I think it a fair assumption that most of you reading this are no longer avid or even intermittent viewers of that iconic children’s program Sesame Street. That being said, I’ll assume that the majority of you have, at least at once in your life, seen the program. Still, for the many more of us who needed perhaps a little more guidance in navigating the worlds of childhood and adolescence, Sesame Street became a television staple. And its legacy is indeed a substantial one -- first conceived in 1966, the series premiered on PBS on November 10, 1969.
Interestingly, for a program in its infancy, Sesame Street’s debut was very well-received -- high ratings and a preponderance of positive reviews. This is not to suggest that the program was not without controversy and some very vocal detractors. Consider, for example, the fact that a Mississippi State Commission voted to ban Sesame Street because of what was then deemed a “highly integrated cast of children.” This was, apparently, something for which the people of Mississippi were simply not ready.
Yet, as we know, Sesame Street endures, and it does so because from the beginning the program’s writers and producers have not only been adeptly formulaic -- using educational goals and a curriculum to shape the show’s content; but also by maintaining a flexibility (or adaptability) to an ever-changing social, cultural and political landscape. While it may seem rather trite at this point, it was during the mid-1970s that the program expanded its cast and crew to more fully embrace the contributions of women as well as those who were then referred to as “visible minorities.”
Let me expand briefly on what I mean by the show being adeptly formulaic. The show’s writers and producers have never been reticent in pointing out that they ascribe to two fundamental goals in their programming: the goals of cognitive and affective development. Very briefly, cognitive goals serve to increase self-esteem and the individual’s feelings of competency. By contrast, but not at odds, affective goals serve to promote social competence, tolerance of diversity, and the teaching of non-aggressive ways of resolving conflict.
And let us take note that these are not merely abstractions to which producers, writers and viewers alike are expected to aspire. These are ideals that are played out among the “residents” of our beloved Sesame Street -- those whom we have seen deal in very real terms with such sensitive topics as self-acceptance, race, pregnancy, death, HIV-infection, the terrorist attacks of September 11, and Hurricane Katrina.
Yet given this remarkable track record of helping, if not guiding, so many young people through some of the more trying developments in our individual and collective histories -- in both personal and political terms -- we find ourselves once again at a moral impasse over the purely hypothetical marriage (or civil union) of two of Sesame Street’s most beloved characters -- Bert and Ernie. More specifically, Illinois resident Lair Scott was prompted by the recent New York State ruling allowing same-sex marriages and thus took it upon himself to start a petition encouraging the long-time “roommates” to wed. Some readers might find it interesting that the Archie comic series introduced its first gay character some time ago -- of course, the Archie audience is arguably a little longer in the tooth.
But while I can on some level understand the uproar over Scott’s petition to join Bert and Ernie in holy matrimony -- on several others, I simply cannot wrap my mind around the controversy. Let’s begin with the obvious and yes, I am absolutely willing to venture that in households throughout North America, innuendo about the “Bernie” relationship abounds. Here’s hoping some of you picked up on my combination technique here, much in the tradition of such gems as “Brangelina.” So let’s return to the obvious, Bert and Ernie are, without a doubt two of the GAYEST characters the show has ever featured.
In fact, the two have been parodied on other programs more times than I can remember -- and if memory serves, Bert was invariably (for want of a better term) the “top” in most of these parodies. Given these less than flattering portrayals of two male Muppets in such a long-term relationship, it would seem to be that critics would be rejoicing at the possibility of a formal union within which Bert and Ernie might finally garner at least some respectability.
But let me close by returning to the detractors. For all the assumptions out there that Bert and Ernie are the dysfunctional gay civil union gone terribly awry, there are those adults (and most likely parents) who fear the transition to a civilly-sanctioned marriage. And their logic is this: such a marriage could (indeed would) jar and confuse children who may never have caught onto the rumours with which so many of the rest of us are familiar.
And to extend the argument, would this not suggest to young and impressionable children that men who long cohabitate should indeed marry? As such, Sesame Street is an inappropriate forum in which to explore such issues as romance, cohabitation and marriage -- and, so critics claim, it never has been. Forgive me here, but it seems to me that the romantic and sexual escapades of Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy have been very seriously glossed over in this respect.
I’ll conclude on a rather academic note here. It should come as no surprise that what is more commonly known as “social learning” theory would have us believe that impressionable young children can and do indeed succumb to the images, examples, and lessons presented before them. Sociologists have long referred to this as “differential association” theory. Interestingly, sociologists have also explained to us that impressionable young children (among others) may identify with and indeed admire entirely fictional characters as well -- in other words the role model, the “deviant” and even the “criminal” may well be effective in transferring the skills, the life experiences and the knowledge that we may carry into adulthood. By contrast, this is referred to as “differential identification” theory.
This being said, I would like to leave the reader with three basic questions. If we are to take the opponents of the upcoming “MUPTIALS” at face value, we must, at the very least, consider the following. First, if there is indeed a “natural” order to this complicated matrix of human relationships that necessarily pairs males and females, is it fair to suggest that a pair of often contentious puppets is genuinely sufficient to upset this balance? Second, if Bert and Ernie do indeed become betrothed to each other, would this not be an exemplary demonstration of tolerance, self-acceptance and love of others? And finally, when and if they marry might this be just the example that so many of our young people need such that their adolescence might be just a bit less hellish??
How many of us could argue with the fact that it was children’s programs such as Sesame Street that helped so many address the anxieties associated with entering adulthood? Consider how many of us lamented as children, but were assured by parents, as well as by such programs that we were indeed “special” and that “we could do anything”. Unfortunately, as adults, all too many have discovered to their surprise and dismay that in the real world their options are far more limited, and that to be “special” may not be such a great reward. I would hope that Sesame Street, among other comparable venues, might chip away at such disappointments -- albeit slowly.