Friday, August 12, 2011

Marrying Bert & Ernie: I don't get it

At the risk of being unpopular, I have to say I really don't connect with the campaign to have Bert and Ernie get married.

Sesame Street's Bert and Ernie have been living together for 40 years. And now, an online petition demanding that Sesame Street allow Bert and Ernie to wed is circulating. As of this posting it has almost 4,500 signatures. "Let us teach tolerance of those that are different," the petition's description reads. "Let Sesame Street and PBS Kids be a big part in saving many worthy lives." Admirable intentions, but are Bert and Ernie even gay? And even if they are, why should two puppets on a kids' show get married? 
We called up the creator of the campaign, Lair Scott, for his perspective on the push to make honest puppets out of Bert and Ernie. 
...Scott was inspired to launch the campaign after noticing a friend's Facebook post about how long Bert and Ernie had been living together in sin. He decided to do something about it. When I asked him whether he was sure Bert and Ernie were in a relationship, he said, "Are you sure?" 
"It's been implied for too long," Scott said. "And especially for the gay community. Even when I was nine years old, I knew that Bert and Ernie weren't just roommates." 
PBS doesn't share Scott's stance on the issue. They would only issue a statement via the Sesame Workshop, which said: 
Bert and Ernie are best friends. They were created to teach preschoolers that people can be good friends with those who are very different from themselves. Even though they are identified as male characters and possess many human traits and characteristics (as most Sesame Street Muppets™ do), they remain puppets, and do not have a sexual orientation. 
Scott said "they might be best friends, but best friends get married. You live with a guy for 40 years -- come on, Sesame Street." According to Scott, "we're talking about educating children and parents on a new kind of marriage. That's all I can tell them. It's that simple." 
...Elsewhere, the campaign has been met with a mix of bemusement and suspicion. At Videogum, the petition is called "misguided" -- same at Jezebel. And there are a number of counter-petitions springing up at, like "Preserve the Innocence of Sesame Street- Keep Bert and Ernie As Friends!". It's true that Bert and Ernie are merely felt puppets, and probably don't even have sexual organs. Videogum's Gabe argues that "There is...absolutely no reason to brush a patina of ACTUAL SEX onto this relationship." Well, duh.
Here's my thing: it's one thing for someone to come up with their own openly gay characters and have them get married. For me, though, it really comes down to an intellectual property argument. PBS owns the characters, PBS says they aren't gay (or even have a sexual orientation), so therefore, I'm sorry, they're not gay. Yeah, the fact that they've been roommates for forever is, let's say, interesting, but that doesn't make them gay (as plenty of same-gendered roommates can attest, I'm sure).

I'm also a bit uncomfortable with the degree to which a children's show is being politicized (and counter-politicized) by this discussion. By and large, I think kids can handle a lot more than most people give them credit for, so it's not like I think that a 4-year-old's head will explode if B and E come out as gay. By the same token, just because Lair Scott has decided it's "obvious" that B and E are gay doesn't make it so.

From where I'm sitting, this isn't really about preserving innocence or advancing tolerance: it's about who should have control over cultural icons: their creators and owners or the public. Yeah, it's always nice to have public input, but at the end of the day, its PBS' decision to make. Saying B&E should get married because "you think so" is no more legitimate than me demanding that George Lucas make a new Star Wars movie where all the Ewoks are Jewish. (I mean, come on, short, hairy, and living on a place named Endor? Clearly Wicket is long overdue for his Bar Mitzvah. Hop to it, George.)

I wonder if this is at least partially a trickle-down effect of fandom-culture reflecting back on mainstream entertainment. Slash fiction has existed for decades using popular characters ranging from Harry Potter all the way back to Kirk & Spock. While some writers and franchises have encouraged or at least been open to fan creations using their characters, many haven't. I don't know how many instances there have been where fans have (seriously) demanded that creators of a character write the fans' own interpretation of relationships or character dynamics into the canonical material. But maybe I'm just over-thinking this. And given that we're debating the romantic lives of two puppets who don't even have lower torsos, that could be entirely possible.

Alyssa Rosenberg said the same thing a few days ago but clearer, more concise, and without a single Ewok joke or reference to Slash fiction. If only I was that talented.

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