FORGET Ellen DeGeneres, forget George Michael – the latest episode in celebrity outing involves a much-loved pair of puppets designed for pre-school children.
Two weeks after New York legalised gay marriage, Sesame Street programme makers are being asked to announce that characters Bert and Ernie are a couple, and let them wed.
An online petition by gay activist Lair Scott proposed this, suggesting: “We are not asking that Sesame Street do anything crude or disrespectful, only that they allow Bert and Ernie to marry. Let us teach tolerance of those that are different. Let Sesame Street … be a big part in saving many worthy lives.” I’m not sure that a marriage between a dysfunctional, constantly bickering, couple is going to save anyone’s life, but I suppose that’s never been a barrier to matrimony.
If Bert and Ernie were two flesh-and-blood people who were clearly involved in a sexual relationship, I would join those backing this petition. But there’s precious little evidence that these puppets have been hiding a secret life of passion. While I sympathise with the equal marriage movement and the desire for positive gay role models in children’s programming, the idea of making Bert and Ernie into ambassadors of gayness seems far from an act of liberation. Instead, it seems like a demonstration of our current need to box up and label gender and sexuality.
Bert, the logic goes, can’t possibly be heterosexual, or even bisexual, because he’s a long-term room-mate with Ernie. Our culture’s gaydar appears to have gone into overdrive. In the past, male comedy duos from Laurel and Hardy to Morecambe and Wise shared rooms and even beds, yet most people thought nothing of it.
There are those who say that Kermit is gay, and Miss Piggy is the ultimate lesbian icon. Then last year, supposed proof of Bert’s orientation was found in a tweet from the Sesame Street Twitter account. It said his mohawk was more “mo” than “hawk”.
It’s not just the gay community which sees sexuality at every turn. Across society, a sexdar is being applied to all aspects of culture, seeking to uncover hot passions beneath the sweetest of tales. Some find it particularly funny to do this with children’s programme – an-ex boyfriend of mine made an MTV television series revolving around badly-behaving Muppet-style louts who liked to drink and have sex.
With our gaydars set to moderate, then, we can ask the question: are Bert and Ernie gay? Well, there is the small problem that Bert famously sang a song, I Want To Hold Your Ear, to his girlfriend – or was this evidence he’s a repressed homosexual trying to fit in with the norms of heterosexual romantic love?
In any case, outing the pair at this stage in their life seems rather unnecessary given their only private off-screen life is presumably to be put back in a box (or perhaps closet) at night. Outing surely only works when there is some real secret to disclose, and even then it only seems worthwhile when it’s to demonstrate some hypocrisy on the part of the closeted person.
The Bert and Ernie debate also illustrates how male friendship has been sexualised. The theory here is that if you like a member of the same sex enough to room together, you must be gay. A subtle kind of homophobia, or “effeminophobia”, appears to be at work in those who can’t tolerate men who have close friendships, or boys who dress in pretty clothes, without assuming they are gay. Our culture seems to be troubled by people who don’t fit inside the gay or straight stereotype: those who exhibit dandyish or effeminate characteristics, but aren’t gay. We mutter that they must really be gay, and half want to out them. But what business is it of ours?
Meanwhile, there are plenty of campaigns against pink marketing for girls. Pink stinks, we are told. But the flip side of the story is that the colour is entirely off-limits for boys (although it was a “boy’s colour” in Victorian times). Dress your son in pink, or even allow him to choose it for himself, and you are likely raise eyebrows about his sexual orientation.
A friend of mine likes to say that in every relationship, gay or straight, close friendship or marriage, there is a Bert and an Ernie. There’s the depressive, obsessive-compulsive, tidy one, and the happy-go-lucky, disorganised one. This aspect of Bert and Ernie’s partnership is far more interesting than their supposed sexuality.
I agree that we may need more gay role models on television. It’s true that there are very few storylines around that end in a happy-ever-after marriage for a same sex couple. But there are other ways to balance things. Tracy Clark-Flory writes in salon.com that in recent years, Sesame Street “has featured openly gay celebrities from Wanda Sykes to Neil Patrick Harris”. She adds: “Why not call for more of that and leave the absurdity of debating puppets’ sexuality to the homophobes?”
Quite. So let’s turn down the gaydar and keep Bert and Ernie ambiguous: role models to all, straight, gay, transsexual, asexual.
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