Bert and Ernie are not gay. In their 31 years on “Sesame Street,” they’ve never marched in a Pride parade or plastered a rainbow sticker on Oscar the Grouch’s trash can. Sesame Workshop has always contended that they’re just friends who happen to live together and sleep side by side in well-tailored pajamas.
And yet, because of a comment on “Sesame Street’s” Twitter account, some are claiming that Bert is officially out of the closet.
On June 11, the mono-browed Muppet tweeted about the premiere of the recent “A-Team” remake. ( “Sesame Street” plans to air a parody of the movie in November.) “Ever notice how similar my hair is to Mr. T’s?” Bert asked, name-checking the original “A-Team” star. “The only difference is mine is a little more ‘mo,’ a little less ‘hawk.’”
Reading “mo” as slang for homosexual, gay bloggers rejoiced. To some, it seemed as if “Sesame Street” was aiming sly in-jokes directly at them, right under the noses of unsuspecting straight viewers. Ed Kennedy of the gay pop culture site AfterElton.com noted that the tweet came during a week when many cities were hosting Gay Pride celebrations. “The people at Sesame Street are way too clever for their own good,” he wrote.
Now some people are wondering: Is “Sesame Street” brought to you by the letters G-A-Y?
In its own subtle, perhaps unintentional way, the show’s latest season feels more LGBT-friendly than ever. Lesbian comedian Wanda Sykes appeared on the show in October, following in the tradition of openly gay guest stars such as Neil Patrick Harris, who played ( cough, cough) “the shoe fairy” a few seasons back. A parody of “True Blood” — the HBO vampire drama that features several gay characters and draws many gay fans — aired in September. Recently, the Black Eyed Peas frontman will.i.am appeared on the show to sing “What I Am,” a song about accepting who you really are, prompting much online debate about its underlying message. “Did Will.i.am just sing the next gay pride anthem on Sesame Street?” one commenter on AfterElton.com asked.
Ellen Lewis, Sesame Workshop’s vice president of Corporate Communications, said that “Sesame Street” is not consciously trying to appeal to gay viewers. “We’ve always reached out to a variety of actors and athletes and celebrities to appear on the show, and our programming has always appealed to adults as much as children,” she says. “Honestly, the idea that anyone would interpret [this season] that way never crossed our minds.”
Pop star Katy Perry, the straight singer who’s reached gay icon status with hits like “I Kissed a Girl” and “UR So Gay,” was also scheduled to appear on “Sesame Street” this season. But when parents saw a YouTube clip of her playing dress-up with Elmo, they complained about her low-cut costume. Perry’s skit has since been axed, but Michael Jensen, editor in chief at AfterElton.com, believes that’s a good thing. “The fact that more people have objected to Katy Perry’s cleavage than they have to the ‘True Blood’ spoof shows how far we’ve come in this gay rights movement,” he said.
For Jarrett Barrios, president of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), “Sesame Street” is simply reflecting its changing audience. “As more and more loving and committed gay and lesbian couples begin families, it’s important that their children see representations of their families on their favorite shows,” he says. “‘Sesame Street’ has a long history of teaching children about diversity and acceptance, and I don’t expect that our community will be left out of that education.”
Indeed, same-sex parents have become more visible both on and off screen. For the first time in history, the 2010 census includes data from same-sex marriages, unions and partnerships. There are currently 1 million lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender parents raising about 2 million children in the U.S., according to figures analyzed by UCLA’s Williams Institute.
“This is the first generation where it’s not unusual for gay men in their 20s to think, ‘I’m going to get married and have kids,’” says Jensen. “That’s a huge change from 20 years ago.” Though Jensen acknowledges that many Americans still oppose gay marriage, he notes: “You have two dads on ‘Glee,’ and you have Cameron and Mitchell on ‘Modern Family,’ and both of those shows are hits.” Same-sex parenting, he suggests, has become “a zeitgeisty thing.”
Of course, gay adults have a long history of embracing children’s shows. In recent years, “Teletubbies”’ purse-toting Tinky Winky and the ever-ambiguous Spongebob Squarepants have been showing up on T-shirts and key chains in shops oriented toward gay customers. “Kids’ shows all feature fabulous freaks — they’re always about the odd ones and the underdogs,” explains Dan Savage, author of “The Kid: What Happened After My Boyfriend and I Decided to Go Get Pregnant.” “All kids feel like they’re odd underdogs, but gay kids feel it pretty acutely. Those characters speak to our fabulous inner children.”
PBS might not be so eager to embrace that fabulous inner child. The network, which broadcasts “Sesame Street,” came under fire in 2005 for an episode of the children’s show “Postcards from Buster” that featured young people with lesbian parents. After some prominent conservatives protested — Bill O’Reilly of Fox News compared the episode to “a bigamy situation in Utah” — PBS President and CEO Pat Mitchell announced that she would leave the company as soon as her contract expired. (Mitchell contends that her decision was not a reaction to the “Buster” uproar.)
Three years earlier, Sesame Workshop sent a cease and desist letter to Los Angeles filmmaker Peter Spears, whose Sundance hit “Ernest & Bertram” recast Bert and Ernie as a gay couple. At the time, Lewis released a statement insisting that Bert and Ernie “do not portray a gay couple, and there are no plans for them to do so in the future. They are puppets, not humans.”
And yet, last year, as the courts battled over gay marriage, many bloggers turned again to “Sesame Street,” unearthing vintage clips on YouTube and presenting them as an argument for gay rights. In one frequently posted clip, Grover asks a little boy, “Do you know what marriage is?”
“A marriage is when two people get married,” offers the boy.
In another clip, Grover asks a small child, “What kind of people can you love?”
The verdict? “Any kind.”
“When I watched those clips, I noticed that Grover was always careful to talk about love and marriage without framing them in terms of gender,” says Justin Libby, a software engineer who watches “Sesame Street” with his husband and their 3-year-old son Ander. After discovering the clips on the website BoingBoing, Libby played them for Ander, who was noticeably less excited about the clip than his dad. “He didn’t really connect to it,” Libby admits. “But maybe that’s because, for him, it’s not an issue. A family is just a family.”
If “Sesame Street” isn’t intentionally drawing in families with gay parents, then why are those families embracing it? For Carol-Lynne Parente, executive producer at “Sesame Street,” the show has always appealed to people who aren’t traditionally well represented on television. “It was originally designed to speak to inner-city kids,” she says, “but what we found was that, even though ‘Sesame Street’ was designed to look like an inner-city neighborhood, everyone felt that it represented their own neighborhood.”
Now many gay viewers believe the same thing. Savage, who grew up with the show, says he recently started watching again with his husband, Terry, and their 12-year-old son, DJ. “Basically we skipped the honest appreciation stage and went straight to the ironic appreciation stage,” he admits. And yet, he seems genuinely excited about the idea that “Sesame Street” might be acknowledging families like his. “Gay people and gay couples exist,” he says. “And people like us, gosh darn it, they really like us.”