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.
Instead of markedly decreasing the stigma attached to homosexuality, "outing" Bert and Ernie seems more likely to sharply increase the stigma surrounding friendships between boys. It would give credence to the lingering idea that boys with too close of friendships (i.e. where they sleep over and share their worries, a la Bert and Ernie) are really homoerotic in nature. One of the best-known, sweetest, and closest if fictional friendships in contemporary pop culture would be sexualized.
Which leads to the creepy part of the problem: A marriage between Bert and Ernie introduces sex into a place where it just has no business: the minds of preschoolers. I understand that there is more to a homosexual relationship than sex, but when it comes to offering explanations to preschoolers, it's hard to get around the sexual dimension without totally confusing that friendship issue.
While I never seek to shun my kids from the realities of life, and try to answer my kids' questions as honestly as I can, having to explain why two roommate boy puppets wanted to marry is simply beyond the pale.
While some families may have to have this conversation with their preschoolers, most of us don't. And shouldn't have to. 4- and 5-year-olds, of all people, should be allowed to understand friendship in its most basic and beautiful state. They are already bombarded with sex, on magazine covers in the grocery store checkout lines, on highway billboards, on the sassy clothing sported by some of their young friends. They don't need it on Sesame Street.
The people at Sesame Workshop clearly agree. In their response to the petition, they wrote, "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."
Indeed. Saying no to the Change.org petition isn't about homophobia or intolerance or passing judgment. Neither is my opposition to it. Rather, it's about allowing preschoolers to love who they want to love without confusion, without it getting tangled up with sex. It's about letting them see a good example of agape love—the kind that "always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres" (1 Cor. 13:7)—and keeping the more complicated eros at bay, since they will be bombarded by untrue claims about that kind of love for the rest of their lives.