The Battle for Bert and Ernie
When I was 4, our local PBS station gave away stuffed Ernie dolls as part of its pledge drive. As soon as I saw the announcement, I did exactly as WTTW hoped I would: I ran to the other room and begged my dad to send money. Six weeks later, I got my very own Ernie doll.
Of all the Sesame Street characters I loved, Ernie was my favorite. The way he wore his hair. The way he snickered. The way he bothered Bert. I was crazy about him. And once I had my own sweater-striped Ernie, he became my favorite nighttime snuggle buddy. Unlike Bert, who had to sleep in the bed next to him, I got to hold Ernie right up in the crook of my elbow. I loved it.
Maybe it's because I have these fond memories of bedtime with Ernie that I reacted so weirdly to a recent online petition at Change.org urging the folks at Sesame Workshop (the creators of Sesame Street) to marry Bert and Ernie, as well as to introduce a transgender character. While, of course, the rumors of their sexual orientation have been around for years, even in my childhood, those rumors have always seemed harmless enough and easy to brush off.
But this organized effort—which had over 9,300 signatures as of this writing—troubled me. I remembered the sway PBS had over me, and worried about what this sort of sway would communicate.
The petitioners believe that a married Bert and Ernie would somehow lessen the bullying toward kids who identify or are identified as gay. I certainly want less bullying of any children! Beyond that, even if most evangelical Protestants oppose same-sex marriage (74 percent), many of us can understand the impulse behind some members of the gay community to legally and publicly solidify their relationships.
No, a couple other things got under my skin. If Bert and Ernie were really secret lovers who had been waiting all these years for New York to legalize gay marriage, that means Ernie my childhood snuggle puppet is a sexual being old enough to marry his lover of 40 years. And that makes the idea of a 4-year-old me snuggled up to him kind of creepy for me. And confusing.
First the confusing: Translating a long-portrayed platonic friendship between puppets into a sexual one adds a heap of confusion to the already troubled world of friendships between boys. Having to explain to children why Bert and Ernie held hands on their way to City Hall to get their marriage licenses stands to harm kids more than help them—even with those with same-sex parents or those who might face bullying for presumed same-sex attraction down the road.