Bert and Ernie: Just Friends

Sometimes two puppets really are just friends (www.newyorker.com).

Sometimes two puppets really are just friends (www.newyorker.com).

Sometimes a friend really is just a friend. The cover of the latest New Yorker begs to differ, presenting Sesame Street’s Bert and Ernie as a closeted gay couple. This raises an important question: why must some adults project sexuality onto every relationship, including those between puppets for the preschool set?

The conventional wisdom is that sex sells. Madison Avenue has long used sex appeal to sell us everything from cars to perfume. The Obama re-election campaign even adapted that marketing maxim to sell their candidate last year. However, selling entertainment or products to consenting adults with the ability to filter and analyze messages is one thing. Sexualizing children’s entertainment is rather another.

My two-year-old daughter loves playing with boys at the playground, but I doubt she could articulate what makes boys different from girls. She knows that her parents and assorted relatives are married, but she’s still wrapping her head around the concept. To wit, she recently explained that two yam slices I’d served her for dinner were married. She’s very alert, but her understanding of the big and often scary world is still fairly basic. I don’t expect her to ask where she came from for some time, and I wouldn’t explain anything until she’s ready to ask. So why would I want to teach her that two child-friendly characters she adores aren’t just friends (and why would I want anyone else to)?

When gay marriage was legalized in New York two years ago, a petition started urging Sesame Street to feature a married Ernie and Bert. The Sesame Workshop replied with a written statement:

“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 (as most Sesame Street Muppets™ do), they remain puppets, and do not have a sexual orientation.”

This was after the Sesame Workshop president and CEO Gary Knell wrote, “They are not gay, they are not straight, they are puppets . . . they do not exist below the waist” in 2007. Shouldn’t all of this be enough to put this issue to rest? After all, no other Sesame Street puppets are married, and Bert and Ernie’s representatives have been rather unequivocal. Yet, clearly it isn’t.

Writing from the political left at Flavorwire, Tyler Coates reacted to the New Yorker’s cover:

“What the hell, guys? [The artist and editors are] belittling the decades-long—hell, millennia-long—fight for equal rights by needlessly sexualizing a pair of puppets.

“First of all, the notion that Bert and Ernie are gay lovers is ridiculous, and the propagation of the narrative is a childish statement that says more about the sexually obsessed . . . tendencies of our culture.”

Our culture is sexually obsessed. Coquettish women, sexual innuendo, and couples tumbling into bed are ubiquitous on both large and small screens. It’s now such standard adult entertainment, it’s not even particularly noteworthy when we see it on network shows in the evening.

But there seems to be a trickle-down effect. Shows written for tweens are clearly affected. Nick Schager recently wrote about the girls of the Disney Channel and Nickelodeon’s Teen Nick in the Village Voice: “[Their] designer threads often have an adult sexiness that unsuccessfully straddles the line between tasteful and trampy . . . accompanied by endless strutting, hair-tossing and sensual stage moves.”

Screening entertainment by using an online music service like Spotify isn’t any better. I regularly play religious or children’s music for my daughter, and I’ve felt compelled to tweet complaints to Spotify about their ads. It’s outrageous to hear ads for Trojan condoms or a movie about phone sex operators between renditions of “Baby Beluga” and “Apples and Bananas.” So much advertising on the Internet is instantly personalized these days, it’s a disgrace that Spotify can’t–or won’t–target ads to its listeners.

What ever happened to just being a kid? There should be more to life than being sexy or sexually focused, especially during childhood.

Just because adults are accustomed to watching racy entertainment or seeking out sexual subtexts doesn’t mean it’s something we need to teach preschoolers. Not everything in life is sexual–especially the world as viewed through the eyes of young children. So, when it comes to Bert and Ernie, let’s not talk about sex, because sometimes two felt puppets really are just friends.

This article appeared in Acculturated.

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