Arts and Entertainment

Bert & Ernie are just roommates you guys

With all the controversy and backlash surrounding the fact that Sesame Street’s Bert and Ernie are not gay, it’s just another call for us to be supportive of the characters that do represent the LGBTQ+ community.

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By Alex Lin

The year is nearly over and it would be an understatement to say that we’ve had a good year in film and television. John Krasinski’s directorial debut, “The Quiet Place,” followed 2017’s “The Silent Child” in bringing attention to sign language, living with deafness, and the need for inclusivity for the handicapped onscreen. We’ve seen several films that finally provide a bigger platform for people of color, like “Black Panther” and “Crazy Rich Asians,” as well as TV shows like Hiro Murai’s “Atlanta” or the eight-part HBO series, “The Night Of,” starring Riz Ahmed. Other shows and movies like “The Expanse,” “Insecure,” and “Ocean’s 8” feature badass women and a level of diversity in casting that’s rarely been seen before.

While all eyes have been on big names in the industry, some forget the work of a show that was revolutionary in the late 1900s and still continues to cause waves now. Since 1969, “Sesame Street” has been educating children with a curriculum meant to reflect American culture and its audience’s viewing habits, while still providing small lessons in math, reading, and social skills. What’s most important about the show is that each character in “Sesame Street” can be perceived to suffer from some form of mental illness. Kermit the Frog deals with trauma, while Miss Piggy’s constant need for attention points to narcissistic personality disorder. Count von Count’s need to count everything he sees could be a symptom of obsessive compulsive disorder, and Big Bird’s inability to convince others that his friend, Mr. Snuffleupagus, exists, may mean that he is a schizophrenic, experiencing visual hallucinations.

Showing these types of characters is not only a wonderful way to increase exposure of disorders that are normally overlooked and to teach children about them, but it also battles stigmas that those suffering from mental illness are easily spotted and should be targeted as villains or monsters.

However, there has been recent controversy surrounding two of Sesame Street’s characters, Bert and Ernie. The dynamic duo has long been considered to be a gay couple. They’re a prime example of opposites attracting, with Bert’s grumpiness and need for order often clashing with Ernie’s tendency toward spontaneity, a relationship that gives off old gay couple vibes. Even the New Yorker featured the two cuddling in front of a TV on the cover of its July 2013 issue in response to the Supreme Court’s ruling on two same-sex marriage cases.

The pair’s relationship status seemed legit, especially when early this September, the online magazine Queerty interviewed Mark Saltzman, the gay writer behind many of the characters that were introduced in the 1980s. When asked about how he came up with the concepts for Bert and Ernie, Saltzman told Queerty, “I always felt that without a huge agenda, when I was writing Bert & Ernie, they were [gay]. I didn’t have any other way to contextualize them.” Having based the pair off of his own relationship with his late partner, Saltzman also noted, “I don’t think I’d know how else to write them, but as a loving couple.” Many fans took Saltzman’s language literally, with many taking to Twitter to celebrate what seemed to be an official confirmation of the two Muppets’ sexuality.

The Sesame Workshop quickly shut down the celebration, though, saying that Saltzman was misinterpreted and that Bert and Ernie “were created to teach preschoolers that people can be good friends with those who are very different from themselves. Even though they […] possess many human traits and characteristics, they remain puppets, and do not have a sexual orientation.” Many fans were obviously not happy and called the lack of gay representation contradictory to Sesame Street’s vision of inclusion and acceptance.

It’s certainly true that what we currently see of the LGBTQ+ community on film and television is not nearly enough. Most films with any queer representation in them at all only have one character that isn’t cisgender. The shortage of such representation on the big screen is exactly the reason why people need to stop bashing the Sesame Workshop. The controversy over a pair of puppets is not just another inconsequential topic. It brings to light a more urgent matter: showing as much support for the LGBTQ+ representation that exists in the media now, and pushing for even more of it. We should be showing our support for the movies and TV shows that DO actually have accurate LGBTQ+ characters instead of arguing over the ones that don’t show them.

We also shouldn’t forget that what “Sesame Street” is doing now is already incredibly groundbreaking and progressive. It teaches children basic life skills and important lessons like tolerance, dealing with mental illness, or just learning to ask for help. All three of the show’s human characters are played by non-white actors. And just last year, “Sesame Street” also introduced its first Muppet with autism, Julia. In a time when we are still dealing with issues of racism, sexism, homophobia, sexual harassment, and so many more terrible things, what “Sesame Street” is doing now is more than enough.