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COLUMN: 'Sesame Street' should respect the loving relationship of Bert and Ernie



SesameStreet

In 1978, Ernie wakes Bert up in the middle of the night to ask him a question in the form of a heartfelt song. “Do you like me? Am I okay? Do you like me? If you do, please say.” Bert continues the song and confirms that he does indeed like Ernie, but he wants to go to sleep. Ernie tells Bert that he likes him too. "Yes, I like you. That is right, I like you," and that he is ready to go back to bed.

In a Sept. 16 exclusive interview with Queerty, Mark Saltzman reveals his experiences writing for “Sesame Street,” and specifically his experiences as a gay man on the set. As Saltzman often wrote for Bert and Ernie, the big question was whether or not he wrote them as a couple. He said, “I always felt that without a huge agenda, when I was writing Bert and Ernie, they were. I didn’t have any other way to contextualize them.”

He also stated that he and his longtime partner Arnold Glassman were referred to as Bert and Ernie, as their relationship dynamic was quite similar.

"That’s what I had in my life, a Bert and Ernie relationship," said Saltzman.

Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit educational group behind “Sesame Street,” released an official statement Sept. 18 via Twitter regarding Bert and Ernie’s relationship. It stated that the two were always meant to be best friends and that Muppets do not have a sexual orientation.

The original creator of Bert and Ernie, Frank Oz, even weighed in on Twitter, saying, “It seems Mr. Mark Saltzman was asked if Bert and Ernie are gay. It's fine that he feels they are. They're not, of course. But why that question? Does it really matter? Why the need to define people as only gay? There's much more to a human being than just straightness or gayness.”

The writers and producers are blatantly condemning what has been read by many as an epic, intergenerational love story. Not only should “Sesame Street” allow people to interpret Bert and Ernie’s relationship however they wish, but they should also embrace these interpretations and honor past gay writers and viewers by honoring this interpretation. 

This is not to say that Bert and Ernie should be changed in the way they are written to prove that they are in love. It is to acknowledge the fact that, from a cultural and historical standpoint, they already are, and the important legacies of the show’s past gay writers should not be undermined by saying gayness does not matter. The current statements by the official “Sesame Street” team come from a place of disrespect.

Saltzman stated in the interview that much of how he wrote Bert and Ernie was influenced by his own relationship. He said he tried to pitch interpreting more LGBT education into the show but was turned down every time, despite the progressive efforts of “Sesame Street” in other areas. 

The show has always been a frontrunner in diversity and inclusion in children’s programming. They have aired episodes that directly tackle racism, HIV, disability, incarceration and autism. They have even briefly depicted families with same-sex parents, but have not featured any segments regarding LGBT education. 

As “Sesame Street” has always been progressive compared to other children’s shows, it is shameful that they have not moved to teach children about the LGBT community, which would be beneficial in a child’s journey of understanding tolerance and acceptance. It would be especially helpful for children with same-sex parents, LGBT family members, friends and LGBT children and young adults themselves. 

This is not to say that it necessarily needs to be Ernie and Bert who educate children on LGBT topics, as the show has a successful model of introducing new characters to teach the others new things. There is nothing wrong with introducing same-sex relationships and LGBT identities to young children. They are not inherently any different than the heterosexual relationships they see on almost every other piece of media.

Despite the lack of effort on the part of “Sesame Street," Bert and Ernie have always found themselves in the cultural forefront when it comes to gay activism, notably being featured on many protest signs. Perhaps their most iconic appearance was on the cover of the New Yorker in 2013 celebrating the Supreme Court overturn of the Defense of Marriage Act and the separate decision that Prop 8, which would ban gay marriages in California, did not have standing.

When it comes down to it, Sesame Workshop did not need to release a message about the relationship between Bert and Ernie. A simple message does not change the way the odd couple are fondly remembered by viewers of all ages, and it shows a need to cater to the Republican senators threatening to defund PBS.

The 2019 federal budget unveiled earlier in the year proposed cutting all funding to PBS and NPR. Republican politicians have been in favor of this for years, mainly due to claims that these broadcasting stations are left-leaning and partisan. If educating children about diversity and inclusion of all people is somehow partisan, then so be it. It seems that Republicans are, like always, on the wrong side of history and lack the moral capacity to care about other people.

That being said, ignorance is not always so easily defined by party lines. Catering to the ignorance of Republican senators and disrespecting a gay writer for the show still contributes to the overall culture of complacency and bigotry. 

It is more than just two gay Muppets — it is honoring writers like Saltzman, who wrote during the height of the AIDS crisis, and those who found solace in his writing. In the Queerty interview, after sharing all of his fond memories from “Sesame Street,”  he reflected on this.

“It’s interesting," Saltzman said. "That was some of the happiest time of my life, except everybody kept dying.”

The good news is that the recent statements by “Sesame Street” writers and producers are not changing the way many viewers fondly remember the characters. They will forever be a gentle and loving odd couple singing in the middle of the night asking, “Do you like me?”

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