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Gay muppets?

Pro and Con

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Edited: Aug 13, 2011, 2:30pm Top

Someone I know--perhaps even a friend--Aaron Swartz (@aaronsw on Twitter) recently posted a link to Julian Sanchez's blog post "Why We Need (Openly) Gay Muppets." It relates to the Facebook campaign to have Sesame Street declare Bert and Ernie gay, and PBS's response that muppets "do not have a sexual orientation." I thought I would respond to that, and to Aaron.

The core of this argument boils down to a point, with which I agree, but which I don't think should determine the argument.
"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."
As I said, I agree with this. Now let's consider what other similar judgments the show sends.

How about religion? Some 92% of Americans believe in God. Somewhere between 30 and 40% of Americans regularly attend religious services at a church, mosque, synagogue, etc. Similar percentages of children pray before going to bed, and of families say grace before eating. Religion is a integral part of real life for a large chunk of American families.

Now, have you ever seen a Sesame street character talk about God? Go to church or temple? Pray before going to bed? Does the Cookie Monster say grace before gobbling down those cookies?

Of course not. Religion is absent from Sesame Street as nowhere else in America. Sesame Street is not a mirror of society here. And let me tell you why: Because if the show did that non-religious people--or people of other religions than the one they chose to highlight--would object. If Sesame Street characters prayed before eating some atheist family would have to deal with it when their child started up a prayer at the dinner table.

And you know what? The non-religious would be right to object. So long as Sesame Street aims to appeal to the broadest possible American audience, and contain no messages that a parent would need to "deal with," it must avoid touchy topics. Religion is one such topic. So Sesame Street is a world without religion. For now and for the forseeable future homosexual partners are another such topic. The omission is in both cases real, and regretable, but there is a reason they are there.

Lastly, if I could craft the show for my own child, it would include both religion and homosexual partners. Both of part of my child's world. I don't want him to think either are unusual, and I certainly don't want him to think either is wrong. It would be kind of cool if Bert married Ernie and Abby Cadaby talked about how excited she was to receive first communion. But you know what? That show wouldn't do so well. Maybe I don't get to decide this for everyone else.

Aug 13, 2011, 2:36pm Top

Reminds one of the uproar over the latest Spiderman.

Edited: Aug 13, 2011, 2:37pm Top

The musical?

The "uproar" reminds me of every single, stupid culture-war issue of the last thirty years. Online it's particularly bad. Google "gay muppets" and you'll get a ton of hate, with anti-gay hate rather in the lead.

Aug 13, 2011, 2:39pm Top


I'm not sure if they've scrubbed some of the more egregious comments since the article first appeared, but some of them were dumbfoundingly ignorant.

Aug 13, 2011, 2:41pm Top

Wait, Peter Parker died? That's bigger than Mr. Hooper!

Aug 13, 2011, 2:42pm Top

It will never cease to amaze me, Tim, how you can be so wrong, about so many things.

Mr. Hooper was the man.

Aug 13, 2011, 7:32pm Top

As usual, some asshat has to try and screw with something that children enjoy to suit their own agenda. They're just frikkin puppets on a children's show.

Aug 13, 2011, 8:42pm Top

I'm sure most people are just relieved to hear that Bert has settled down and has stopped being a terrorist.

Edited: Aug 14, 2011, 8:00am Top

You make a good argument, Tim, but I find in my mind it's not that simple. First, let me say I'm not pro- or anti- gay muppets (which is, in fact, a bit silly to me - I'm more pro-gay humans on Sesame Street). I'm just addressing the reasoning.

Simply put, there are some things that aren't a matter of personal preference/opinion. Someone choosing a religion other than your own (or no religion) is not something that's up for interpretation as right or wrong. I don't really buy into a relativist argument on that one. As such, I understand why something like Sesame Street would avoid the whole topic. As you said, you just can't address it without offending someone. And offending someone on such a topic where the right answer is tolerance of different viewpoints is not a good thing.

So now there are plenty of other topics where I just don't think it's okay to say, "Your opinion is different than mine, and I'll just respect that you have different beliefs." Racism is one of those. Sexism is another. At one point, either a majority of Americans or a large minority had views that are plain and simply wrong. Would it be a defense for Sesame Street to say, "Well, we just don't have black people on the show associating with white people because Sesame Street is not a mirror of society"? Or, "We don't have any women on the show in roles other than homemakers because we don't want to impose our values on people who disagree"?

Sesame Street started in 1969. I grew up watching it in Alabama. I can tell you its views on race were about as far from mainstream white Southern opinion as is possible. Ditto gender equality, though to a lesser degree. Even now, there's a sizable group in those places that would object to the Sesame Street view of race relations.

And you know what? The hell with them. Do what's right and let their bigotry go on record.

Edited: Aug 14, 2011, 6:56pm Top

#2: Because if the show did that non-religious people--or people of other religions than the one they chose to highlight--would object. ...And you know what? The non-religious would be right to object.

Well, the issue here is that the portrayal of "religion on Sesame Street" would run afoul of the question of public funding for both CTW and PBS. That complicates the question enormously.

(Only vaguely on-topic, but I have an anecdote that this brings to mind: A conservative friend of mine was quite worked up that the Arthur spin-off Postcards from Buster visited the family of a civil-unioned gay couple, just as if they were normal people. He found this to be subverting his own parental authority to teach his children that gays are icky. And - speaking of "religion on PBS" - come to think of it, my pal was resolutely unconvinced that Buster's visit to the Mormon family provided 'balance'. )

Anyway: The nice thing about the Bert & Ernie ménage?

Now that CTW has said that they aren't getting married, now Bert & Ernie can serve as role-models for same-sex couples who choose to simply live together, rather than choosing to submit to the conventional social pressure to marry.

It's nice to live in a pluralistic society.

(Edited to fix typos and to add: There's actually a wiki page that discusses the Postcards from Buster "controversy".)

Edited: Aug 14, 2011, 7:23pm Top

I would counter by drawing a distinction between passive and active—between skipping something that doesn't have to be there and omitting something that must be.

I see prayers before bed and gay couples as something whose absence won't be missed by most children. No child is going to realize that 30% of families say grace but 0% of muppets. In the case of gay couples with children the national statistics appears to 1% or less (source). Children of gay couples know that other families don't all look like theirs. I don't think they're going to be negatively affected by seeing a Sesame Street without gay parents. (How many parents are there on the show anyway? Not many.)

Numbers like that mean you don't have to raise the issue unless you want to. You can, of course, if your goal is to use a children's show to promote a viewpoint. But if your goal is to avoid omissions which add up something detrimental, I think you can avoid it. Avoiding, incidentally, means avoiding—and not, for instance, singing songs that affirm or assume families are only composed of mommies and daddies. That would be the opposite of avoiding the topic and would be problematic.

I don't think the same applies to race. In much of the country race is a central dynamic of social structure and community life. It is also physically and socially obvious to children. As the authors of Nurtureshock have argued, kids pick up on race in ways that make parents uncomfortable. And, damagingly, they pick up on the fact that parents don't like to talk about it. The omission is damaging. Maintaining an all-white cast because a tiny minority of cretins want it otherwise is not, I think, the right course.

The distinction between things you can skip and things you can't can be illustrated with two other examples:

1. Something like 45% of marriages end in divorce, and tens of millions of young children are forced to process the consequences of divorce. Yet Sesame Street has never ventured into the topic. It's omitted it. Or rather, it thought about covering it in an episode called "Snuffy's Parents Get a Divorce" (see Wikipedia). But in testing they found that it confused too many children and was just somewhere they didn't need to go.

2. By contrast they have covered death. But the situation was forced on them when a major recurring character, Mr. Hooper, died in real life. They decided they couldn't avoid the issue—although they had never raised it before.

Well, the issue here is that the portrayal of "religion on Sesame Street" would run afoul of the question of public funding for both CTW and PBS. That complicates the question enormously.

I don't think it would. While some on the left have come to believe that the First Amendment requires all belief to be sand-blasted off anything the government touches, this is simply not the view of the courts. PBS runs shows about atheism and religion all the time. Having a religious character on Sesame Street would no more violate the Constitution than having a gay couple would violate the Defense of Marriage Act!

Postcards from Buster

I'm with you on Buster. The point of the show was to present a diverse and representative cross-section of families across the nation.(1) Nothing was "made" of the family structure, and Postcards from Buster is addressed to much older children.

1. That's never been the point of Sesame Street. If it were, it would be "Sesame Gated Community" or perhaps "Postal Road Sesame," far more Americans living in suburbs or the country than in New York City.

Aug 14, 2011, 8:03pm Top

Isn't Bert supposed to be like 35 and Ernie's Guardian, since Ernie is only like 10?

Aug 14, 2011, 8:37pm Top

#12 by timspalding> In the case of gay couples with children the national statistics appears to 1% or less
I don't think the same applies to race. In much of the country race is a central dynamic of social structure and community life.

I can see that line of reasoning. But perhaps this will give and idea of where I'm coming from. I grew up in a very segregated (in terms of blacks not even being welcome in the same county) and bigoted area. I can't even remember meeting a black person until I moved to a different part of the state. And as you can see from the census, it's pretty much still that way (black population at about 1% - though the latino population has boomed and now they are the main target for racism).

In fact, I'd say the racism flourished even more in an environment where you didn't actually have to live near people different than you. I'd say that situation is much closer to the situation that most gay people have to live in. They're always the punching bag because they're always going to be a minority.

Of course, it's different in that any given person is much more likely to have someone they care about dealing with anti-gay thoughts and actions. The reason it seems like it's something you can ignore is because people can be in the closet and suffering quietly. It's hard to be in the closet about being non-white.

Aug 15, 2011, 7:20am Top

How many muppets are there? If it's about 100 then you'd expect 1 to be gay as per Tim's figure above. If there are many less than 100, then the "normal" position would for them all not to be gay. This the reality of minorities.

Aug 15, 2011, 7:24am Top

(Ah, but Sesame Street is an urban neighborhood. There should be lots of self-selected in-migration biasing the demographics....)

Aug 15, 2011, 11:56am Top

Silly me; I though Bert and Ernie were (very loosely) based on Oscar and Felix.

And Sesame Street is aimed primarily at an audience where the question of sexual orientation would never even occur.

And they're foam, felt, and ping-pong ball eyed characters; they're not real. Which I think that most children know better than some of the adults complaining about this...

Aug 15, 2011, 12:08pm Top

>17 BruceCoulson:

It's long been said that they were based on the two characters in It's a Wonderful Life. However, the Muppet Wiki has disabused me of this notion.


Aug 15, 2011, 12:12pm Top

It is my understanding that Bert and Ernie are based on the relationship between the poet W.H. Auden and Peter Pears.

Aug 15, 2011, 1:22pm Top

>20 faceinbook:
Much ado about nothing ! The kiddies have already had an awaking.....there was the big to do about the Purple Tela Tubbie......Tinky Winky I think he/she/it was called.
I don't think we give kids enough credit.....they know what is what.....they may not have the language or thought process necessary to discribe what it is they know but they ususally know and they usually don't give a damn until someone tells them that they should.
Kids are like little radar units.... if one is a good person (or visa versa)....they will pick up on that instantly. They do not care who you live with OR sleep with......
None of this is based on the needs of children.....this is an adult agenda.
(Probably push back for Tinky Winky ;>)

Edited: Aug 15, 2011, 6:52pm Top

That was another jackass, Jerry Falwell, who claimed that Tinky Winky was a homosexual role model for children.

If I could get one law passed at the federal level, it would be to make it a felony for being a self-righteous busybody.

Aug 15, 2011, 7:09pm Top

That would put most of Congress out of work...which might not be a bad idea, come to think of it.

Aug 15, 2011, 7:14pm Top

If I could get one law passed at the federal level, it would be to make it a felony for being a self-righteous busybody.

You've got my vote.

CTW issued a statement
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.

which ignores nearly 40 years of interspecies romance between Miss Piggy and Kermit.

Aug 15, 2011, 7:54pm Top

Does anybody else believe that 92% of the population believes in God? I do not! I do believe that 92% say they believe in God -which is what Tim said-but I do not believe that they all actually do. People say that sometimes because it is the socially & politically correct thing to say. No politician would ever come out as an atheist as it would be political suicide! I have a problem with all of that hiypocricy but it is a fact of American life nonetheless! 8^)

Aug 15, 2011, 8:05pm Top

>24 Vanye:

Yeah. I believe it. These numbers agree with many other surveys. It's coming down—in 1944, the answer was 96%. 2% of Americans call themselves atheists.

Note: The Gallup phrasing was "higher power."

Aug 16, 2011, 12:52am Top

OK! Higher power I can go along with. My candidate for the likely higher power is the natural world itself. Nothing else can inconvenience humankind like nature! Think: hurricanes, volcanoes, tsunamis etc! 8^)

Aug 16, 2011, 5:11am Top

#17 - "And they're foam, felt, and ping-pong ball eyed characters; they're not real"

Neither was Harry Potter, the Golden Compass or even My Little Pony. They've all sparked off sometime quite large protests about their content, "poisoning the minds of children" It is a fair point, children learn from their surroundings the rule to live their lives by. I'm sure the effect of any one book or program is tiny, but even tiny effects can add up to something significant.

Aug 16, 2011, 10:25am Top

As the mum of a preschooler and a primary schooler, can I just say that all this would be above their heads. My kids see all kinds of families, and they accept them all as they are. Ernie and Bert getting married would be pointless in their world.

Aug 16, 2011, 10:58am Top

Bert and Ernie's storage closet has been under secret surveilance by a highly questionable government agency for decades, now.
The top top secret report is that there has been NO activity (Nada!) outside of working hours.

Go figure. Couch potatoes. Highly representative of American demographics.

Aug 16, 2011, 11:16am Top

>29 2wonderY:
LOL.....someone might want to clue Bert and Ernie in to the fact that a piece of paper isn't going to "livein" things up !
In fact.....I believe that statistically it may prove to contribute to the general couch potatoeness of the whole relationship.

Aug 17, 2011, 12:53pm Top

They are puppets, for the amusement of little kids. I have no problem with the show not giving them gay or religious characters to deal with. It's supposed to be something fun for the kids and, like most Little League games I saw in the USA, the kids would have a lot more fun if the adults would keep their hands - and phobias - off of their fun.

Aug 17, 2011, 2:03pm Top

#31 by K.J.> While I think that's true of the puppets themselves, I don't think it's true of the human characters around them. They could have just left out any black folks and the show would have still been something fun for the kids, no?

Aug 17, 2011, 2:24pm Top

Skin tones, unlike other parts of being a human being, are readily apparent, even to children, and having people of different hues is a way of broadening the appeal; whereas only adults are concerned about sex...

Edited: Aug 17, 2011, 2:28pm Top

#33 by BruceCoulson> And it's not readily apparent when your friend has two moms?

ETA: To clarify, it's not just about sex. It's about relationships.

Aug 17, 2011, 2:35pm Top

Actually...no. Children, fortunately, don't see the world the way adults do. They simply accept what they see, unless some adult tries to make distinctions important. Some kids have two moms; some only have one mom and no dad; some have a dad and mom. That's just the way it is, in a kids' mind. But if you're a black kid, and all you see on TV are white people...the perception (whether that is true or not I don't know) is that affects how you see the world later.

Aug 17, 2011, 2:43pm Top

#35 by BruceCoulson> They simply accept what they see

Man, we must have dealt with some entirely different type of kids. The ones I've dealt with start about 50% of their sentences with "why". Those critters question everything.

Aug 17, 2011, 2:44pm Top

#35 by BruceCoulson> But if you're a black kid, and all you see on TV are white people...the perception (whether that is true or not I don't know) is that affects how you see the world later.

Oh, and a separate post because it seems important enough to me:

If you're a kid with two moms, and all you see on TV are kids with a mom and dad or just one mom and one dad? Did you just make the argument for my point?

Aug 17, 2011, 3:58pm Top

>36 brightcopy:
You made a pretty valid point....kids do question everything, however, I don't ever remember my kids questioning me about Bert and Ernie. I think they were able to make the distinction between "real" people, puppets , sleeping arrangements and/or house mates. Nor did they ever ask any questions regarding the relationship of Miss Piggy and Kermit The Frog.

As far as I know the only kid I can remember equating any television charater with a real person was my grandson who loudly announced to an entire restaurant that "Barney" was in house......happened to be an over weight woman in purple stretch pants and a purple sweatshirt who he saw from behind.

Perhaps it would be better to focus attention on shows about "real" people rather than on puppets.....seems that they are pushing the envelope a bit......forcing an issue that need not be addressed on a puppet show. Personally, I don't think it is the right format and only serves to cause trouble. Would be different if the show invited guests who were same sex couples.....would have no problem with that, but even then, I'm not at all sure kids that age would question something like that and if they did, it would be far easier to answer such questions than to explain why two puppets are getting married..............

Aug 17, 2011, 4:11pm Top

It may certainly seem like kids question everything; but actually, there are some things they simply accept. Or rather, they ask different questions at different ages. And usually, children are satisfied with very basic answers.

I said that the idea of seeing only people of a different colour was considered by some people to have adverse effects; I'm not sure of that myself.

And again; we're speaking about muppets. Most children are quite capable of telling the difference between muppets and real people. In fact, most children quickly learn the difference between fantasy/TV shows and reality, and rarely confuse the two.

Aug 17, 2011, 4:37pm Top

#38 by faceinbook> Perhaps it would be better to focus attention on shows about "real" people rather than on puppets

I can't help but think you missed something in my original post that you responded to, or in the ones before it. As I said, I think the whole thing about whether to show married gay puppets is kinda stupid. I'm talking about the humans on the show. That's why I keep talking about the humans on the show, not the muppets.

Aug 17, 2011, 5:09pm Top

You know, if TV tried to present an example of every different kind of relationship and person in the country...we'd just have to put the entire country on TV.

Sesame Street is an entertainment/educational show. Insisting that it become something else would destroy its value as to what it is now.

Aug 17, 2011, 6:09pm Top

>40 brightcopy: Sorry, did not get that.

>41 BruceCoulson: Agree !

Aug 17, 2011, 6:38pm Top

#41 by BruceCoulson> You know, if TV tried to present an example of every different kind of relationship and person in the country...we'd just have to put the entire country on TV.

And since neither of us are arguing they should, I'm not sure what relevancy there is here. Was it just to try to belittle anything short of such an absurd position?

Aug 17, 2011, 7:03pm Top

I was pointing out that there is a practical limit as to the number of different relationships/people/distinctions that can be reasonably presented on a children's program.

What is the limit? Good question; I'm sure it's greater than one, but less than 300 million. Has prior TV programming presented a bland, white, featureless background? Yes; and studios are slowly realizing their core audiences need more to stay interested. Will they ever be able to include everyone? Obviously not. Will those excluded due to time constraints feel slighted? Most likely.

There isn't a answer to your dillemma. No matter how many groups could get included, someone is going to be left out. Writers, producers, and studios are trying to make a tv show that will both appeal and educate as many children as possible, and be as inclusive as possible. There's more money (and fame) in doing things that way. If a group is left out, I don't think there's necessarily anything sinister about it.

Example: I bought a candy bar from a vending machine in the Midwest. It was bi-lingual. Candy-bar manufacturers are now trying to sell their wares to primarily Spanish-speaking customers. Why? Because more customers = more sales. Forget AZ politicians and 'English Only' bloggers; money (and fame) speak far louder.

Is Sesame Street perfect? Probably not. Will the show include gay people, if it lasts long enough? Probably. Give it time...

Aug 17, 2011, 7:27pm Top

#44 by BruceCoulson> Time constraints? Are you serious that you think that's what this is about? Too many special interests and not enough time to fit them all in? Again, can you possibly be serious with these excuses? How many permutations of different relationships/people/distinctions do you think we're talking about here? Do you actually think people are demanding they have a white man/man unmarried couple, a white man/man married couple, a white woman/woman unmarried couple, a white woman/woman married couple, a black man/man unmarried couple, ad nauseum? Or do you think people are just saying "hey, might be cool if you had a gay couple on along with all the straight ones" and left it at that? It really seems like you're straining to invent some reason why it's completely impossible to do a simple thing.

And with all your talk of core audiences, sales, customers, etc. I wonder if you've ever even watched the show or have any idea of its history. If we were talking about Jersey Shore, some of your points might actually apply. But when talking about Sesame Street, you're coming from a whole different planet.

If a group is left out, I don't think there's necessarily anything sinister about it. Again, am I saying that? You keep producing strawmen faster than I can type.

I think I'm just going to have to bow out of arguing with you, as it's getting a bit silly when you pull things like this out of the air. Good day.

Aug 18, 2011, 11:46am Top

Yes, I know; your special interest is larger, more important, and needs to be addressed, whereas all those other, 'minor' interests can be safely ignored.

I never said it was completely impossible; you seem to be the one inventing statements. I said there was a practical limit. We are talking about a TV show, which only has 'x' amount of time per day per episode. And a TV show that neither you nor I write, direct, or produce. So, what you're really saying is that you know better than those who actually work on the show what should be on the show.

You are certainly free to register your objections and complaints to the creators; and if they decide your position is valid, they will make whatever changes they deem necessary. You're even free to create and market your own children's show, with whatever relationships featured that you deem important.

But I might suggest that by getting this seriously worked up over a controversy concerning the 'relationship' between two stuffed toys (and that is what the thread was discussing originally) you are investing far more energy than is truly required.

Aug 19, 2011, 12:14pm Top

>46 BruceCoulson:
Yeah but......they are two such POPULAR stuffed toys ! One could argue that the energy invested in Bert and Ernie is warranted, at least a bit more than that invested while waiting in line for a Cabbage Patch doll or the newest Beanie Baby.....after all....Bert and Ernie have staying power !

Aug 19, 2011, 2:03pm Top

You're forgetting Furbys...of course, I think a lot of people wanted to do that...

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