Can puppets have a sexual orientation? It’s a question you probably didn’t expect to be debating this week, but here we are.
In an interview with Queerty earlier this week, long-time Sesame Street writer Mark Saltzman said that he wrote Bert and Ernie’s relationship — long a subject of fond, tongue-in-cheek speculation — to be that of “a loving couple.” According to Saltzman, during his 15-year tenure with the show, he modeled Bert and Ernie after his own romantic relationship with the late Arnold Glassman, even going so far as to incorporate their real-life quirks into his interpretation of the characters. Adorable!
Unfortunately, though, instead of letting this stand as a charming glimpse into the previously closeted world of children’s television, Sesame Street’s parent company took to Twitter yesterday with a ham-fisted denial — not just of Bert and Ernie’s romantic relationship, but of the very concept of, um, puppets having sexual orientations:
This is patently ridiculous. And not just because “they remain puppets, and do not have a sexual orientation” is one of the most absurd combinations of words in the English language. As many of the replies to Sesame Workshop’s now-deleted tweet pointed out, the characters that Sesame Street Muppets represent have been shown to have a sexual orientation — as long as that orientation is straight.
In the course of researching this article, I’ve learned not only that Oscar the Grouch has a girlfriend named Grundgetta, but also that The Count’s apparently numerous female paramours have made appearances in his counting segments, and that Elmo’s heteronormative family tree is well-documented on his spin-off show, Elmo’s World. Frankly, the less said about frequent Sesame Street guest star Kermit and his dysfunctional relationship with Miss Piggy, the better.
So what the hell was Sesame Workshop talking about? Plenty of Muppets are in romantic relationships, so who cares if a couple of obviously gay puppets are gay? Why issue a statement throwing a veteran writer under the bus just to keep two puppets who have been living together for the better part of a century in the closet? It’s 2018!
To understand Sesame Workshop’s panic at the outing of Bert and Ernie, as well as the outrage and hurt many in the queer community felt when reading their statement (which was later deleted and reissued as a similar statement wisely removing all mention of the sexual orientation of puppets), it’s helpful to look at it in a wider context.
Queerness in children’s media has gotten unprecedented attention recently thanks to great strides made by shows like Steven Universe — and some fumbles made by others (I’m looking at you, Voltron). 2014’s Legend of Korra finale saw the protagonist and her closest female friend walking off into the sunset (okay, the Spirit World) together holding hands, followed by a swift confirmation on Tumblr from the creators that yes, this was intended to be the start of a romantic relationship.
Since it began airing in 2013, Steven Universe has featured multiple queer characters and relationships, including a gay wedding (with a kiss!) in an episode last month. And Adventure Time just wrapped up its nine-season run with a long-anticipated kiss between fan favorites Princess Bubblegum and Marceline. Each of these moments was celebrated with emotional outpourings of gratitude from the shows’ vast adult fandoms.
As for their younger audiences, there’s no question that these few instances of undeniable on-screen queerness have the potential to make a huge difference for previously ignored (or worse) queer children. In a recent interview that has already become essential reading, Steven Universe creator Rebecca Sugar eloquently put words to what many queer adults (former queer children) have always known: telling queer stories in children’s media is one way that we can “let children know that they belong in this world,” especially those who may get the message from other parts of society that they don’t.
Sugar also detailed some of the obstacles she faced behind the scenes at Cartoon Network, most persistently the harmful idea that queerness is somehow “adult content” — despite, like the heterosexual Muppets of Sesame Street, straight romance being deemed unthreatening to young audiences. Sugar, for her part, eventually threatened to walk if she couldn’t tell the story she wanted to tell with Steven Universe, and Cartoon Network relented. But not all creators have had the wherewithal or the ability to do that, and the stories behind Adventure Time and Legend of Korra’s now-iconic gay moments are of similarly uphill battles with varying results.
In his “Korrasami is canon” post, Korra co-creator Bryan Konietzko said Nickelodeon had put “limits” on how much of Korra and Asami’s budding romance was allowed to be depicted on screen. Adventure Time, too, had to deal with roadblocks and controversy on the way to Marcy and Princess Bubblegum’s eventual kiss, albeit much more publicly. Fans will remember that the romance was first hinted at way back in the 2011 episode “What Was Missing” and its accompanying promotional video recap, the latter of which was promptly taken down by Adventure Time’s studio, Frederator. Bubbline, as the couple is known in online fandom, was banished to subtext for seven long years.
Like Sesame Street, neither Legend of Korra nor Adventure Time were ever shy about showing affection between heterosexual romantic partners. So why the sudden pearl-clutching when the couples in question happened to be same-sex? The answer sheds light both on why Sesame Workshop released their harmful statement about Bert and Ernie, and why the statement was harmful in the first place.
It all goes back to the idea that queer relationships, feelings, and identities are somehow more “adult” than those that align with the heteronormative status quo. This is a false but pervasive assumption that queer people of all ages and identities encounter in their daily lives, so it’s no surprise that it’s echoed in society’s typical approach to children’s media.
Heterosexuality is seen as neutral and harmless, while queerness of all varieties is considered obscene — and not just by people who are openly bigoted. Even many who purport to be allies find it difficult to separate queerness from sex. This explains why any unambiguous queerness in children’s media is so often interpreted as “inappropriate” or — as Frederator founder Fred Seibert put it in his explanation for removing 2011’s Bubbline content — “spicy.”
And yes, this applies to Bert and Ernie, despite the fact that they are puppets. Many of the queer folks (including me) who responded with dismay to Sesame Workshop’s original statement were immediately flooded with replies from random strangers accusing us of, um, desperately wanting to watch Bert and Ernie perform graphic sexual acts. That is just…No. No, thank you.
But that so many people’s minds — some of whom insisted that they were in no way homophobic, and how dare anyone imply otherwise — immediately went there paints a pretty damning picture of society’s widespread inability to see queerness as anything other than vulgar and sexual. And in their stubborn denial of Bert and Ernie’s coupledom despite so many other straight Muppet couples existing, Sesame Workshop played into exactly the prejudices that Rebecca Sugar and other creators like her have worked so hard to subvert: that queer characters don’t belong in stories told to children.
The question of whether Bert and Ernie “are” actually gay is kind of a different one, but it’s worth addressing. Because if you ignore the fact that it blatantly exists to reinforce heteronormativity in a children’s show, yeah, I guess Sesame Workshop’s statement could be interpreted as just clearing up the Sesame Street canon.
But as Saltzman clarified in an interview with the New York Times today that was definitely not done under pressure from Sesame Workshop, he never actually said Bert and Ernie were gay. He said that during the time he wrote them, he wrote them “as a loving couple.” The distinction is small, but it matters, not least of all because it leaves room for plausible deniability on the part of Sesame Workshop and other, less forward-thinking members of the team behind Sesame Street’s iconically gay puppets. And that’s fine! Different creators have different interpretations of the work they collaborated on. The discussion of who owns characters and “what is canon” is way outside the scope of this article.
But the fact that even limited, subjective non-straightness as described by one writer required an immediate denial is something Sesame Workshop would do well to examine. As they saw in the responses to their first tweet, the internet is teeming with people willing to explain, for free, why queer representation in children’s shows is so important. If Sesame Workshop decides to ignore those voices, that’s their decision. But it’s a decision supported by homophobia and outdated, incorrect views about queerness, which are the only reasons that Bert and Ernie shouldn’t join the pantheon of officially sanctioned Sesame Street Muppet couples—right next to Oscar and Grundgetta.
That being said, there’s another side to the subjective nature of Saltzman’s carefully worded interview, and it works in favor of Sesame Street’s more progressive audience, rather than those who would minimize Bert and Ernie’s queerness: Regardless of how and why Bert and Ernie were created, thanks to Saltzman, we now know that for 15 years they were specifically written to be a gay couple, modeled after one man’s relationship with the love of his life. I can’t imagine a sweeter story to tell children.