Pop Culture Fix: The Gay Bert and Ernie Story Is Missing the Point of the Interview That Started It and Other Illuminating Journeys

+ I can’t believe it’s been seven entire years since I last wrote about Bert and Ernie maybe or maybe not being gay and now here we are again, as a culture, asking ourselves: are Bert and Ernie gay? Mark Saltzman, who wrote the beloved Sesame Street characters between 1985 and 1998, did an interview with Queerty in which he said, “When I was writing Bert & Ernie, they were [lovers]. I didn’t have any other way to contextualize them.”

His comments, thrust to the forefront of the piece by the headline ARE BERT AND ERNIE GAY? WE FINALLY HAVE AN ANSWER, set off a frenzied 24 hours of news and inspired a lot of very funny tweets. Sesame Street said muppets don’t have sexual orientations, Frank Oz said they aren’t gay but also it wouldn’t matter if they were because sexuality is not everything you guys except also FYI their sexuality is “not gay” just so you know, Sesame Street erased its former statement and made a new statement, and Saltzman did a phone interview with The New York Times, clarifying: “As a writer, you just bring what you know into your work. Somehow, in the uproar, that turned into Bert and Ernie being gay. There is a difference.”

The Queerty interview is a truly remarkable conversation between a contemporary gay publication and a gay storyteller who spoke with eloquence and compassion about his experiences coming out and growing up during the AIDS crisis. The headline Queerty chose was a hit, for sure, but it wasn’t really representative of the story the piece itself told.

“It’s important to note that if Saltzman’s original comment to Queerty that ‘when I was writing Bert & Ernie, they were lovers’ was true, it seems to have been an impulse born out of the deep existential crisis of being gay during the AIDS epidemic,” Aja Romano writes in Vox. “It was an era when an entire culture was under attack — if not from the disease directly, then from the many homophobic parameters that arguably worsened the scope of the tragedy.” For Salzman, Romano concludes, writing Bert and Ernie as gay “was a way to positively affirm oneself and one’s relationship in an era when everything around you was working to erase you.”

I ended up reading that twitter thread you maybe read too last night — about how quickly it seems younger queers are forgetting an entire generation wiped out by HIV/AIDS in the ’80s and ’90s and also the entire generation of gay men and women who survived, but not without a heavy heart and many battle scars. So after reading that Queerty interview today and Vox’s explainer, (which is a must-read as it provides a really comprehensive look at the history of their subtextual relationship) — it just felt especially important to bring it to your attention.

Also, I think we all know in our hearts that Bert and Ernie are gay, and so is Prairie Dawn.

+ Good news: that show “The Bisexual” that Hulu picked up is gonna be directed by Desiree Akhavan, who will also star in the project. In other words — it’s gonna be good! The show is described like so:

“Set in London, the story follows New Yorker Leila (Akhavan). When she goes on a break with her 10-year girlfriend and business partner Sadie (Peake), she moves in with novelist Gabe (Brian Gleeson). He becomes her wingman as she explores the life of dating both men and women for the first time.”

+ Cher has released a music video for her all-female cover of SOS featuring trans actress Trace Lysette and lesbian comedian Sabrina Jalees and it is bananas and beautiful and full of hot lesbian fashion.

+ Amandla Stenberg is on the cover of Seventeen Magazine, discussing things including her sexuality:

Gender and sexuality are so fluid—it’s okay to change your mind a million times and figure out what works for you,” she said. “It’s okay to take your time… I’d been out as bisexual, and people have known I’m queer for a long time. I saw some comments that made me chuckle, like, ‘Girl, we been knew!’ But I wanted to make it very clear that I have romantic love for women.”

+ A lot of lesbian film happening in Canada this week:

Toronto Film Review: ‘Vita & Virginia’: “…aside from the creamy, fresh, bright tones of Carlos De Carvalho’s photography, and the surprising, but successfully anachronistic melodic electro score from Isobel Waller-Bridge, it seems that Button, in just her second feature, will allow the lesbian angle to set the film apart from its period-drama brethren and otherwise won’t do too much to air out those stuffy, damask-curtained rooms.”

‘Tell It to the Bees’: Film Review: “Given that eclectic background, Jankel seems a slightly odd fit for this period-set romantic drama, although her visual effects skills must have been helpful for supervising the creation of a swarm of digital bees. The result should appeal to audiences with a soft spot for stories about plucky, convention-defying women falling in love while wearing floaty, vintage tea dresses — and keeping bees. Some might mutter about the industry’s preference for lesbian-themed movies in which the leads just so happen to be thin, femme and pretty, but it’s hard to dislike this pleasant, earnest work.”

Women directors thrive at Quebec City’s film festival: “From Spain, Carmen Y Lola is a lesbian love story about two gypsy teens. Carmen is engaged when she meets Lola at the market. Lola, it seems, is cousins with her fiancé. They strike up a friendship over cigarette breaks and Lola develops a crush.”

+ GQ Magazine on “The Re-reinvention of Christine and the Queens,” including the public reaction to her boyish haircut and decision to go as Chris, which apparently inspired the media to speculate that she was transitioning:

Chris describes it charmingly as a “wonderful” cocktail of homophobia and sexism. “It’s like a flower bouquet they give me,” she says. In France, her haircut made the news. “I get comments: ‘You look like a boy. Grow it back.’ When you’re a woman working on a masculine energy, either you’re transitioning or you’re a butch lesbian. Fluidity is impossible.”

+ Into talks to former child star and current actress / activist / musician / dancer Alyson Stoner: “[People believe] that I’m sharing my sexuality because it’s more popular now. I’m sure I could have created some controversy and maybe have gotten more attention and more streams, but I don’t want to look back and feel like I could have been more sensitive to people watching.”

+ The One Friends Wedding Scene That Missed the Mark: “The two women getting married didn’t actually kiss, which social critics like Lynn Elber saw as continuing a trend that saw gay characters receive more screen time (Will & Grace would premiere two years after this Friends episode), but have them basically avoid all physical contact with their romantic interests.”

+ Anna Friel hopes trans drama can change perceptions like Brookside lesbian kiss: (However, the show has not seemed to change the perception of the author of this article, who described it as being about “a boy who wishes to live as a girl.”)

Riese is a Jewish lesbian and the 37-year-old CEO, CFO and Editor-in-Chief of Autostraddle.com as well as an award-winning writer, blogger, fictionist, copywriter, video-maker, low-key power lesbian and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York and then headed West. Her work has appeared in nine books including "The Bigger the Better The Tighter The Sweater: 21 Funny Women on Beauty, Body Image & Other Hazards Of Being Female," magazines including Marie Claire and Curve, and all over the web including Nylon, Queerty, Nerve, Bitch, Emily Books and Jezebel. She had a very popular personal blog once upon a time, and then she recapped The L Word, and then she had the idea to make this place, and now here we all are! In 2016, she was nominated for a GLAAD Award for Outstanding Digital Journalism. Follow her on twitter and instagram.

Riese has written 2606 articles for us.

21 Comments

  1. That Alyson Stoner is really something. I remember when she was a little kid in those Missy Elliot videos and Step Up movies. Maybe I still kind of saw her that way prior to reading that interview but she’s grown into a very articulate woman.

  2. I just read that Ernie and Bert article and you know, it’s really pulling on my heartstrings how this shy, closeted guy has found the love of his life, quietly chronicles their relationship with two puppets, and it’s those puppets that spark controversy and a demand for visibility and gay rights for decades to come.

  3. That Bert & Ernie article; how Mark Saltzman was too closeted to be friends with Richard Hunt, how he missed out on that. It’s sad and relatable missing out on friendships with other queer people because you’re too closeted.
    I don’t know what’s going on in that Cher video, but it’s pretty great!

  4. I wish straight people weren’t so weirded out by children’s TV/movie characters being gay or in a relationship. Sesame Street has shown many characters that are different, Bert and Ernie being gay shouldn’t be a problem. Everytime there’s some kind of inclination of a character being gay the straights are having an uproar about how it’s immorally wrong, it’s so exhausting.

    • It’s especially exhausting as the parent of two young children who have two moms. They almost never get to see families like ours, or people like their moms, in the media that they consume. When Doc McStuffins featured a family with two moms in an episode, we all watched it together and my kids were so excited to see a family like theirs on screen.

      My oldest is 9, so she’s old enough now to watch shows like Supergirl that do show lesbian/queer characters and relationships. She loved Alex and Maggie as a couple and was really sad when they broke up and Maggie left the show. But most of the shows that are appropriate for her age still don’t have any queer characters.

      It makes me really sad when there’s an uproar from the morality police about queer representation in children’s media. Kids of queer parents, and kids who feel like they may be queer themselves, deserve to see themselves and their families on screen, and my family is not immoral.

      • I agree with your comment, I’m also not-a-parent, but still, it _is_ exhausting for all of us ! Besides, as far as gay couples go, they are the absolute cutest, plus they sleep in separate beds, just like Mary Tyler Moore and Dick van Dyke ! So the morality police can go put their feet up and have a glass of sweet tea, children’s television is safe from gay shenanigans.

  5. Wait Muppets don’t have sexual orientation? Seems like a BS answer to me when Miss Piggy(coded as a woman) as far as I can remember has been flirting with Kermit(coded as a man). In fact, if I remember correctly they get married. Then this is the same company that has shown Miss Piggy multiple times eating pepperoni on her pizza, which makes her a cannibal and never addressed that odd choice.

    • True. But Miss Piggy isn’t on Seseame Street. Seseame Street is different from the Muppet Show and the Muppet movies – only Kermit is on both. Plus the muppets on Seseame Street are clearly kids – Elmo is like 2 or 3 and Ernie and Bert are like 5. Too young to get married.

  6. I read the original Queerty article last night and thought it was good, heartbreaking and good. I told my partner that the headline was deceptive since the interview didn’t really say that Bert and Ernie were gay.

    This morning, when I saw all the denials and clarifications, I was feeling pretty damn impressed with myself and my excellent reading comprehension.

  7. As much fun as I’m having running around telling anyone who’ll listen that Bert and Ernie are big ol’ gays, in all seriousness the story is tender and bittersweet and lovely. Saltzman understood Bert and Ernie, who exist in an insular world where they’re ageless and immortal and nothing bad happens to them, as proxies for him and his partner at a time when gay men were dying en masse and suffering extraordinary pain and loss. I mean, imagine writing a gay couple whose biggest concern was bananas in ears when your day-to-day concerns were which of your friends’ funerals you’d be attending next. It’s something better than escapist fantasy — imagining a better future? I don’t know. Maybe I’m reading too much into puppets on a children’s show, but I was a little verklempt reading Saltzman’s interview.

    • Same, I don’t think you’re reading too much into it at all. It reminds me of how themes in Beauty and The Beast also subtly reflect that frightening and painful time in the gay community (Disney lyricist Howard Ashman was dying from AIDS complications at the time of writing). It’s heartbreaking to realize how the realities of gay writers were seeping into these children’s stories, whether consciously or unconsciously, at a time when their stories were rarely allowed to be told explicitly (and definitely never allowed in media aimed at children).

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