In a week that's been marked by one of the most significant steps forward for gay rights in the United States, a lot of people are celebrating… including residents of Sesame Street. Next week's cover of The New Yorker has popped up online, and as you can see, Bert & Ernie seem to be celebrating the Supreme Court's decision to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act with an intimate snuggle on the couch.
It's a long running joke that Sesame Street's famous, stripes-loving roommates were more than just platonic pals. After all, when the characters debuted in 1969, it was exceedingly common for gay men to refer to their partners as "roommates," and the tight relationship between the adult Bert and Ernie-- they share a bedroom and do everything together-- often read to adult eyes as a committed, monogamous relationship. Two years ago, when New York State legalized gay marriage, a petition emerged asking Sesame Street to allow Bert and Ernie to get married. The Sesame Workshop's response did a pretty remarkable job of turning down the request without even a whiff of homophobia. It's not that Bert & Ernie aren't gay because that's a bad thing; it's because they're characters made for children who care way less about romantic relationships than learning how to share:
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.
The artist, Jack Hunter, who initially submitted his image to Tumblr, said to The New Yorker that "This is great for our kids, a moment we can all celebrate." And of course, he's totally correct. So many children today are either raised by gay parents or have friends who are, and most of them will grow up not understanding how it could have ever been a problem for two women or two men to marry and love each other. But it will be a long time before the kids who are of Sesame Street watching age can understand the concept that drives an assumption that Bert & Ernie are, in fact, a gay couple. Kids that age don't really understand romance, or sex, or anything that drives two people to live together forever other than having children. If Bert & Ernie-- or any other pair of Muppets-- were raising kids together, it might be a great way to teach preschool children about different kinds of families. But there's a reason that Sesame Street doesn't have any puppets who are paired-off-- the puppets are the avatars for children on the show, and kids don't care one bit about marriage, gay or otherwise.
Obviously pretty much no children will pay attention to this New Yorker cover, and a preschooler's understanding of Bert & Ernie will continue to be that they are roommates and best friends who learn to get along despite their differences. But there just seems something off-putting, and mildly creepy, about the continued efforts to ascribe sexual orientation to puppets created for very, very young children-- puppets who live in a world in which sexual orientation is never brought up. Say anything you want about the sexual identities of characters from The Muppets, where Miss Piggy is constantly throwing herself at Kermit and Gonzo pining after Camilla the Chicken-- Beaker and Bunsen might be a great place to start. But Bert & Ernie live in a world where sexual identity is something you learn years later. As much as I enjoy seeing them celebrating the end of DOMA, I'd rather leave the implications about their sex life out of it.
Do you like this New Yorker cover?
UPDATE: Thanks to @dmperlman for pointing out this 2003 clip, in which Elmo learns about the difference between "friend love" and "marriage love" and how he has to wait until he's a grown-up to get married. I'd argue that Bert & Ernie-- though older characters than Elmo-- fall into the same area of not being ready for grown-up marriage. But it is an interesting of example of how kids learn about what it means to love somebody, and how the issue of gay marriage could be addressed on the show in the future-- but probably not with Bert & Ernie.