The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How ‘Sesame Street’ surrendered in the culture wars

The show has chosen appeasement over tolerance

Ernie and Bert of "Sesame Street" pose in front of the Queen Mary II in the Hamburg harbor in May 2006. (AP) (Fabian Bimmer/AP)
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Two weeks ago, Mark Saltzman, a former writer for “Sesame Street,” revealed to LBGTQ news and entertainment site Queerty that he always thought of Bert and Ernie as being in a loving relationship. Queerty interpreted his comments as definitive proof that the characters are gay.

A firestorm erupted on Twitter, catapulting the news into the headlines. In response to the controversy, Sesame Workshop (the nonprofit behind “Sesame Street”) issued a statement denying Bert and Ernie’s sexual orientation. Two days later, Saltzman said his words were misinterpreted and pushed Bert and Ernie back into the closet.

This is hardly the first time we’ve debated the sexual orientation of Bert and Ernie. The same sequence of events has periodically dominated news cycles for 25 years: Someone makes a claim about the characters’ sexual orientation, everyone gets mad and picks sides, Sesame Workshop denies it, and we all move on.

But these cycles of debate keep occurring because Sesame Workshop has at best avoided the issue and at worst abdicated its fundamental mission by aligning with anti-LGBTQ forces in the ongoing culture war over homosexuality in children’s television. Today, that avoidance comes with new risks: that “Sesame Street” might be abandoned by viewers in favor of other children’s television.

Speculation over Bert and Ernie dates from 1980, when novelist Kurt Andersen characterized the puppets as symbols of closeted same-sex couples across the country in “The Real Thing,” his book of humorous essays. The claim remained mostly an urban legend until 1993, when it got enlisted in a new front in the culture wars fueled by the boom in children’s television.

At the 1992 Republican National Convention, Pat Buchanan declared that the nation was fighting a war for “the soul of America.” Homosexuality was of particular concern for Buchanan and other conservatives, as was what they perceived as the pernicious influence of popular culture. And the nation’s children received particular attention in this anti-gay crusade.

In the early 1990s, thanks to the rise of cable, children’s television was booming. Where children once had a few hours of programming per day to watch, they could now tune into three exclusively child-centric cable channels. The boom heightened concerns over the content of children’s television, particularly fears about hidden messages endorsing or glorifying homosexuality.

Concerned parents, the press and moral policemen, such as Pentecostal minister Joseph Chambers, saw a lurking danger in the purple felt skin and effeminate mannerisms of beloved characters, whether it was the Teletubbies’ Tinky Winky or Barney the dinosaur. They took it upon themselves to “out” these characters and demand a safer, morally pure — as defined by conservatives — space for children’s entertainment.

In 1994, Chambers took to his radio show pulpit and criticized Bert and Ernie’s joint activities, like tending to plants and cooking, as well as their “blatantly effeminate characteristics.” In their relationship, Chambers saw an evil lurking: “They’re two grown men sharing a house — and a bedroom! If this isn’t meant to represent a homosexual union, I can’t imagine what it is supposed to represent.” Chambers called for “Sesame Street” to be banned for violating North Carolina state sodomy laws.

These religious crusades continued throughout the 1990s. But more damaging to LGBTQ communities was the way in which television executives defended the characters by denying their sexual orientation.

Sesame Workshop issued its first official statement on Bert and Ernie’s relationship in 1993, in response to a parental debate in TV Guide magazine over the moral safety of “Sesame Street.” This statement tried to duck the debate, neither affirming nor denying that Bert and Ernie were partners. Instead, the Workshop declared that the characters were best friends, created to teach children that you can be friends with someone very different from yourself.

In 2002, Sesame Workshop introduced a new puppet in the South African version of “Sesame Street,” “Takalani Sesame,” named Kami, a young girl who was HIV-positive. Kami’s character aimed to reduce the stigma of HIV and help children cope with loss in a region where approximately 1 in 8 children lost a parent to the disease. But this move alarmed American conservatives. Six Republican congressmen, led by Rep. W. J. “Billy” Tauzin (R-La.), wrote a letter threatening to cut PBS’s budget if Kami appeared on the American version of “Sesame Street.

The fear over Kami and the angst provoked by Bert and Ernie both reflected concern that Sesame Workshop might include a puppet that implicitly endorsed tolerance of what conservatives saw as illicit sexuality. The letter aimed to send a clear signal that such action would harm the show’s funding and call its future into question.

The issue faded from the news until 2011, when an online petition called for the marriage of Bert and Ernie. The politically polarized debate over same-sex marriage taking place at the time forced Sesame Workshop to choose a side. A new statement repeated the talking point that Bert and Ernie were just friends and added, “Even though they are identified as male . . . they remain puppets, and do not have sexual orientation.” With this statement, the workshop clearly aligned with the right in its quest to deny Bert and Ernie’s orientation.

But this statement was disingenuous. It ignored that many puppets on “Sesame Street” could and did identify openly as straight and engage in loving relationships. Explicitly depicting heterosexual relationships between puppets and then denying the suggestion of a puppet having a homosexual orientation sent a pretty clear message. Sesame Workshop either did not believe it was appropriate for “Sesame Street” to include homosexual relationships or, at the very least, was unwilling to risk a backlash from conservative parents and activists by supporting such inclusiveness.

In 2013, to celebrate the Supreme Court decision to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act, the New Yorker unveiled cover art featuring Bert and Ernie cuddling on a couch, watching the nine Supreme Court justices on television. The artist, Jack Hunter, chose Bert and Ernie to represent the court’s decision as a victory, not just for the gay rights movement but for the next generation of Americans. He stated: “It’s amazing to witness how attitudes on gay rights have evolved in my lifetime. This is great for our kids, a moment we can all celebrate.” Faced again with a politically divisive controversy, Sesame Workshop declined to comment on the cover and referred press outlets to its 2011 statement.

Two weeks ago, in response to Saltzman’s interview, Sesame Workshop released a “new” statement. It was the 2011 statement with a qualifier — “as we’ve always said” — appended. Despite seven years of landmark achievements in LGBTQ rights and representation elsewhere on television, Sesame Workshop did not consider a more nuanced approach to the conversation.

This persistent refusal to take a stand is puzzling, because “Sesame Street” was founded on an aspirational cultural curriculum based on diversity and inclusion. From Day 1, Sesame Workshop has repeatedly listened to the needs of minorities and activists who saw representation on “Sesame Street” as an opportunity to gain recognition and acceptance. Its handling of the Bert and Ernie debate has been a major departure from this norm and a failure to live up to the core cultural mission of the show.

What explains this departure? Originally, the Workshop might’ve been wary of provoking a backlash because the show aired on PBS, a government-funded station. But in 2015, “Sesame Street” moved to HBO, a distribution partner that routinely courts controversy.

The show’s stewards also may fear damaging its otherwise apolitical reputation. But that concern also seems out of step with the program’s norm. “Sesame Street” has always taken revolutionary risks to accurately portray America’s diversity. The very foundation of the neighborhood centered on the first depiction of a married African American couple in American television history.

That’s what makes the handling of Bert and Ernie so puzzling. In the past few years, there has been a surge of LGBTQ inclusion on other children’s shows, including “The Legend of Korra,” “Adventure Time” and “Steven Universe.” Continuing to align with the conservative position on gay rights instead of embracing an opportunity to showcase inclusion poses a serious threat to the show’s reputation.

Next fall, “Sesame Street” will premiere its 50th season. This milestone makes it an ideal time for Sesame Workshop to thoughtfully consider LGBTQ representation, be it with a pride-themed episode, a puppet with two moms, or an update to the story of the beloved Bert and Ernie.