Are they or aren’t they? Never has anyone’s sexuality been questioned as often as that of Bert and Ernie’s. It’s easy to see how the assumption came about - the lovable pair have lived together on Sesame Street for years, and they bicker like an old married couple. But they also sleep in separate beds, so maybe they are just friends. Oh, and also, they are Muppets.
A former writer for the show recently outted them as a couple, while the official stance of both the show and of Bert creator Frank Oz is that they are just good friends. Bert and Ernie have so far declined to comment for themselves, as again, they are Muppets.
But so what if they were gay? As Melissa Blake points out in The Washington Post, “One of the hallmarks of Sesame Street has been its ability to maintain its relevance despite being on the air for almost 50 years. It’s changed with the times, to bring in the news of the day and break it down in a way that children could understand. Whether they were tackling huge issues or some more nuanced aspect of everyday life, the puppets have been a great teaching tool.”
It’s a valid point, and Sesame Street has never been know to shy away from controversy. Blake adds, “Sesame Street could have used this as an opportunity to teach children that families come in a variety of forms. For children who have LGBTQ parents, this type of representation would be invaluable. They may not know anyone like them at school, but if they can look at the TV and say, 'Bert and Ernie are just like my dads,' it would be incredibly validating.”
While I agree with this whole-heartedly, I’m not sure that using Bert and Ernie is the way to go about bringing this representation. The Muppets on the show are usually child-like, even the adult ones. They don’t tend to date each other. At best, we see the parents of the main Muppets. Elmo’s dad makes an appearance from time to time, for example, but he isn’t a main character. The Muppets are generally who children relate to personally.
It’s the human adults on the show that represent the world around us. They are the authority figures who children have in their lives, or ones they desperately need. Having Bert and Ernie remain examples of how two people who share little in common can be close friends, as was the original intention, makes sense to me. They are child-like. How many grown men do you know who play with rubber duckies so passionately?
What I’d like to see instead is a human same-sex family. When I was growing up, we had Luis and Maria. They were a couple, then they got married, then they had children. They represented a typical, if idealized, family at that time. Why not have a same-sex couple do the same on the show? No need for fanfare, just include them as they did Luis and Maria. It could even lead to representation of adoption in addition to representation for same-sex families.
In time, maybe a gay or trans Muppet can be introduced to help children who identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community feel seen as well. These stories are important to tell, but we don’t have to rewrite the show’s history to do it.
So maybe Bert and Ernie are just good friends, and that’s okay – but it’s time for the show to continue its commitment to representation for all children, and tackling the big issues. Let’s see a same-sex family move onto the street and flourish.