For nearly half a century, children have come to “Sesame Street” to laugh, play and learn. And everyone is familiar with Bert and Ernie — the odd-couple-esque roommates on the long-running children’s series. They know that Bert is neat and serious and that jokester Ernie loves his yellow rubber ducky. But what has been less clear, and frequently discussed over the years, is the nature of their relationship: Are they friends, or are they a couple?
The subject came up again this week, after Mark Saltzman, who wrote stories for Bert and Ernie for more than a decade in the 1980s and ’90s, spoke to Queerty about the characters. He said his relationship with film editor Arnold Glassman inspired his writing. Saltzman and Glassman were together for more than 20 years, until Glassman’s death in 2003.
“I remember one time that a column from The San Francisco Chronicle, a preschooler in the city turned to mom and asked ‘are Bert & Ernie lovers’…” he told Queerty. “And I always felt that without a huge agenda, when I was writing Bert & Ernie, they were. I didn’t have any other way to contextualize them.” He added that he didn’t “know how else to write them, but as a loving couple.”
But perhaps more important than the question itself is the disappointing response given in a statement by the show.
“Bert and Ernie are best friends,” Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit educational organization behind the show, said in a statement this week. “They were created to teach preschoolers that people can be friends with those who are very different from themselves. Even though they are identified as male and possess many human traits and characteristics, they remain puppets, and do not have a sexual orientation.”
Bert and Ernie were trending on Twitter for much of the day Tuesday. Frank Oz, creator of Bert and Ernie, tweeted that he didn’t create the characters as a couple, but he also asked: “But why that question? Does it really matter?”
In a word: Yes. It most certainly matters.
“Sesame Street” has a long history of using puppets to help children learn. Last year, viewers met Julia, a Muppet with autism who helped children learn about disabilities; this might even have been the first exposure to disability for some children, and it showed kids how to relate to someone different from themselves. Cookie Monster even cleaned up his diet a few years ago and taught viewers the value of healthy eating with the song “A Cookie Is a Sometime Food.” Bert and Ernie would offer a perfect way to start a conversation about different kinds of families, diversity and acceptance — all lessons that have been at the forefront of “Sesame Street” since its first episode in 1969.
In the United States, more than 2 million children under age 18 have an LGBTQ parent, with roughly 200,000 of them being raised by a same-sex couple. And unlike the early days of “Sesame Street,” when many gay and lesbian couples were still in the closet, LGBTQ families are now seen as more mainstream. They’re not hiding or secretive. In fact, they’re working every day to break down barriers and shatter outdated and damaging stereotypes about their community.
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. Children learn about their world through those puppets, which is why it’s so important that the residents of “Sesame Street” reflect the culture and time period. “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.
Vinay Saranga, a child psychiatrist, says that although Bert and Ernie are not real, they can give a child a figure to follow and identify with.
“With same-sex marriage on the rise, no longer are we just seeing traditional households with kids being raised by mom and dad,” Saranga says. “Now, kids are raised by two mothers or two fathers. If Bert and Ernie are together and live together, when a child has a play date with a friend being raised by gay parents, it won’t seem strange. It teaches us all that nontraditional arrangements are perfectly normal.”
Meaghan Elderkin, a mother in Rhode Island, agrees. Her kids grew up watching “Sesame Street,” as did she. The show, she says, never skirted tough issues such as divorce or autism or death, and she was looking forward to the possibility of it normalizing homosexual relationships through Bert and Ernie.
“Children can handle it, especially when it’s presented as nothing out of the ordinary,” she says. “Such a wasted opportunity to reach out and include children of same-sex parents in this otherwise lovingly diverse neighborhood.”