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Bert and Ernie, an argument for inclusivity

author:  elisabeth sahlmueller | contributor


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Cartoons were a big part of my childhood. Not only were shows like ArthurCliffordLittle BearRolli Polie Olie and Dragon Tales entertaining to me as a child, but they also taught a lot of valuable life lessons that are still important today. One of these lessons is inclusivity, the idea of including all different types of people and treating them equally and fairly. In all of these shows, the main character had a diverse range of friends. For example, Little Bear was friends with an owl, a hen, a cat, and a snake. Sesame Street is another example of a children’s show that demonstrated inclusivity, but took things further with its representation of individual sexuality, by including both heterosexual and homosexual relationships.  

Although some people may feel that the representation of sexuality is an adult topic that should be left out of children’s cartoons and T.V. shows, I disagree. Sexuality is a big part of who an individual is and should not be hidden or ignored. I believe that if kids are introduced to different types of sexual relationships early on, it will increase tolerance and acceptance, and will prevent both confusion and discomfort later on in life. 

Since Sesame Street’s debut back in 1969, people have always wondered about the truth behind Bert and Ernie’s relationship. This is not surprising when you consider their behaviour on the show, such as that they share a room and Ernie frequently sits on Bert’s lap. Also, the plot of the special edition Christmas episode in 1978 is similar to the short story, “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry. In this story, two lovers each give up something they treasure in order to buy the other a special Christmas gift. This all seems to suggest a romantic relationship between Bert and Ernie, rather than a friendship. 

While this question has been on many people’s minds, it was directly posed to Marc Saltzmann, one of the show’s writers, in an interview two Sundays ago. It was an interview Saltzmann had with the online LGBTQ magazine Queerty. When asked if Bert and Ernie are gay, Saltzmann honestly responded by saying the pair were modeled after his own romantic  relationship with his male partner, film editor Arnold Glassman.  

When Saltzman was first writing for the show, he had just come out as a gay man himself, and during the time this was not easy to do. For him, writing about a gay couple provided him the opportunity to not only give a voice to those who were frequently marginalized based on their sexuality, but also to do so in a safe environment without harassment in a way that was fun, creative and entertaining for children.
Despite this clear answer, just two days later the show released a statement that Bert and Ernie are not gay, but really close friends. This response upset many people because although the truth of Bert and Ernie’s relationship had not been common knowledge until just recently,
many people had come to identify and accept the pair as a lovable gay couple. This statement also upset many in the queer community as it feels like an invalidation of queer identity.
Additionally, Saltzmann put forth a statement that Bert and Ernie may have “human traits and characteristics,” but as puppets, “they do not have a sexual orientation.” But if that is the case, why has the show included a variety of heterosexual relationships, such as Oscar the Grouch and his girlfriend Grungetta, and the dysfunctional relationship of Miss Piggy and her on-and-off-again lover, Kermit the Frog?  

If a show is going to show heterosexual relationships such as those, it is a lie to say that puppets lack a sexual orientation. Why is it okay to demonstrate both heterosexual and homosexual relationships on the same show, but it is not okay to publicly announce the existence of a the homosexual one? This seems like an unfair double standard to me.
One of the show’s directors and puppeteers, Frank Oz, has become upset by the backlash of some people toward this controversy. On September 18, 2018, he tweeted, “Does it really matter? …There is much more to a human being than just straightness or gayness.” While there is more to a person than just sexual orientation, I disagree with the position that this issue does not matter.  

In an online article by Elizabeth Simins, she explains the importance of involving a gay couple on a T.V. show. According to her, people who differentiate from ‘society’s norm’ often  feel excluded, but the representation of homosexual relationships allows people with a similar sexual orientation to feel as though “they belong in this world.”  Additionally, when a show includes a gay couple as part of the cast, but then denies the true nature of their relationship in
public, it sends a mixed message out to society that homosexuality is not as acceptable as it seems, which should not be the case. 

The representation of different sexual orientations is important for everyone to see because not only does it reduce ignorance, but it also makes people more comfortable with their own sexuality. This is important because discomfort creates the potential for an individual’s confusion to become violence and harassment towards those who seem “different.” Homosexual relationships have just as much of a right to be shown on T.V. as heterosexual ones, even if that representation is in children’s television shows. 

Although Bert and Ernie were simply puppets on a popular children’s show, they were a well-known and accepted gay couple by many people all around the world. So, instead of shamefully denying Bert and Ernie’s gay relationship, embrace the truth. If other cartoons from twenty years ago could promote exclusivity through a wide range of characteristics, then why in 2018 is the representation of different sexual orientations such a difficult concept to grasp? 

 

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