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“T is for Tolerance!” An Old-School Collegiette’s Take on New Sesame Street









I think it’s safe to say that most of us collegiettes™ grew up watching Sesame Street: the catchy sing-a-long songs, the fun and furry puppets, and the life lessons all compacted into a single hour-long segment. Ahhh, the magic of preschool.

I know when I was growing up, catching an episode of the TV show was as synonymous with my morning routine as eating a bowl of Cheerios cereal for breakfast.

But lately, I’ve been wondering what happened to the Sesame Street that I grew up with.

The version airing today is much different than episodes we watched in the ‘90s. There’s a plethora of new characters. Guest star celebrities are either over-sexualizing their segment like Katy Perry (the Elmo eye-nipples was a little much, Katy) or over-politicizing the show like First Lady Michelle Obama (“O” is for Obama-care!). And I’m starting to wonder what happened to a lot of my all-time favorite characters.

If you haven’t noticed, there’s a movement of political correctness sweeping Sesame Street. From Oscar going green in a recycling bin to Katy Perry’s cleavage, it seems like everything is being nit-picked to death in the show. The sunny urban neighborhood of our childhood Sesame Street is slowly but surely being reimagined.

First, it was Cookie Monster (admittedly on the fast track for diabetes), who was put on a diet in 2005. Before that, it was Oscar the Grouch, our favorite we-love-to-hate-him gringy next-door neighbor on Sesame Street who was known for his bad manners and maybe questionable hygiene. He’s been attacked for nearly everything imaginable from glorifying homelessness to having a compulsive hoarding habit and being mean. Lately, it’s been Bert and Ernie, our favorite puppet bromance who have been questioned to secretly be gay live-in couple. These more controversial characters have been under attack by critical parents in the last few years. So many people have considered changing the identities of the puppets to portray better morals: eating healthy, being happy, and upholding the moral values that we want kids to look up to, puppet friends for kids to emulate.

But what I’m wondering is, if the producers at Sesame Street can produce a racially integrated cast, why has it been such a struggle to have a gay couple on the show? How is that not discrimination? I don’t believe that having Bert and Ernie as a live-in, openly gay couple teaches kids bad morals any more than I think Oscar teaches kids that it’s cool to live in trash cans or that the Cookie Monster teaches kids to gulf down cookies every minute of every hour. I think these more complex characters teach kids the most important life lesson of all: tolerance.

Sure, we don’t know why Cookie Monster seems to have this addictive habit to sugar. Yes, we just don’t get why Oscar has such an anger problem, but we learn to tolerate and maybe even befriend people who are different from us.

And this is my argument as to why I think making Bert and Ernie an openly gay couple on Sesame Street would not be such a bad idea.

If you haven’t heard already, an online petition has been causing a media buzz on the Internet this week as fans of the show were campaigning that the famous roommate duo should tie the knot as a way for the show to encourage tolerance of gay people.

“In this horrific age of LGBT kids taking their own lives, they need to know that they ARE BEAUTIFUL and their lives are worth living,” as it says on the website. “Aside from those that are committing suicide, the bullies that facilitate these tragedies need to learn that homophobia is NOT okay. They need to know that acceptance of their fellow human beings would indeed plant a seed of peace that will reverberate throughout the world. We are not asking that Sesame Street do anything crude or disrespectful by allowing Bert & Ernie to marry. It can be done in a tasteful way. Let us teach tolerance of those that are different. Let Sesame Street and PBS Kids be a big part in saving many worthy lives.”

Despite collecting 8,860 signatures, the producers at Sesame Workshop released an official statement debunking the theory that Bert and Ernie were anything more than best friends and roommates.

“Bert and Ernie are best friends,” producers wrote in a message on Facebook Thursday afternoon. “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… they remain puppets, and do not have a sexual orientation.”

Sorry, Sesame Street. But I’m not buying that. I think it’s blatantly hypocritical to say that the characters on Sesame Street are not political propaganda, when the producers have been pushing for political correctness (and an admitedly left-sided agenda) for decades.

And who said that puppets don’t have sexual orientation? Umm Kermit and Miss Piggy, anyone?

Bert and Ernie have been living together for more than 40 years now. Either they’re the best bromance in the history of television or there’s something else in the works. There’s been plenty of thinly-veiled pop culture parodies suggesting that they are more than just close friends, including a Family Guy clip and the catchy Avenue Q score on Broadway.

As a now grown-up collegiette™ who watched Sesame Street as a kid, I think some of the changes are overblown. But, I do believe that one of the best things about the show is that it teaches you about growing up. I think that making Bert and Ernie a gay couple could have been a great teaching moment for kids. And they seriously dropped the ball.

Sure, I can see the point of view that maybe we’re politicizing cartoon characters when they really don’t need to be. Bert and Ernie could very easily just be roommates and mismatched friends. But there was a missed opportunity here. There’s an inherent learning that happens on Sesame Street. That’s the beauty of it, which I’m sure we didn’t realize as kids but later appreciated as grown-ups: Sesame Street made learning fun.

So, I think it’s sort of counteractive to nix the more complex characters on Sesame Street, because in that sense, the creators of the show are teaching kids that the world is simple. No, the world isn’t happy rainbows and sunshine all the time like it is on Sesame Street. We don’t always get along with our neighbors. The world is not so simple.

But the makers behind Sesame Street have always tried to teach us this as best they could, using current social issues to teach us real life lessons. The show made things like death, AIDS, racial diversity, and even 9/11 – all adult issues – accessible, understandable, and maybe a little less scary.

At best, re-introducing us to Bert and Ernie as gay would let kids who have two Moms or two Dads feel included; it would allow kids who are struggling with their own sexual identity to know that it’s ok. At worst, it would get kids asking questions.

But what’s so wrong in that? That’s the point of Sesame Street, right? That’s why we watched it growing up, isn’t it? By asking questions and getting answers, we learned life’s most important lessons.

But that’s just my pop culture point of view. What’s your take on the new politically correct analysis being made to Sesame Street? What do you think of Bert and Ernie? Are they bromance buddies or should they be more? Let us know your opinions in the comments box below!

Alexandra is a graduate from the University of New Hampshire and the current Assistant Digital Editor at Martha Stewart Living. As a journalism student, she worked as the Director of UNH’s Student Press Organization (SPO) and on staff for four student publications on her campus. In the summer of 2010, she studied abroad at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge University, in England, where she drank afternoon tea and rode the Tube (but sadly no, she did not meet Prince Harry). Since beginning her career, her written work has appeared in USA Today College, Huffington Post, Northshore, and MarthaStewart.com, among others. When not in the office, she can be found perusing travel magazines to plan her next trip, walking her two dogs (both named Rocky), or practicing ballet. Chat with her on Twitter @allie_churchill.
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