Bert, Ernie, and the Problem with Compulsory Heteronormativity

The comment that started it all was fairly innocuous.

“I always felt that without a huge agenda, when I was writing Bert and Ernie, they were gay,” said Mark Saltzman, a writer for “Sesame Street,” in an interview with gay news site Queerty. “That’s what I had in my life, a Bert & Ernie relationship. How could it not permeate?”

It was not the first time Bert and Ernie’s relationship had been questioned. In 1994, the New York Times ran a piece regarding the societal debate around the puppets, claiming, “[Y]ou'd think people would have more important things to worry about than the sex lives of puppets. But you'd be wrong.”

All in all, it did not exactly feel unexpected when Bert and Ernie were officially confirmed as gay in at least one writer’s eyes. What did feel unexpected, however, was the response from Sesame Street, in a now-deleted tweet:

 

“As we have always said,” the tweet reads, “Bert and Ernie are best friends…. 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.”

The first issue with this is, of course, that other puppets created by Jim Henson have been shown to have a sexual orientation—Kermit and Miss Piggy, for example. Though they most certainly are puppets, they have been shown to have a relationship that, if tumultuous, is clearly existent. Bert and Ernie, by contrast, also deal with conflict between their two personalities—and yet they are able to resolve these conflicts and continue to live together happily.

 

 

As much as I personally love Kermit and consider Miss Piggy the definition of the word “iconic,” this does point to a troubling trend in the depiction of relationships across all forms of media—no matter how toxic, troublesome, or rife with problems a straight relationship is, it is usually still considered a legitimate relationship, while no matter how healthy, beautiful, or uplifting a gay relationship is, it almost always takes twice the effort for it to be considered legitimate.

And this, too, outlines a deeply rooted problem with LGBTQ+ representation: where straight couples are seen as normative enough to go unremarked upon, queer couples never are. And when queer couples, real or fictional, are invalidated while straight couples are not? That is called compulsory heteronormativity—forcing people into a worldview in which queer people do not exist, and where two men who live together, share affection and compassion for one another, and even bathe together are relegated to only being “best friends.”

Compulsory heteronormativity, too, invalidates any attempt to view things as queer. Saltzman’s original quote to Queerty made a very important distinction—that it was simply something that influenced his writing, and that his own relationship reminded him so much of Bert and Ernie that it would have been impossible for something not to permeate. In other words, that was the way that he viewed Bert and Ernie’s relationship—as a gay man writing two men in love. Notably, he did not claim that that was the only way their relationship could be viewed, but simply how he saw it.

Sesame Workshop’s response, however, only left room for one option: Bert and Ernie have never been queer and will never be queer.

Saltzman has since clarified his quote: “Maybe they were gay when I was writing them...but I never felt I had the authority to declare them to be gay. I'm sure when straight writers were writing Bert and Ernie, they were straight. Like any writer, I brought my experience into it, my experience of living with another guy who was the opposite of me.”

If only Sesame Workshop could take such a nuanced viewpoint.

 

[Both images within article sourced from BBC]