Opinion: Bert and Ernie, You’re the One…

The puppet pair have stayed the same, it's the world that's changed

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Forty-four years ago tonight, a group of gay men and lesbians—drag queens, stone cold butch women, and everyone else just looking for a safe space to have a drink and have some fun—had finally had it. When police once again busted into Greenwich Village’s Stonewall Inn, its patrons fought back: throwing coins at the cops in an arch take on payola; throwing shade at those who’d subjected them to years of harassment, entrapment, and prosecution; and, eventually, throwing bricks. This moment of furious, creative chaos is credited with sparking the modern G/L/B/T movement, which reached a moment of triumph in this week’s Supreme Court marriage rulings.

New Yorker cover - Bert and Ernie

A few months after what became known as the Stonewall Riots, America met a couple of puppets named Bert and Ernie. The skit starts with Ernie naked in a tub, asking Bert to drop in the soap. It’s played straight, sort of; the major joke is that Ernie calls the tub Rosie because his bathing leaves a ring around it. But the innuendo’s there, if you look for it. Generations saw that subtext, treasured it, and remembered it.

That’s why next week’s New Yorker cover is so moving. There’s no indication that Jim Henson and the Children’s Television Workshop intended Bert and Ernie to be anything edgier than a cloth-covered Odd Couple. Sesame Workshop declined to comment on the provocative image, directing media inquiries to a 2011 statement posted to Facebook, in which they assert the couple “are best friends…created to teach preschoolers that people can be good friends with those who are very different from themselves.” Gay or not, these two male characters bickered, cherished, and relied upon each other without resorting to macho hysterics or no-homo protesting. That’s pretty revolutionary, and worthy of being role models.

Over the decades, as gays and lesbians in popular culture look less like monsters and more like actual humans, Bert and Ernie have mostly stayed the same. It’s the world that’s changed around them. Modern viewers don’t have to think they’re gay, but if you don’t like gays it must be hard to like them. It must be hard for a noisy few, different from the Stonewall cops in degree but not kind, to maintain the pretense that, if Bert and Ernie did actually love each other, all of western civilization is somehow threatened. But the world’s changed around him, too: in ever-more parts of this country, Ernie doesn’t need to only put a ring around Rosie. He can follow his heart and put a ring on Bert’s hand.

4 comments
JangoDavis
JangoDavis

Complete and utter B.S. The scene he claims that took place after Stonewall is not connected to the incident and there is no subtext other than what a bunch of pathetic losers invoke because they're sitting around watching a children's TV show. Again and again, the Children's Television Workshop has asserted there is no sexuality to these puppets other than their gender identity.

And if you really need Bert and Ernie to be gay to show the world how far we've advanced as a society then we're all f$%^<ed/

dtobin
dtobin

I fundamentally disagree.  The innuendo is not there.  The people working on the show have said as much.  It is sad that Sesame Street's request to not have the characters depicted in this way was ignored.  The characters are not intended to be a gay couple.  They are intended to teach children about close friendships, and friendships with people different from yourself.  Continuing the meme that they are secretly a gay couple only perpetuates the fear that being in too close a friendship will make people think the wrong thing.  And the message that you can be friends with someone that you're different from is one we could all stand to relearn from time to time, far too important a message to be derailed with a tongue-in-cheek reinterpretation that the show's creators have said is incorrect. 

The New Yorker should have respected Sesame Street's wishes, and instead honored one of the many legitimate icons of the gay rights movement.

karlfest
karlfest

I wonder how widely read the New Yorker is among pre-schoolers. 

leon1376
leon1376

Personally, I don't care if somebody tells tykes about gay sex, and uses dolls to do it, just as long as its not me. I don't care to rot in a prison or a mental ward for the rest of my life. But my main concern is with the message this sends to religious fanatics in certain parts of the world, sitting in caves and plotting to blow us up. Ever since the Carter administration, radical groups have referred to America as "The Great Satan "and America keeps giving them bulletin board material. Seems like every day another part of America goes gay. The Law of Unintended Consequences always has the last word on these matters.