Sesame Street insists its puppets are not gay

Best pals: Bert and Ernie are among a few Sesame Street characters to also appear in The Muppet Show.

But should they be? After a former writer revealed that he thinks Bert and Ernie are more than just friends, studio chiefs clarified that the iconic duo “do not have a sexual orientation”.

Big Bird. Oscar the Grouch. The Cookie Monster. For almost five decades, Sesame Street has lit up our screens with characters in all the colours of the rainbow.

Stern Bert and mischievous Ernie have become one of TV’s best-loved odd couples and, along the way, unlikely gay icons.

Excitement reached fever pitch on Sunday when a former writer on the show, Mark Saltzman, revealed he imagined the characters as a couple and drew inspiration for their bond from his relationship with his husband.

But now the show’s creators have stepped in.

“Bert and Ernie are best friends,” said Sesame Workshop. “They remain puppets, and do not have a sexual orientation.”

Sesame Street was launched in 1969 as an educational show to prepare children for school. In 1996, 95% of all American preschoolers had watched it by the time they turned three, and it has won more awards than any other children’s show.

Bert and Ernie have been at its heart since the very beginning.

In 2011, a petition asking for the pair to get married on the show attracted more than 10,000 signatures.

Two years later, when a US Supreme Court ruling paved the way for equal marriage, the cover of the New Yorker magazine depicted the duo cuddling on a sofa.

While it now seems less likely than ever, Bert and Ernie would not be the only children’s characters to come out later in life.

In 2007, shortly after the release of the final Harry Potter book, J.K. Rowling announced that she thought Hogwarts headmaster Dumbledore was gay. While many in the LGBT community celebrated, others thought leaving his sexuality out of the books was a missed opportunity for representation.

“When you don’t see people like yourself, the message is: You’re invisible,” says Professor Michael Morgan from the University of Massachusetts.

In a watershed moment for diversity, in 2017, Sesame Street introduced Julia, a character with autism.

Sesame Street has always stood for inclusion and acceptance,” the studio insists.

So, should Bert and Ernie come out as gay?

Angry Berts

Of course, say some. If Kermit and Miss Piggy can have a passionate romance, why can’t Bert and Ernie? When young LGBT people can see people like them on screen, they are more likely to feel proud of their identity. It would encourage children to accept people of all sexualities from an early age, which can only be a good thing.

Don’t be ridiculous, respond others. They’re puppets. Focusing on something as silly as this makes a mockery of the serious issue of LGBT representation in the media. This is a show for children who are barely old enough to understand the concept of sexuality; it’s not as if the other characters are rabidly heterosexual. Pick your battles.

You Decide

  1. Does it matter whether Bert and Ernie are gay or not?
  2. Is the media good or bad at representing LGBT characters?

Activities

  1. Select a LGBT character from TV, film or a book. What do you like about them? Are they a rounded, fully-formed character or are they presented in a stereotypical way? Write a paragraph answering these questions and compare your answers with your classmates.
  2. Write a one-page script for a Sesame Street sketch featuring Bert and Ernie. Use clips from the show to give you an idea of the typical situations and jokes that it might feature.

Some People Say...

“Openness may not completely disarm prejudice, but it’s a good place to start.”

Jason Collins

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Sesame Street is an American educational television show for young children that has been running for 49 years. Popular characters include Elmo and the Count, who looks like a vampire and is used to teach basic mathematics. By 2009, the show was being broadcast in more than 140 countries. During its run, Sesame Street has won eight Grammys and more than 150 Emmy awards.
What do we not know?
Whether Bert and Ernie, two popular characters who live on Sesame Street, are in fact a gay couple and, if they are, whether they will ever come out. Both Sesame Workshop and Frank Oz, who co-created the characters, are adamant that they are not gay. However, that is unlikely to take away their status as gay icons or end fan speculation.

Word Watch

95%
According to the Journal of Developmental and Behavioural Pediatrics.
Ruling
In June 2013, the US Supreme Court struck down a key part of the Defence of Marriage Act, which cleared the way for the legalisation of equal marriage in California. Two years later, the same court would strike down the bans against same-sex marriage in all 50 states.
Representation
The row erupted again this year when it emerged that young Dumbledore’s homosexuality will not be acknowledged in the upcoming Fantastic Beasts sequel.
Julia
When Big Bird is introduced to Julia, she appears to ignore him. Big Bird worries that she does not like him, but the other characters explain that Julia “does things just a little differently”. People with autism often have difficulties understanding social situations.
Watershed
A turning point.
Kermit and Miss Piggy
Kermit and Miss Piggy’s relationship has been charted in The Muppet Show, which came from the same creators as Sesame Street. In 2015, Miss Piggy’s official Twitter account revealed the couple had split up because they had been “squabbling”.