Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Monday, July 01, 2013

Bert and Ernie

In celebration of the defeat of DOMA, The New Yorker had a cover:

Needless to say, this was  "controversial"

The June Thomas Salon article linked in that HuffPo article (I'm not going to credit it with a link here) ends with a little gesture of YayGayz! ("whoever goes to Pride this weekend dressed as Bert and Ernie is going to gay heaven"--to which I roll my eyes.) But even as it does so, it buys into the bizarre idea that to read Bert and Ernie as a gay couple is to sexualise them ("Bert and Ernie clearly love each other. But does Ernie suck Bert’s cock? I don't think so.") which is, in fact, simply to demonstrate one's own fucked-up mindset. Because, as I've pointed out before, no one in all the years of the Muppets has ever thought, "OMG, when Kermit and Piggy are portrayed as a romantic couple, that means sexualising these puppets, conjuring Kermy's frog tongue giving Piggy the best cunnilingus ever!" The disparity of reaction is prejudice in action. The straight romance escapes such prurient prudery but the gay romance is automatically collapsed to the sexual act itself: cocksucking.

And of course that article also trots out the statement from the Children's Television Workshop a few years back which could have said they didn't want to undermine the core intent "to teach preschoolers that people can be good friends with those who are very different from themselves" by making romantic love the factor over-riding difference rather than simple empathy, but that neither were they going to preclude the capacity of gay children to read into them a positive role model of same-sex romance; that they weren't going to change the entire point of the puppets by making them explicitly gay, but neither were they going to make them explicitly not-gay just to kowtow to reactionary prejudice. This would have been a perfectly legitimate stance, and even while refusing to cement them as gay out of artistic integrity, the CTW could have shown real ethical backbone by saying simply that, for the sake of those young viewers who saw a future for themselves in Bert and Ernie, they were not going to lend authority to homophobic influences who sought to deny a child that vision of love.

Instead though, the CTW came out with a cop-out: "they remain puppets, and do not have a sexual orientation." This is simply a chickenshit attempt to side-step the question in order to accommodate the prejudice without appearing to affirm it by labeling them straight. In some ways, it's reassuring, because the cowardly stratagem reveals a shame underlying the self-delusion; that they had to rationalise it like this speaks of a guilty awareness that the pressure against the queer reading is wrong, pure homophobia. They clearly saw that to authorise the straight reading would be homophobic and reached for a neutral position, one that did not join in the imposition of heteronormativity.

Still, that statement does rule out the queer reading, and in its disingenuous self-delusion it does so for Bert and Ernie while being blatantly untrue as regards Piggy and Kermit. It's not remotely possible to sustain the idea that Piggy and Kermit, as puppets, are absent sexual orientation. They may be desexualised but they are not de-oriented. They may not be practicingly sexual characters but they remain actively heterosexual in terms of emotional attraction--i.e. romantic love. Piggy and Kermit put the lie to that assertion as a generality, as a principle that muppets "do not have a sexual orientation." It's clearly only really applied in the specific instance of Bert and Ernie as an expedient falsehood, only applicable there because as long as the focus is on them desexualisation can be conflated with de-orientation--will be, in fact, because the inverse conflation of orientation with sexual activity (as per the automatic collapse of gay romance to cocksucking) is part of the prejudice. That it's not legitimately applicable there (or anywhere else) only becomes self-evident if we widen the focus to include Piggy and Kermit--which of course isn't likely to happen even among the queer-reading advocates because it's natural to focus in on the point of contention.

And in all this, I haven't even touched on the fact that Piggy and Kermit are, of course, a pig and a frog, that were the conflation of orientation and sexual activity applied to them as it is to Bert and Ernie, we'd be dealing not with a queer reading of two gay men in a touchingly healthy relationship of mutual tolerance which is collapsed by prejudice to cocksucking, but rather with a straight reading of a rather unhealthy relationship of abusive jealousy between an awkwardly batrachian male and a female barnyard animal in which the muffdiving is erased because, one can only presume, the heterosexuals are OK with bestiality as long as the different species is of a different biological gender.

If we even accept for a second the notion that those objecting to the perception of Bert and Ernie's relationship as a gay romance are doing so for the sake of the children, from a fear that the chastely asexual puppets will become a locus of confusion and temptation luring innocents to a healthily homosexual human/human life-partnership, well, we've no recourse but to judge them supportive of Piggy and Kermit serving as a comparable lure toward an unhealthily heterosexual inter-species relationship of abuse. It can only be that they condone the promotion of sexual relations between animals of different phyla let alone species. Why, clearly in their commitment to polarity in relationships, to the radically oppositional biological difference of one partner from the other, these vehement advocates of heterosexuality reveal it to be a slippery slope to bestiality.

Or as I like to put it: if we can't trust you to stick to the same gender, cuntfuckers, can we really trust you to stick to the same genus?

I jest, of course. (Or do I?) But the fact remains that Piggy and Kermit stand as an evidential demolition of every nonsensical rationale brought to bear by the opponents of the queer reading of Bert and Ernie. As I say, I'd actually support the CTW in cleaving to their core intent--because as a writer I recognise how specifying them to be gay would write out much of the import. If they're in romantic love then that becomes the predominant reason they overlook each other's foibles--not the caritas the characters were invented to illustrate. Were I a spokesperson for CTW, actually, I'd offer this as my statement, playing to the conceit of their actuality, as the muppets often do:

Bert and Ernie do, of course, have sexual orientations, but these are private matters to Bert and Ernie. It is clear that they have a deep and abiding love for one another that overrides all differences, and this is what makes them, we think, important role models for children. This is why they keep their orientations private. If both are seen as straight, they're a wonderful role model of friendship. If both are seen as gay, they're a wonderful role model of romantic love. We'd ask you to consider the possibility also that one is straight while the other is gay, and that they won't say which is which because they want you to see that either of them could be, and that such a difference wouldn't change their love for one another any more than all the other differences. We at the Children's Television Workshop respect their attempt to serve as role models for viewers of all orientations, and we hope you will too.

Still, until such time as I get to write the PR releases for the muppets, we're going to have the argument over whether they're both gay or both straight, erasing that other option. And we're going to get the obliviation of the straight muppet couple sustaining the absurd nonsense that "they remain puppets, and do not have a sexual orientation." In the aim of widening the focus then, I've made a few memes for you to take forth into the interwebs with you. Do feel free to blog and Tumblr and Tweet them. I rather think that image is eminently inviting of other captions, and easy to find by a quick Google, so do feel free to make your own too.



Blogger Jason Black said...

While I take your point, and while I have to admit that I found the magazine cover to be fairly poignant and smile-inducing, I have to side with CTW's original statement. They're puppets, who don't have a sexual orientation.

Bringing up Kermit and Piggie is fallacious, because they're from different puppet universes. Different continuity, if you will.

CTW/Sesame Street is a purely-for-kids educational show. I totally buy it that, for extraordinarily legitimate reasons, they neither intend nor want the question of sexuality to come up with respect to Sesame Street's puppet characters. That's legit.

The Muppet Show was always a much different show, aimed at an audience that expressly encompasses adults too, engages in more mature themes, and yes, sexualizes the relationship between a foam rubber frog and pig.

To demand that CTW uphold the reading of a totally different pair of characters, on a totally different show that CTW has absolutely zero creative control over, is bogus.

11:25 pm  
Anonymous Jon H said...

"Bringing up Kermit and Piggie is fallacious, because they're from different puppet universes. Different continuity, if you will."

Not really. Kermit appeared on Sesame Street fairly often.

11:30 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Kermit on Sesame Street:

Different shows with different targets, but the same universe, the same continuity. Kermit exists in both, and as the same character has the same sexual orientation, which does not mean we need to see him as sexually active either on The Muppet Show or on Sesame Street. My point is that the former does not sexualise their relationship. If you want to see muppets sexualised you have to go to Meet the Feebles or Avenue Q.

And while Sesame Street is a purely-for-kids educational show, the fact the The Muppet Show also targets adults doesn't negate the fact it targets pre-sexual children. At most I'd allow that TMS targets school age rather than pre-school, a distinction of little relevance if the rationale is that orientation must be refuted to prevent sexualisation, for the benefit of pre-sexual children. If this is patently bogus with a five year old watching The Muppet Show, laughing at Piggy's sexual orientation making her crazy jealous over Kermit, it's just as bogus where offered as a pretext to deny the adult who, as a five year old watching Sesame Street, blithely assumed that Bert and Ernie were in love in the same non-sexual but romantic way, but actually with a whole lot healthier dynamic.

And I don't demand anything of TCW, least of all that they uphold a particular reading. I'm expressly saying that I respect their desire not to limit by upholding a particular reading, gay or straight. I'm simply saying that the way they did so does not work in the wider cultural context, in which muppets, as cultural artifacts, as fictional characters, have sexual orientations. I'm saying that because of this their stance does a disservice to a proportion of their viewers--a practical/ethical judgement, not a demand for them to comply with it. And I'm saying that they missed an opportunity to establish a wholly legitimate reason for maintaining Bert and Ernie exactly as they are in a way that would also nonetheless have been a powerful statement of support to those adults who, as five year olds, queer-read the characters, and to any current or future five year olds who might do the same.

The ambiguity maintained in my suggestion--not demand--of what they might have said--not what they must say--changes nothing in terms of how the characters would be presented to a child. All it impacts is the situation where a five year old turns to a parent and asks if Bert loves Ernie like Piggy loves Kermit--based on their relationship as is. The only difference is that it doesn't give the homophobic parent the easy option of an authoritative denial. They can and would still deny it no doubt. That would simply not have been legitimised by TCW.

12:14 am  
Blogger Kat said...

I was always very disturbed by Miss Piggy and Kermit as a child. I was told that when I was 5 or 6 I kept insisting that they couldn't mate because they were different species. I had no idea what "mating" was, just that it was something animals did. (I watched a lot of "Wild America" as a child.) I was completely freaked out by the idea that a pig and a frog might make some horrible combination pigfrog beast. (I also watched old horror movies, I'm not sure what my parents were thinking!)
I didn't think anything at all about Bert and Ernie...except that Bert seemed really grumpy.

12:23 am  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Note: I might also reference Elmo and Zoe, with whom a child might well be expected to ask innocently if Elmo and Zoe were boyfriend and girlfriend. The youngest kids will know that such an infatuation is a possible reading, even if they haven't the remotest concept of what that would mean to an adult in terms of sex.

The reason not to establish them as such is not because rendering an innocent prepubescent crush would automatically mean sexualising the characters; it's to maintain the capacity to read them as simply friends, to teach kids that boys and girls don't have to split into gender-alliances, that a special "boyfriend/girlfriend" relationship with one specific person of the opposite sex is not the only exception to that rule.

You wouldn't do that by saying they're puppets and therefore have no sexual identity at all, no male or female. As characters, Elmo is a boy and Zoe is a girl. If people saying, "Aw, they're such a cute couple," projecting an innocent prepubescent crush on them, caused a great outrage from some ugly-minded moralists who, from their own fucking freaky dysfunction, jumped automatically from that to sexual activity... you wouldn't pander to that creepy prurient prudery by declaring that as puppets they were wholly neuter.

1:09 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kermit (and Miss Piggy) are owned by Walt Disney, the Sesame Street muppets are owned by Children's Television Workshop (Sesame inc). When they bought the Sesame Street muppets from Jim Henson the sale didn't include Kermit. Sesame Street is allowed to air old episodes with Kermit, but they have no control over what Disney does with him (or Miss Piggy). Which is not to say that there aren't muppets on Sesame Street that have an implied sexual orientation (there are muppet children with muppet parents, the South African version of Sesame Street has Kami, a muppet with AIDS), but it is to say that whatever Kermit and Miss Piggy do is not controlled by the people who decide what Bert & Ernie do.

2:56 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Yup, so TCW are stuck with the fact that the archetypal muppet character--the ur-muppet, if you will--has a girlfriend in the wider mythos of muppets that they, like any other show using muppets, are working within. Kermit sets the fact that muppets, by default, have all the stuff that goes with the biological gender projected onto them. The introduction of Zoe because there were too many "male" muppets at the time, shows that no one even questions that muppets are gendered. This is why you can have muppet children with muppet parents, the gendering automatically extending into orientation. By default.

But I've got to say, WTF does Kami having AIDS have to do with implying his sexual orientation?!

I seriously fucking hope your logic is not that Kami has AIDS ergo Kami is implicitly homosexual.

Seriously, is that your logic?

3:41 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kami has a mother, who died of HIV. If Kami has a mother and babies, then one might assume those muppets have a sexual orientation, but I was implying that Sesame Street doesn't shy away from controversy when they think it's beneficial.

My point is that Sesame Street gets to decide if Bert & Ernie are gay because they own Bert & Ernie. I'm sure they would have loved to have bought Kermit as well when they gave Jim Henson a bag of cash but got out-bid by Disney. If Disney's Kermit is more popular than Sesame Streets, good for Disney, but it doesn't change who gets to decide things on Sesame Street. And I think it's wrong to call an organization "chickenshit" that's worked hard for 40 years to bring sensitive topics into children's lives because they didn't write a script they way you'd like.

6:05 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...


...whatever Kermit and Miss Piggy do is not controlled by the people who decide what Bert & Ernie do

Ownership of Kermit is irrelevant. So the CTW are not accountable for how other muppets are rendered. They're not accountable because they lack the full creative authority required to back a principle that all instances of the class muppet lack sexual orientation. Which is how they were applying that principle: bogusly.

It is perfectly within CTW's right to make that decision prescriptively for all instances of the class CTWmuppet. Pointing to a general descriptive principle that puppets have no sexual orientation--what they actually did--is however demonstrably inconsistent with a) the existence of muppets qua muppets rendered as straight--Piggy and Kermit; b) the existence of CTWmuppets rendered as straight--the parent muppets you mention.

Instances in both groups put the lie to the descriptive principle that muppets simply have no sexual orientation. That's all I'm interested in here, so I opt for the obvious example. Even narrowing scope to CTWmuppets, if you insist, the principle (now prescriptive rather than descriptive) creates a contradiction. This is their prerogative: the CTW are perfectly within their rights to decide that all their muppets have no sexual orientation while nonetheless rendering some of their muppets as having sexual orientations. They can even claim that all muppets are thus while doing so. The fact remains that muppets other than Bert and Ernie expose the purportedly general proclamation as in fact applying only to Bert and Ernie.

This is the sole focus of my objection.

Nothing you've said about CTW's right to apply such a principle to CTWmuppets--which I don't dispute--changes that. Applied generally, the principle is still rendered nonsense by Piggy. Applied only to CTWmuppets, it is still rendered nonsense by your own examples. It is demonstrably prejudicial in being applied to Bert and Ernie in an inconsistency that is patently expedient--a way to deny a queer reading without imposing a straight one.

This is all I'm arguing.

3:50 am  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

To clear up your misrepresentations then:

My point is that Sesame Street gets to decide if Bert & Ernie are gay because they own Bert & Ernie.

Nowhere do I dispute that Sesame Street has the right to decide whether Bert and Ernie are gay. Try instead:

"I'd actually support the CTW in cleaving to their core intent--because as a writer I recognise how specifying them to be gay would write out much of the import."

My support. Their action. As a writer I accept their rationale let alone their right. An argument that creative control gives the CTW the right to decide Bert and Ernie's sexual orientation or lack thereof is irrelevant here. Nowhere have I disputed this. Please to not mischaracterise a stance that should be perfectly clear. This criticism does not constitute a demand for them to make the characters gay; don't argue like it does when I've ruled that out from the get-go.

"'s wrong to call an organization "chickenshit"... because they didn't write a script they way you'd like."

I agree. Unfortunately, I express support for the actual scripting and the core intent behind it. Further, as above, I express support for them not authorising the queer reading as canon on that basis:

"If they're in romantic love then that becomes the predominant reason they overlook each other's foibles--not the caritas the characters were invented to illustrate."

To project from this a petulant sulk over how the characters are written is a petty diversionary tactic. A judgement that CTW copped-out in the specific way they dismissed other people's demands to make Bert and Ernie gay in the scripts is not a demand to make Bert and Ernie gay in the scripts, not when it says, "I'm down with them not being gay in the scripts."

None of what I say is a demand for alteration of the content of the show. None of what I say even judges the content negatively, only the official statement made to the press, and I don't even call the CTW chickenshit for that.

Actually, I don't call them chickenshit at all. I call the decision chickenshit. This specific decision. I agree that CTW's work over the decades means it would be unfair to deem them chickenshit for not meeting my (non-existent) demands. Actually, it would be unfair to deem them chickenshit for this one decision. That is why I don't do it. I have zero compunction in judging the decision chickenshit though. For the reasons specified above.

3:52 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Morecambe and Wise?

12:16 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

See Google for details.

1:20 pm  

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