Bert and Ernie’s 51st anniversary

Artist Tom Taylor’s portrait of B&E on the occasion:

(#1)

As puppets on the tv show Sesame Street, B&E haven’t aged at all in 51 years; but the characters B&E are human, so of course they have changed and developed over time. They were kids in 1969 (when Sesame Street started, 51 years before 2020, when Taylor drew this portrait); became a (closeted) gay couple about 15 years later (when writer Mark Saltzman, a partnered gay man, joined the show’s staff); and then came out and explored a new life as macho queers  — there are many varieties of homomasculinity — with Ernie taking a more dominant role in the relationship (the t role, in my writing on role differentiation in couples; see the Page on b/t roles on my blog); note Ernie’s proprietary hand on Bert’s shoulder when they pose as a couple.

(Hat tips: to Aric Olnes, who passed #1 on in Facebook, crowing “Happy 51st anniversary Bert & Ernie!!”; to Tim Evanson, who tracked down the identity of the artist (not given on the version being circulated on Facebook); and to Aric Olnes again, for providing the link to the Tom Taylor Illustrated material on Threadless.com)

Threading our way through the story. First, the tv show. From Wikipedia:

Sesame Street is an American educational children’s television series that combines live-action, sketch comedy, animation and puppetry. It is produced by Sesame Workshop (known as the Children’s Television Workshop (CTW) until June 2000) and was created by Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett. The program is known for its images communicated through the use of Jim Henson’s Muppets, and includes short films, with humor and cultural references. The series premiered on November 10, 1969 [hence was 51 years old in 2020]

On B&E, again from Wikipedia:

(#2)

Bert and Ernie are two Muppets who appear together in numerous skits on the long-running PBS/HBO children’s television show, Sesame Street. Originated by Frank Oz and Jim Henson, the characters are currently performed by puppeteers Eric Jacobson and Peter Linz; Oz performed Bert until 2006… The original idea was to show that even though two people can have totally different characteristics, they can still be good friends

Finally, on the gay connection. From NBC News , “Bert and Ernie are indeed a gay couple, ‘Sesame Street’ writer claims: Former “Sesame Street” writer Mark Saltzman said Bert and Ernie’s relationship was modeled after his own with his life partner, Arnold Glassman” by Kalhan Rosenblatt on 9/18/18:

Iconic “Sesame Street” puppets Bert and Ernie are a couple, according to a former writer for the show.

In an exclusive interview with with blog “Queerty,” Mark Saltzman said he felt that when he was writing Bert and Ernie, he was writing them as a couple and basing their interactions on his own experiences.

“I always felt that without a huge agenda, when I was writing Bert and Ernie, they were,” Saltzman told Queerty. “I didn’t have any other way to contextualize them. [Saltzman did not begin writing for Sesame Street until fifteen years after Bert’s and Ernie’s first appearance. So they weren’t originally created as a gay couple, but of course they could have picked up gay undertones later.]

… However, Sesame Workshop, which produces the show, denies the pair are together, saying they have no sexual orientation but are best friends.

[from the Wikipedia entry on B&E: The Gaystar news reported that fans reacted negatively to this assertion, on grounds of apparent homophobia. Frank Oz later tweeted in September 2018, “A last thought: If Jim and I had created Bert and Ernie as gay characters they would be inauthentic coming from two straight men. However, I have now learned that many view them as representative of a loving gay relationship. And that’s pretty wonderful. Thanks for helping me understand.”]

The sex thing. To say that someone is gay is, at the very least, to assert something about the nature of their sexual desires (even if these are unrealized). To say that two males are a gay couple is to assert not only a significant affectional relationship but, ordinarily, to assert as well that they engage, at least on occasion, in sexual relations, of some kind, with one another; actual bodyparts bearing some sexual charge engage with one another.

I mention this because an early Sesame Street staff response to claims that B&E are a gay couple was that B&E are just puppets, so of course they can’t be a gay couple — meaning that as puppets they’re incapable of engaging in any kind of sexual relations.

But that’s deeply silly. The puppets are on tv and in films because they’re realizations — embodiments, you might even say — of particular very human-like characters, who engage in all manner of human activities: arguing with one another, eating, shopping, dancing, and so on. They are in fact human beings, perhaps very eccentric or extraordinary ones, appearing in the guise of puppet animals (Miss Piggy, Kermit the Frog, Big Bird, etc.) or unclassifiable puppet humanoids (the Swedish Chef, Cookie Monster, and, yes, Bert and Ernie) — and as fictive human beings, they are capable of doing pretty much everything actual human beings do: if they can eat and kiss and dance, they can also satisfy one another sexually.

So: you can maintain, as a matter of contingent fact, that B&E aren’t a gay couple, but you really can’t maintain that they are incapable of being one.

 

2 Responses to “Bert and Ernie’s 51st anniversary”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    Well, there’s the question of whether, under whatever clothes they are (depicted as) wearing, the puppets have genitals. I’m guessing they do not, which would make actual sexual activity challenging.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      But the question is not what the puppets are like, but what their characters are like. The puppets have no stomachs, but yet their characters eat. The puppets have no feet, but yet their characters dance. And so on.

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