Bert & Ernie: Friends – with benefits?

Nicole Froio

52793580 300x226 Bert & Ernie: Friends   with benefits?An online petition to have Bert and Ernie to tie the knot on Sesame Street has sparked discussion on when children should be taught about sexual orientation. Sesame Street has been on the air for 42 years and the relationship between the two muppets who live together and sleep in the same bedroom has been long speculated by older viewers of the show. New York, where the show is set, has just legalized gay marriage last June and pro-gay activist from Illinois Lair Scott, who started the petition, thinks this is the opportunity to teach children about it.

“Children and parents need to learn that acceptance of humankind, even puppets, would indeed plant a seed of peace that will reverberate throughout the universe,” reads the online petition, “We are not asking that Sesame Street depict anything crude or disrespectful; this is NOT about any other issue other than education.”

Sesame Street has responded to the online petition by posting a statement on their Facebook page. It 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 from themselves. Even though they are identified as male characters and possess many human traits and characteristics they remain puppets, and do not have a sexual orientation.”

The idea might seem a bit far off, but Sesame Street has always been a break-through program. It was the first children’s show to use it’s time on air to educate children and it has tackled difficult subjects that are usually overlooked to protect children’s feelings or innocence.

When the actor Will Lee, who played Mr Hooper in the American Sesame Street, died of a heart attack in 1982, the program had an episode that taught children about death, as opposed to simply replacing Lee with another actor. In the episode Big Bird is looking for Mr Hooper to give him a gift and the adults in Sesame Street have to explain that he has died and that people never come back when they die. The episode is emotional and raw, but it breaks the innocence gently; it teaches that death happens and it’s okay to be sad about it. Reality is something children aren’t confronted with until they have to be – but shouldn’t it be presented to them earlier in a safe, comprehensive way?

In 2002 the South African version of Sesame Street introduced the HIV-Positive character of Kami, a yellow furry muppet whose mother’s life was claimed by the disease. The extremely heavy subject of HIV teaches children about death, loss and living with an illness but with no mention of sex. This is the main concern people have with Bert and Ernie getting married or coming out of the closet; that the issue of sexuality irrelevant to little children, that it would be completely inappropriate to teach them about it when they are not even close to puberty.

At present, homosexuality is invariably linked to the thought of sex but it certainly doesn’t have to be. Children are exposed to heterosexual couples in their day-to-day life. There is nothing relating to sex in this perception of the world, heterosexual couples simply exist in their lives; so why can’t children be exposed to the same kind of perception with gay couples?

The United States has had a veritable epidemic of gay bashing and gay suicides, concerning teenagers in particular, in the last few years. Many organizations like the Trevor Project have been campaigning to stop this and the reason for campaigns like “It Gets Better” to exist is very clear.

There is a gap in the education of these teenagers who stop being children and realize that they don’t really fit into today’s society’s standards; they think their existence is wrong and so do the teens around them. They are not taught about sexual diversity early enough to accept themselves and the ones around them. Muppets don’t have sexual orientation so Bert and Ernie can’t get married, but there is no reason for the issue not to be tackled on the show.

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  • BrianOtto

    Sure, non-sexual homosexual couples would be fine on Sesame Street, in
    the same way non-sexual heterosexual couples are — human couples who are
    together.  Most reasonable people would go along with that and I would not
    be surprised if a homosexual couple or two has appeared on Sesame Street in the past,
    though I cannot say I remember it.  

    But, do you remember the uproar over the Postcards from Buster episode, now banned
    (but available on Youtube) in which Buster visits a couple of women living together?

    One couldn’t blame Children’s Workshop if they wanted to avoid all that.  Yes, we’d want
    them to do it anyway (and maybe they would) but at the cost not only of controversy, 
    but of alienating those who are not ‘reasonable’ in the way I defined it.
    Worth the cost? Sure, I guess, but then there is the additional cost that those people
    may not have their kids see Sesame Street.  I still think you do it anyway.

    Overall, though, Bert and Ernie should remain as they are — without sexual orientation or, for that matter, genitals.  But, on the other hand, if the Muppets ever have crushes on
    one another (only the non-Sesame Miss Piggie’s longing for Kermit comes to mind, but other people may have better memories) then they should be equal opportunity — a gay crush, a straight crush.

    Finally, i’m betting that Children’s Workshop has something in the works regarding kids who are picked on because they’re gay.  And, if they don’t, they should.

  • BrianOtto

    miss piggy is owned by Disney now, not Childrens Workshop
    She never appeared on Sesame Street.
    Still, I bet there was a Sesame Street muppet who was
    ga ga over someone at some time.  
    Does anyone know?

  • zamira1964

       I raised my children watching Sesame Street for the reasons you mentioned in your article. What really caugth my attention about SS was the acceptance they teach regarding any situation or difference of being of  the characters. To me this  a simple concept that we seem to forget in every day life: Respect others in their individual differences. If we could have a small percentage of this we would probably not have to fight for respect for religions, sexual likes or even cultural difeerences.
    I loved your article and still dream of life as it is shown in SS

  • lmstringer

    I thought bert and ernie were brothers?!

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