraying healthy relationships, and diversity, then I think you’re very naive.

          Children’s TV should increasingly portray normative same-sex families, in the way they have a moral responsibility to portray strong female characters outside of a home context, or a range of characters of color.

          So of course, Bert and Ernie aren’t really gay, any more than Hamlet is really the prince of Denmark, or President Bartlet has MS.

          But the idea that Bert and Ernie can’t or shouldn’t be interpreted as gay, or written in the future as gay, is rather offensive, because it puts a gay relationship under a denomalizing lens: something you must presume against, without overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

          So it isn’t ridiculous because they are fictional, children’s characters, or puppets, to have them behave in ways that show facets of normal human experience. If that is the point I missed, it is a terrible one.

          So I think the point *is* about the controversy. Read the last paragraph of the post again. The final sentence “I don’t know (but here’s an opportunity to tell you that if they were, it would just be normal).”

          The point is that it shouldn’t matter. And this is why Oz’s ‘apoplectic’ reaction is a problem. If he or anyone else would react to the question “Are Bert and Ernie of Italian Decent’ in the same way, we’d have rightly concluded he’s got something of a problem with Italians.

          It would be a good thing if sesame street moved to have Bert and Ernie in a more romantic relationship (for the reasons above – to model healthy same-sex relationships to children).

          But this story is about the gut reaction people have that you can’t do that to beloved characters. As if ‘doing that’ to characters were some kind of bad thing. Which merely reflects an underlying bigotry against healthy same-sex partnerships.

  • John Curt

    these gay lunatics must first accept that they will always be rejected, you will always be freaks

    • Gary Calderone

      Stop looking in the mirror and face the real world.

  • Guest

    bert and ernie are not gay, the new yorker cover is just a dream of the gay fucktards

    • Gary Calderone

      They also aren’t even real! And using the word ‘fucktard’ shows how ignorant and bigoted you are, not just against lgbt people, but also the mentally challenged.

  • Marc Darius

    What’s offensive is that two men can’t be close friends without the insinuation that they must be gay. There’s nothing wrong with being gay. But why must any relationship include sex? Particularly when they’re representational and intended to illustrate how to form a close relationship to prepubescent children? Whatever Bert and Ernie might grow up to be, they’re asexual.

    It would be fine to have a homosexual adult couple to inform children of that kind of relationship, but Bert and Ernie aren’t it.