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.
Now, I don’t know a lot of “best friends” who share bedrooms in an apartment that size, but fine, let’s roll with that part. What I want to note is that the (presumably somewhat tongue-in-cheek) observation that puppets “do not have a sexual orientation” is just manifestly false. Lots of the puppets on Sesame Street are portrayed as having a “sexual orientation,” insofar as they’re shown in romantic couples.
Oscar has his girlfriend Grundgetta. The Count has been involved with a series of different Countesses. The Twiddlebugs are your standard nuclear family. And of course, there are no shortage of one-off songs and sketches centered on families or unmarried couples. Muppet squirrel girl groups sing about their boyfriends. The human characters Gordon and Susan were married from the outset (and later adopted a child), while Maria and Luis famously got married on the show.
What all of these have in common is that they’re heterosexual couples. Because it’s regarded as the default, that “sexual orientation” is invisible. But, of course, it’s still there—and nobody imagines that simply depicting all these straight couples and families somehow counts as injecting inappropriate “adult” or sexualized material into a children’s show.
What Sesame Street gives us, then, is a picture of reality (in New York, of all places) where loving coupled relationships are exclusively presented as heterosexual. That exclusion is a choice. And the implicit message sent by that choice is that the very existence of same-sex couples is, like swearing or violent street crime, an aspect of urban reality that’s inappropriate for children to be exposed to, unlike all the normal, unremarkable heterosexual couplings depicted on the show.
That omission is not neutral. The refusal to acknowledge the existence of same-sex relationships on a show that otherwise routinely celebrates family is, in itself, a message and a value judgment. It relegates them to the category of shameful or unpleasant topics that are not to be mentioned in front of the children. Obviously, this cannot keep children from noticing that Uncle Ron and Uncle Pete live together, or that Heather from kindergarten has two mommies. But they will surely notice, at least subliminally, that those relationships never seem to make their way into the idealized world of Sesame Street—where the air is sweet, and evidently the sun chases away the gays along with the clouds.
That doesn’t mean Bert and Ernie, or any other particular pair of Muppets, need to have a coming out party. [And to clarify: Having been depicted as best friends for so long, it would probably be a mistake to retcon them as gay.] It does mean that the makers of kids shows should probably think harder about what message they’re sending when they embed in their scripts a double standard about what types of affectionate relationships are “appropriate” for children to see.
Update: Doug Mataconis articulates what I think is the natural reaction to this kind of argument, which is that “the mission of Sesame Street doesn’t really have much to do teaching children about sexuality at any level.” Whether it’s the “mission” or not, however, that’s what it does. It’s just that when it teaches us about heterosexuality, the teaching is invisible.
As long as human relationships are depicted, though, something is being modeled and taught. We’re learning something about sexuality when Telly contemplates the possibility that Bob and Linda (who, incidentally, was for a long time the most prominent deaf character on television) will get married and have babies. We’re learning something about the nature of family when Herry Monster and his relations sing about the physical features he has inherited from each of them, or when a family of Anything Muppets sort themselves by age and gender. Not teaching about “sexuality” in the broadest sense is just not an option as long as recognizably human couples and families are shown with any regularity.
That doesn’t mean there needs to be overt discussion of sexuality, any more than the presence of black characters requires an explanation of the horrific conditions under which African slaves were transported to the new world, or how their ancestors won civic equality decades later. It just means that having a cast with human characters of multiple races is a choice, even if “race” is never discussed, and a choice that implicitly “teaches” something different from a show where non-white faces are never glimpsed, or where characters of different races are present, but never interact (even if, again, this fact is never mentioned). If the show had nothing but Muppets, of course, the question wouldn’t arise at all. But if, for 40 years, every human adult or child face on the show were white, we would not be much impressed with the defense: “Well, it is not Sesame Street’s mission to teach kids about race relations.” If the ideal community represented by Sesame Street were 100% Anglo-Saxon in a country that’s about 64% non-Hispanic white, the complete absence of race relations would be teaching kids something about race relations. That’s one reason Sesame Street has always maintained a diverse human cast—and taught kids something precisely by showing all these friendly neighbors who don’t ever have to bring up the topic of race.
Update II: From the comments:
I’m a straight, 42 year old, at home father of a 4 year old girl. She happens to have 2 loving aunts that have been in a committed relationship for over 10 years.
Watching Sesame Street a few months ago she actually asked me why there is “nobody who look like aunt Erin and aunt Sara”.
Just one data point. But it does suggest kids notice when certain types of families are conspicuously absent from a show that is often about families.