The Muppets of Sesame Street have come a long way in the venerable children’s program’s over 40 years of broadcast on PBS. Now LGBT activists are asking the public to sign an online petition in favor of having two of the characters get married. Two of the male characters, that is.
With gay marriage now legal in New York state, where Sesame Street takes place, activists are asking the show’s creators to take the change in law as their cue to have some gay Muppets get married. The main problem? According to a statement from Sesame Workshop in response to the petition, Bert and Ernie simply aren’t gay:
”(Bert and Ernie) were created to teach preschoolers that people can be good friends with those who are very different from themselves.' Even though the Sesame Street Muppets… possess many human traits and characteristics, they have no sexual orientation.”
In spite of this and many other denials of the Muppets’ sexual orientation over the years, many people still see the duo as a representation of a gay couple; in many cases the first such relationship children will encounter either on TV or in their real lives. Bert and Ernie live together, albeit in separate beds, bicker like a couple, and really enjoy bubble baths. They were written as best friends and roommates, but for many years adult viewers have seen something more. But does it mean anything to children to see a couple of male Muppets tie the knot? Or will it, as some argue, simply confuse them?
I can tell you that my preschoolers barely have a concept of what marriage is, never mind what it means on any sort of deeper level. If asked if two men could get married they will say yes, because they have no concept of why they shouldn’t. They also believe their stuffed animals or toy cars can get married (why shouldn’t they – Lightning McQueen and Sally have a romance at least as real as anything between Bert and Ernie). The bottom line here is that having Bert and Ernie get married is a political statement that would pretty much be lost on most of Sesame Street’s viewers. Yes, it introduces the concept that two men can be married, but as I already pointed out, the average preschooler already thinks that’s just fine. Maybe it isn't the kids who need to be taught about gay marriage, but rather the adults.
As to whether the petition will have any impact, it seems rather unlikely. Sesame Street has been known to bring in characters reflecting the reality of modern life, including an HIV-positive Muppet. It’s not unthinkable that a gay Muppet couple will someday appear on the show. But will it be Bert and Ernie? Not likely.