Sesame Street is all about fun and learning when we're young, but looking back at the long-running kids series with adult eyes always raises some interesting questions. Of all the Sesame Street fan theories out there, one of the biggest points of intrigue has always been the relationship between Bert and Ernie, the odd-couple duo that seem to do everything together.
Well, a recent interview with former Sesame Street writer Mark Saltzman opened up some interesting (and controversial) doors, as Saltzman revealed that during his tenure writing the show, he definitely imagined Bert and Ernie to be a gay couple. In Saltzman's own telling:
"...I always felt that without a huge agenda, when I was writing Bert & Ernie, they were... I didn’t have any other way to contextualize them."
That quote stirred up some controversial responses from Sesame Street fans, which has led the show to put out the following statement, which seems to clarify the Bert and Ernie relationship once and for all:
"As we have always said, Bert and Ernie are best friends. They were created to teach preschoolers that people can be good friends with those who are very different form 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."
Please see our statement below regarding Bert and Ernie. pic.twitter.com/6r2j0XrKYu— Sesame Workshop (@SesameWorkshop) September 18, 2018
That statement perfectly echoes the warm-but-firm tone of a Sesame Street lesson, reminding us in the nicest way of some key facts:
- This is a show for preschoolers.
- There is a point to the Bert & Ernie odd-partnering that has nothing to do with sexuality.
- These are puppets, and do not have sexual orientations at all - let alone of one persuasion or the other.
Naturally, the statement from Sesame Street has provoked its own reaction - namely a deep-dive discussion of what constitutes sexuality, or being "asexual," and whether those terms have any relevancy or importance to the show:
Here’s the thing though! Being ASEXUAL is not a limiting orientation and we can experience intimacy to just as high of a level!!!!— Jordan Crucchiola (@JorCru) September 18, 2018
Yep, you're definitely right about that. Allies to asexual and/or aromantic folks need to do better, me included. I appreciate you calling that out. :)— Charlotte Clymer?️? (@cmclymer) September 18, 2018
I'm sorry...straightwash their program? It's a show for literal 3 year olds. Why would the muppets need to have any orientation at all?— Mrs. Magoo (@ThisGroovyMama) September 18, 2018
I don't know. Why does the count, oscar, Kermit, *Mrs. Piggy*, and many other characters who have identified as straight. Also there are literal 3 year olds with gay parents, what's wrong with them seeing a world that reflects their own?— Joel ??⚫?⚫?⚫ (@jluns82) September 18, 2018
Needless to say, this is yet another tricky cultural debate to have at this particularly divisive time. On the one hand, it's easy to see why Sesame Street's makers would be careful to avoid injecting too many concepts of sexuality into their program. And yet, there are characters from both Sesame Street the Muppets who have definitely exhibited heterosexual "romantic inclinations" (Kermit and Miss Piggy being the most obvious), which could fairly be labeled as part of the character's sexual identity. So is it fair to cater to one kind of romantic partnering without representing other possibilities?
Ironically, Mark Saltzman revealed that during his time on the show, his view about Bert and Ernie's sexual relationship actually came from a combination of some of those preschooler viewers asking adult questions, as well as reflections of his own personal life in his writing:
"I remember one time that a column from The San Francisco Chronicle, a preschooler in the city turned to mom and asked “are Bert & Ernie lovers?” And that, coming from a preschooler was fun. And that got passed around, and everyone had their chuckle and went back to it... The other thing was, more than one person referred to Arnie & I as “Bert & Ernie.”"
The "Arnie" that Saltzman refers to is Arnold Glassman, his partner. As Saltzman further explains to Queerty:
“That’s what I had in my life, a Bert & Ernie relationship. How could it not permeate? The things that would tick off Arnie would be the things that would tick off Bert. How could it not? I will say that I would never have said to the head writer, “oh, I’m writing this, this is my partner and me.” But those two, Snuffalupagus, because he’s the sort of clinically depressed Muppet... you had characters that appealed to a gay audience.”2comments
As Saltzman points out: Bert and Ernie may not have been intended to have any sexual identity at all - but that hasn't stopped millions of LGBTQ kids over many generations, from identifying with the characters - perhaps two of the only characters they could identify with back in the '80s era when Saltzman was part of the show. In fact, Bert and Ernie have gone on to become such iconic ambassadors of LGBTQ culture that they have been at the forefront of some of that culture's most important moments:
How do you feel about Bert and Ernie's sexual identities? Have you considered them to be of one camp or the other - or is puppet sexuality not something you tend to consider? Should Sesame Street be making statements on the matter either way, or just let the fans debate the matter? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!
Sesame Street airs new episodes on HBO every Saturday morning, with old episodes airing on PBS.