There’s been a lot of speculation about what’s really going on between those twin beds in Bert and Ernie’s room on Sesame Street.
It all started when, in an interview for Queerty, veteran Seasame Street writer Mark Saltzman said he envisioned . “I always felt that without a huge agenda, when I was writing Bert & Ernie, they were,” he writes. “I didn't have any other way to contextualize them.”
Then, Sesame Workshop quickly walked back that sentiment. “Bert and Ernie were , and to teach young people that people can get along with those who are very different from themselves,” they said in a tweet. This POV was confirmed by Frank Oz, a performer who co-created Bert, and noted in a series of tweets that and Jim Henson didn’t think of them as being gay when the characters were created.
Even Saltzman says his quotes were taken out of context. “As a writer, you just bring what you know into your work,” he told the New York Times. "Somehow, in the uproar, that . There is a difference."
The Sesame Workshop was immediately criticized for missing out on an opportunity to teach children. There’s no doubt that confirming Bert and Ernie’s romantic relationship would be a small step in the right direction for LGBTQ representation in children’s media — which is sorely lacking. There are far too few examples of loving, committed, same-sex relationships on TV. Nickelodeon only showed its first married, gay couple in 2016 on The Loud House; Disney Junior had a first two-mom household a year later in an episode of Doc McStuffins.
As the mom of a 3-year-old, I’m always looking for ways to show my daughter the many different configurations that make up a family, and it’s hard. But while that’s a bummer for my daughter, it’s an even bigger problem for the 2 million children growing up in the United States with a same-sex parent who never get to see their families reflected on screen.
But are Bert and Ernie really Sesame Street’s best avenue for LGBTQ representation? In some ways, the answer is an easy yes: People already assume they’re a gay couple (in subtext if not in text). They’re already loved and accepted for who they are.
In other ways, confirming their sexual orientation would bring up more questions than it answers, starting with: How old are they? Are they adults or children? According to the Sesame Workshop, and don’t have official ages, unlike the way Elmo is always 3-and-a-half and Big Bird is 6.
As a viewer — and this is just my opinion, and not official Sesame Workshop info — the answer to the question of their age has probably changed over the years. As the focus has shifted more to characters like Elmo and Abby — and switched to the half-hour format — the point of view of the show has gotten much younger. Characters who may have seemed more adult when Big Bird was a focus now feel like older siblings. As a result, are much more de-emphasized. (Some people have pointed to girlfriends for Oscar and the Count as examples of how the show has normalized heterosexual relationships for the puppets, but in the three years I’ve been watching with my daughter, I can’t honestly recall a single appearance by a Countess or Grundgetta. Though Grundgetta sounds awesome and I’d like to meet her.)
Even the humans don’t seem as coupled up. As much as I ship Nina and Chris, I have to admit that it’s not going to happen. As the characters and POV have de-aged and have fewer romantic entanglements, it would make much more sense for the show as it is now for a puppet to be introduced with same-sex parents, than to be revealed as being in a long-term, same-sex relationships themselves. The puppets just don’t have dating lives anymore.
And the Sesame Workshop is also right in that you lose something if Bert and Ernie’s relationship becomes a romantic one. You forfeit the idea that men can enter a long-term, loving friendship without it becoming a romantic one. In this era of toxic masculinity, that’s important, too. Studies show that, as boys move into the mid-teen years, they sour on their male friendships and learn that “,” which leads to an . Bert and Ernie is a model for friendship that boys sorely lack. Or, as Patrick A. Coleman says on Fatherly: "Sadly, the sweetness shown between . But it should be."
That’s not saying that the needs of young, heterosexual boys should outweigh the needs of LGBTQ families. But the Sesame Workshop does show examples of families with same-sex parents. Take this video, where a kid proudly declares “I love my two moms!” and gets a kiss on the cheek for both of them.
There should definitely be more of these moments — and LGBT puppet characters as beloved as Bert and Ernie, too. But as much as I’d celebrate a Bert and Ernie marriage, I’d mourn the loss of their friendship.