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Sesame Street and Sexuality: A Debate On Bert And Ernie

ByAoife O'Donoghue

Sep 22, 2018

The beloved children’s television show Sesame Street made headlines this week when writer Mark Saltzman revealed that the dynamic between fictional iconic roommates, Bert and Ernie, was based on his relationship with film editor Arnold Glassman. Saltzman, who joined the staff of Sesame Street in 1984, told Queerty that he based the characters’ rapport – Ernie being the goofster and Bert being the analytic serious one – on the relationship that he and Glassman had in the 20 years that they were romantically linked. He told Queerty, “That’s what I had in my life, a ‘Bert and Ernie’ relationship. How could it not permeate?”

This reveal, and confirmation of what many audiences suspected and have often joked about, was celebrated by media and especially by LGBT+ media outlets. LGBT+ representation in the media in general and especially in children’s TV show, is considered vital for the normalisation of LGBT+ persons and relationships in society, where media is often over-saturated and dominated by representations of hetrosexual relationships. However, almost immediately following the interview with Saltzman, Sesame Workshop refuted Saltzman’s claims, stating that the pair do not have a sexual relationship but rather are merely “puppets” designed to teach children that “people can be good friends with those who are very different from themselves”.

It is a disappointing response from the company, but realistically an expected one. LGBT+ characters do not have to be immediately regarded as sexual beings, and this points to a deeper issue of people associating homosexuality with sexual deviance and assuming that LGBT+ relationships are not suitable for exposure to children, despite the fact that cartoons and children television shows have had representations of hetreosexual relationships for decades. It is a double standard that has been perpetuated for years, and it is discouraging that the company haven’t taken the opportunity to celebrate the non-heterosexual community.  

Sesame Street, especially, has been good to include diverse representation in their franchise in other areas, such as the HIV+ character Kami, who was introduced in the South African version of the show. Similarly the Afghani character Zari was introduced in 2016 to promote women’s rights and to teach about national identity and physical, social and emotional well-being. The celebration of Bert and Ernie would been another step in keeping children’s television updated with our modern standards of diversity.

Writers have always included in LGBT+ representation into their stories and art in a nuanced fashion. Artists such as Tove Jansson, who based the optimistic and pragmatic character of Too-Ticky on her lifetime partner, Tuulikki Pietilä, or Frog and Toad from Wind in the Willows, whose relationships are now believe were based on relationships Andrew Lobel had with men in his own life. e told the Lion and the Unicorn in 1977, “You know, if an adult has an unhappy love affair, he writes about it. Well, if I have an unhappy love affair, I have to somehow use all that pain and suffering but turn it into a work for children”. For years, this was the only safe way that LGBT+ writers could put themselves into their work without outing themselves and potentially damaging their careers and lives.

Today, it is much easier for writers to be out in their careers, and to include LGBT+ characters in their work. This year, we saw two female characters get married in Cartoon Network’s Steven Universe, as well as Princess Bubblegum and Marceline kissing in the final episode of Adventure Time. These two shows are very popular shows on  Cartoon Network, and demonstrates that television networks are becoming more willing to diversify their content and make it more inclusive  of minority groups.

Sesame Workshop’s statement appears to be one that shows a company keen to hit a middle-ground where they can appeal to both left and right-leaning audiences. If they want to truly reflect society as it is in reality, then it is time to openly include LGBT+ characters and celebrate their existence, puppet or human.

Image: Flienie via Flickr

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