Might seem strange to admit it, but I was passively listening to Z100 this morning. Yes, I know the Zoo’s antics and pop culture dribble doesn’t seem quite my style but it happens on occasion that something random and seemingly out of place will catch my ear. Missing most of the banter, I did manage to catch the passing statement from one of the hosts about how Sesame Street should come out with the beloved Bert and Ernie being gay.
It is an argument we’ve all heard before about how they, in fact, are Gay. Kurt Anderson, Reverend Joseph Chambers and a number of others tried to tie the puppet characters to homosexuality in order to degridate the show as a vehicle for promoting deviant promiscuity are well documented. On the flip side the LGBT community embraced the characters as being a potential positive influence and grasp for the possibilities as noted most recently by Melissa Maerz, “Some ‘Sesame Street’ viewers sense a gay-friendly vibe” in the LA Times.
The official position is, “They are not gay, they are not straight, they are puppets,’ says Sesame Workshop President and CEO Gary Knell. ‘They don’t exist below the waist.'” and that according to writer Jon Stone, Bert and Ernie’s relationship reflected the real-life friendship between Jim Henson and Frank Oz.
I happen to agree with this view. The characters should transcend sexuality, which, in and of itself has no place in a pre-school show, innuendo or not. While I agree with the need for the gay community to have positive role models that help foster acceptance especially at an early age, Bert and Ernie are not the right two for the job, especially forcing that role upon them at this point in their “careers.”
What Bert and Ernie should, and probably do, represent better is a relationship still missing from most men’s lives: Another male friend. I don’t mean one of those testosterone laden, adrenaline spiked, alcohol driven acquaintances most men try to pass off as a “friend” simply because they share a few common interests like sports or cars or a taste for bacon and buffalo wings either. I mean the kind of best friend that provokes emotion and expression on a very personal level and you share a close personal bond with. Friend, according to the Random House unabridged dictionary, means, “a person attached to another by feelings of affection or personal regard.” What is missing from most male relationships is the feeling of affection and the (outward) expression thereof.
One of the biggest criticisms of men is that they are unable, or perhaps more likely, unwilling to express deep emotion especially with one another. Social stigmas and modern norms undermined the male relationships and the current expectation of men to be stoic and unemotional does more harm then good, for both the individual man and his own self-perception and social view, and to that of all the relationships around him, from his family to his lover to his perceived friends, his coworkers to authority figures. This driven introversion can force many to act out in other less productive ways because of the inherent fear that actual emotional expression is a sign of weekness.
Jonathan Zimmerman of the Christian Science Monitor in his piece earlier in the month entitled, “Homophobia hurts straight men, too” touches on just this issue and at its core, this is what Bert and Ernie actually need to be addressing for young children, especially boys. This message transcends gay versus straight and speaks right to the core of a lot of issues men have with themselves and other men.
The two characters of Bert and Ernie demonstrate that a Platonic friendship between men can allow for emotional outreach, honest communication and a distinct lack of overt testosterone and shows young boys there is something important in sharing experiences and ideas with one another. Unfortunately, for the show and it’s creators, this type of male bonding is not reinforced beyond those early childhood exposures on the show and often is mocked and ridiculed by adolescent and adult programming. As much as the “buddy movie” will occasionally show two grown men engaging in emotional experiences the theme is undermined by being surrounded by action, adventure and violence. As much as best friends on TV shows will demonstrate tight bonds the characters nearly always seem to incur some mitigating force such as a parent or boss who’s behavior provides a distraction, or worse, a sarcastic critique.
As role models Bert and Ernie still have a long way to go in helping children understand the value of open male relationships devoid of sexual connotation. To take the little these two are able to provide and overlay a sexual preference to it further hurts their cause in teaching children it is ok for boys to be friends with boys. It undoes everything that Bert and Ernie stood for in being friends in the first place, which is, first and foremost, friendship in all its trials and tribulations.
If the gay community believes they should have a presence on a show like Sesame Street (and, I believe they very well should), new characters should be developed to provide a vehicle for that need and address those issues in the community from day one. Sesame Street has taken on social issues as they relate to other minorities in the past, including most recently, a well publicized skit with a new character about one’s hair that was meant to address the unique issue of black and African American girls being proud of how they look and be empowered by the uniqueness and beauty of their hair rather than aspiring to be someone else. Creating unique and special characters will do much more to advance the acceptance of gays than trying to overlay those issues on characters already charged with the tough task of male relationships in general.
So, to Bert and Ernie (and everyone involved in their continued existence) thanks for helping show me that having friends who were guys who I could open up to and share my feelings, thoughts, concerns, fears, joys and life with was an important part of me being a “man.” Without you and the simple wisdom you imparted when I was a kid about having a best (guy) friend I would not be able to now derive as well the simple pleasure I have with those men who I share close personal friendships with. It didn’t seem like it meant much at the time, but in looking back at how those perceptions eventually molded me I wouldn’t change a thing.
And, to those who want to foist gayness on these two humble puppets, I ask you what your real intention in doing so is… and, to then reconsider Bert and Ernie for what they can bring to young children (and their parents who should be watching and participating along), especially boys, and how that positive influence could affect society in a very broad, bold and well meaning manner. Do you really want to take that message away considering what it could do for everyone?