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 Slate.com 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.”  

"Jason Isbell is country?"

At SXSW2017: Music Festival Day 3
"Ryan, will you change this yet?Jason Pollack literally changed facts and made up stuff. He's ..."

At SXSW2017: STRANGER FRUIT
"Now that the unedited video is available and it shows that Pollock has created a ..."

At SXSW2017: STRANGER FRUIT
"Jason Pollock is a fucking idiot. The film is a scam; cut and pasted, tons ..."

At SXSW2017: STRANGER FRUIT

Browse Our Archives

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • BlameTheFed

    The truth is that there are no healthy homosexual relationships. Homosexuality is a behavior that is UNHEALTHY and UNNATURAL. This is not bigoted or hateful, just the truth. Homosexuals know this truth but hate it. It is an easily observable FACT that the human body is biologically designed expressly for heterosexual relations–, a behavior necessary for human reproduction.

    People with same-sex attractions deserve to be treated with kindness and respect. However it should be acknowledged that their sexual behavior is a wrong choice. Homosexuals should be treated the same as anything else in matters where sexuality is not an issue (housing, employment, etc.). Just as an obese person should not be bullied or unfairly discriminated against. However, It should not be encouraged in society. We don’t need gay parades with people publicly celebrating their lewd sexual practices, which should be kept private and discreet. It would be like a parade of drug users waving around needles and bongs.

    Homosexual behavior is the same kind of wrong choice as obsessive-compulsive or suicidal behavior, abusing drugs or alcohol, overeating to the point of obesity, or being promiscuous. All these behaviors are harmful to oneself. It is not right for society to promote these unhealthy and unnatural behaviors as normal.

    • Ian

      Oh the capitals prove it: when you shout, you’re clearly right!

      There are plenty of healthy same sex relationships. If you’re not friends with any such couples then it’s worth considering why. There are plenty of racist folks who claim they’ve never met a pleasant black person or hispanic person, either. It says more about them than about people of color.

      Your obsession with intercourse (to the extent that you can’t even discuss same-sex couples in children’s TV without writing the majority of your response about sex) is duly noted. You might want to seek help about your obsession with people’s (or children’s TV character’s) carnal activities.

      Talking of things society finds unhealthy and doesn’t want to say is ‘normal’: I’m very relieved that society has increasingly decided that your creepy obsessiveness combined with blithe bigotry is harmful and should not be given safe harbour.

      • Free2Speak

        Thank you for taking the time to reply to my comment.

        I would like to point out that in my three-paragraph post, I capitalized only three words, for emphasis. If you want to imagine I was shouting, that’s up to you, but I wasn’t.

        Perhaps I should clarify: sexual ACTS between people of the same sex are unhealthy and unnatural, in the same way it is unhealthy and unnatural to have sex with an animal, if an animal could consent. Human bodies are just not designed this way. It is not good for us because it is harmful to our bodies and to our souls. It is also harmful to society because children need a mother and a father. It is the way biology (and God) created us. You don’t have to believe in God to see this. Disagreeing with this is self-delusion. It is a rejection of nature and reality.

        I do not hate homosexuals! I know several homosexual couples personally and I think they are some of the nicest people in the world. I have no doubt that these couples love and care for each other very much. I get along with them all very well, because I respect their right to conduct their private lives as they wish. They are consenting adults.

        I just believe that engaging in gay sex is wrong, and I simply cannot change that. It is as if you want me to say that morbid obesity is healthy and beautiful, or that smoking is OK and healthy. 2+2 does not equal 5. I can respect your right to do it, but you don’t have the right to FORCE others to LIKE it (more caps, ha!) I will never be rude or mean to a smoker. I realize it’s an addiction (my parents both smoked). It does not mean smokers are bad people! I can love someone very much because people are MORE than their bad habits. They have many other good qualities. But I will still be repulsed by seeing or thinking of them engaging in this filthy, harmful act. It makes me feel sad and sorry for them. Unhealthy behaviors should not be publicly accepted and promoted as natural and healthy. I think everyone should acknowledge this obvious truth. And it shouldn’t drive people to commit suicide. God loves ALL of us, despite our many sins. Smokers know they are addicted to a disgusting habit, but they don’t hate themselves and commit suicide over it. They also don’t have to have celebrations and “smokers pride” parades to falsely pump up their self-esteem. They accept with honesty that what they are doing is wrong and unhealthy and many of them sincerely make the effort to quit and live healthier lives.

        If you want to call me a bigot for speaking the truth, I really don’t care. If I am a bigot for opposing homosexual relationships, then I am also bigoted against other acts of self-harm, like smoking, drug and alcohol abuse, and morbid obesity.

        • Ian

          You really obsessed with gay sex, aren’t you? It’s rather telling. You’re obsessing over something you find so thrillingly filthy, so awful, but you can’t stop talking about it, in hundreds of words of internet comment.

          Not an uncommon problem unfortunately. But rather transparent. Perhaps you should use more capitals to distract from the fact that you want to write more about the sex.

  • Jayde Lismmetls

    It always makes me sad when this site bashes right wing religious people. I had hopes this site would be more Christian than those they fight against, but sadly, you are no better. I am looking for a Christian group that does not judge anyone….that sets the example of Jesus to everyone, even those who persecute them. But you are no better than those you claim to despise. Please try to put a little more love and compassion in your posts…try to be a little more Biblical if you can…rather than use those buzz words that identify you as someone against someone else…try to bring together rather than set apart……try love?

  • Jayde Lismmetls

    On a unrelated note, Sesame Street has come out with an official statement saying Ernie and Bert are not gay. Actually, who cares? Let people think what they want, it won’t be the first time people were accused of being something they were not, and they won’t be the last..(am I talking about puppets like they were people? Times are changing, aren’t’ they!!)

    • DrLindsay

      LOL.