Call for Comments: On the Secret Sex Lives of Puppets

From Mav: Clearly, the first thing that most of us think whenever we encounter a couple of children’s puppets is “hmm… which of these puppets are fucking each other?” It’s the obvious question, right? I mean, I didn’t think anyone care all that much about that… but the last couple of days have shown me that that’s ALL anyone cares about. Obviously I am talking about Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street. On September 16, David Reddish, of the LGBTQ+ advocacy website Queerty* published an interview with former Sesame Street writer Mark Saltzman where, amongst a bunch of other relatively innocuous common interview questions, he mentioned that when he was writing the show he always considered Bert and Ernie to be gay. Of course this was immediately followed up by producers and co-creator Frank Oz releasing statements basically to the effect of “No they’re not gay… NOT THAT THERE’S ANYTHING WRONG WITH THAT… but they’re not…” and that was followed up by all three parties releasing further statements that sort of tried to half-step the line one way or the other.

The Internet exploded! It’s what the Internet does…

But why? Why do people care so much? Why does anyone care on either end of the spectrum? After all, it’s a couple of puppets that honestly, the vast majority of people writing think pieces on either way probably haven’t actually watched at all in twenty or more years! And yet, these think pieces exist. Everyone is very invested. Some say how important this is to the LGBTQ community and ones written about how this is yet another leftist SJW libtard attempt to thrust the sinful gay agenda down everyone’s throats (side question: How  come all of the  language used to complain about the gay agenda always sounds so….. kinky?). And then somewhere in the middle, I’ve seen people arguing that this is stupid… that everyone should let it go and stop sexualizing it because their child puppets on kid’s television show and kid puppet don’t have sexuality… let them be kids.

That last take, I think, may be the key to understanding the other two. Both the pro and anti camps on Bert and Ernie are pretty good at explaining themselves. No matter what side you fall on, it’s at least pretty clear why each of them care… either you think that representation is important for subcultures… or you’re a homophobe who feels that your childhood has been ruined because you liked something “gay” when you were a kid and does that now mean you have to question everything about yourself… is it possible that maybe you’ve wanted to blow Bert all along? (look, I never said I was going to be impartial, here). But the question asked by that central camp is important. Why are we sexualizing the characters to begin with?

For starters I have to point out that I never considered Bert and Ernie to be children. Even when I was watching the show when I was four, I thought they were adults. This apparently is controversial. I did some research, the ages of the characters are never explicitly stated, but some people seem sure that they’re 6-7 (a puppeteer once said that). On the other hand, even as a kid I noticed that they live alone without parents, they aren’t treated as children by the human characters (the way Big Bird is), they don’t go to school, and they have jobs. To me that was a clear coding of adult.

But that doesn’t matter. Children have sexuality! This isn’t sexualizing them. They always have. Psychologically, children tend to be very sexually curious about their own and others bodies from extremely young ages… and they often show clear signs of sexual attraction long before puberty. It’s mostly just that we, as adults, like to pretend that it doesn’t exist… especially in America… and especially when it’s not heteronormative. And we’re mostly ok with in our media, so long as we’re not confronted with it. Even in Sesame Street. Key in point, Elmo, one of their most popular characters on the show. There’s never been any doubt in my mind that Elmo is dating Zoe. Yes, they are explicitly three years old. I don’t imagine them having an active sex life or anything like that. But she’s his girlfriend. It’s why she was added to the show. The only thing makes the Elmo and Zoe relationship even remotely questionable is that he may also be dating Abby Cadabby in later seasons (Zoe has been with the show since 1993, Abby didn’t show up til 2006). And maybe  that bothers some people, but I like to think this is a subtle and transgressive stab at mononormativity that the show is edging towards and that all three monsters will sort of work out their feelings and grow to enjoy their polytriad relationship as they grow older… again… representation matters!

And obviously, direct representation is important. Having specifically queer characters in popular media is important, whether it be incidental, as with  Dumbledore in Harry Potter, or explicit and storyline integral as with several characters in Sailor Moon. But what I’m arguing here is that, for the developmental child, vague and non-specific representation is important as well… I think it’s just as important to have Bert and Ernie be vaguely gay as it is for them to be vaguely adult.

Elmo’s relationships, coded as heteronormative never seem to bother anyone. He’s super affectionate with both girls and it’s fine. And honestly, Bert and Ernie have been just as affectionate with each other since their introduction on the pilot in 1969. And really, no one has ever really been bothered by their behavior, no matter how homophobic they are, even when the affection is coded as quite queer. No one cares that both characters dress in rainbow stripes. No one cares that Bert sometimes hangs out and watched Ernie bathe. No one even remembers that time when Bert started crossdressing and Ernie got in a zentai frogsuit and they made out (yes really… you can watch it on youtube)… I mean, that was in Germany… that hardly counts, they were probably drunk, right? Europe is all kinky and libertine! Though honestly, if you go back through your childhood, Bert crossdresses A LOT! You just never really thought about it before, because the show was pretty good at making it seem natural for him, but I LOVED The Perils of Penelope when I was a kid. Mostly, so long as we can view their behavior as homosocial, rather than homosexual it seems to not bother anyone… no matter how much it creeps up to that line (I figure most people have never seen the German version… but seriously, go back and watch the American version from when you were a kid).

My point here is that I wonder if it’s not the “GAY” that bothers (or excites) anyone here — seriously, no matter what, Bert and Ernie are and always have been VERY GAY — it’s the homoSEXuality, because that forces the acknowledgment of SEXuality in children at all. And really, Elmo’s pimpdaddy like behavior totally should… but because we view heteronormative children as  “just being kids” no one ever seems to notice what incredible levels of mad pimp game Elmo is playing.

And that’s why it matters. Because Elmo’s behavior DOES come across as normative. It seems like it’s coded that way. But he’s not. Elmo is totally queer. Elmo is super affectionate. Elmo loves everybody and everyone loves Elmo. But because he is eternally three and a half,  Elmo’s behavior reads as heterosexual. Safely heterosexual. I don’t think he is… If Elmo were to age, it would likely become quite clear that Elmo is quite pansexual… and definitely non-monogamous… and probably hypersexual. In my head, there’s a show called Sesame Street: the College Years,  where 19yo Elmo spends most of his time rolling on molly and will pretty much fuck ANYONE. But even on that show, Bert and Ernie maintain the same committed monogamous (if co-dependent) relationship that they’ve maintained for the last 50 years.

Without Love” by JamieNWester, 2011

And no, not all of those details are there. I’ve never seen Bert, Ernie, Elmo, Zoe or Abby fuck… and I don’t really want to. It’s not about that. Sesame Street is now and always has been about learning to accept others (and ourselves) and appreciate their differences. That’s literally been one of the central messages of the show for its entire run. Yes, those messages are boiled down to simple nuggets that are easily digestible by children. It needs to be normalized that a male African American puppet and a male Asian American puppet (yes, I’m pretty sure they’re an interracial couple,  too. Representation Matters!) can have an acceptable relationship as life partners that spans decades… just as easily as a smooth talking fuzzy red love machine can mack on everyone in town.

It normalizes behaviors… I’m ok, and you’re ok. And it is able to normalize these behaviors BECAUSE it is vague. As important as it is to have clear representation role models… it’s also important…. and in fact, probably more so… to have vague ones. To have characters where we don’t know, and we can imagine anything… especially targeted at an age where “we’re just figuring things out.” After all, The Q in LGBTQ is for questioning, and I would argue that the vagueness of Bert and Ernie AND Elmo and their sexuality is what makes them work for everyone… straight and queer alike. It’s also why it’s threatening. If you’re the kind of person who believes that media can make you gay… then it’s quite dangerous to be dwelling on that long lost memory you have in the back of your mind of a tall and slender Bert, wearing with that dress and the wig, in bondage no less, while Ernie dressed as a powerful and manly cowboy appears to save him. It was 70s… the Village People were in full effect. So many questions are raised… questions that maybe some people aren’t ready to have answered yet.

That said, I maintain that in another franchise, Peppermint Patty and Marcie are TOTALLY doing it… and I think it’s obvious… and I think if you ignore it, you’re delusional and wrong!

So that’s where I am right now. But I’m curious as to where you are. On the next episode we’re going to discuss the importance of these relationships and when you want them be explicit and when not. And why they work… and this controversy as a whole. We’re curious as to your thoughts… about THIS specific case, and about sexualization and sexual representation in children’s shows in general. What are your thoughts?

4 Comments and 1 Webmention for “Call for Comments: On the Secret Sex Lives of Puppets”

  1. I’m going to throw some things down and lets see what sticks:

    Bert and Ernie — Clearly no parents in the picture, but not exactly treated 100% like adults. Clearly they care for each other. The fact that they are in separate beds means nothing, since the show started in the era where even married couples slept in separate beds (the Brady Bunch being the first show where they shared a bed). They clearly care about each other so closer than random roommates, but that doesn’t mean that it’s a romantic relationship. I care deeply about various guys in my life, but that doesn’t mean we’re in a romantic relationship.

    Of course, then there is the Sesame Street Christmas Special which includes the Bert and Ernie “Gift of the Magi” retelling. ( People might be a little too tied to the idea that it’s a couple that makes the sacrifice. It doesn’t have to be. People sacrifice for others all the time, being a couple isn’t required.

    As far as the creators of the characters feeling one way and the talent feeling another way, ehh… that happens. I often wonder if authors sit up in heaven listening to English classes dissecting their work and say “you know, I wasn’t really thinking all that hard it about. Allegory? I was drunk off my ass. I couldn’t have found an allegory if it bit me!”

    So not really clear thoughts, but mostly a who cares. I’m not losing sleep over which puppet is doing which puppet.

    1. we’re actually going to do another show soon on “authorial intent” vs. “reader criticism”. So even if that doesn’t come up on this episode, it will very soon.

  2. I haven’t quite formulated the clarity of my thought, but in essence — you can code heteronormative or gay or some as yet undefined polytransmonstersexual. Despite any sexual identity assigned (that kind of anthropomorphizing seems dumb to me but still, if that’s what people want to do, then perhaps they have bigger issues), why can’t puppet best friends just be best friends, Rubber Ducky and pet pigeons and all?

  3. Great read. I was a child watching sesame street in the 80’s. Homosexuality was still not openly accepted in society. I saw Bert and Ernie as gay grown ups and I think that vague association helped me grow up to not be a homophobe. As a child I never knew anyone that was gay. Just Bert and Ernie and I could tell they really loved each other.

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