Are Bert and Ernie gay? There are many ways of answering this question, which seems to pop up in American culture every few years. With the relationship status of Sesame Street's most famous roommates making the news again this week, it all depends on which source you think matters most.
First, there's the intent of the writers behind Bert and Ernie's lines. The yellow-and-orange roommates hit headlines this time because a former Sesame Street writer told Queerty that he always thought of the two as a couple: "I always felt that without a huge agenda, when I was writing Bert & Ernie, they were [a couple]. I didn't have any other way to contextualize them." (The writer, Mark Saltzman, is gay and was in a relationship with film editor Arnold Glassman for more than two decades, until Glassman's death.)
But the official stance on Bert and Ernie has long said otherwise. In response to the Queerty article, the Twitter account of the Sesame Workshop, the non-profit that runs Sesame Street, weighed in. As puppets, Bert and Ernie "do not have a sexual orientation," the organization said. Later the account tweeted that "Sesame Street has always stood for inclusion and acceptance" and "Bert and Ernie were created to be best friends." A decade ago, the Sesame Workshop released a similar statement after sending a cease-and-desist letter to the makers of a comedic short film called Ernest & Bertram, which portrayed the pair as romantically involved.
How about researchers? It's hard to imagine a credible, quantitative study of puppet relationships, but scholars have written about the Muppets—the felty puppets that appear on Sesame Street and The Muppet Show—in a qualitative way. Many seem to agree that Sesame Street-maker Jim Henson's puppets are queer. In 2008, theater professor Jordan Schildcrout argued that Gonzo is sexually non-conforming (he often has romantic scenes with a female chicken named Camilla, but he's also waltzed with male puppet-frog Kermit and male human-dancer Gene Kelly) and that Miss Piggy is more like a drag queen than anything else (she's so aggressively feminine). The whole point is queerness, Schildcrout writes:
The Muppet Show, one of the most successful television programs of its time, imagines the theatre as a venue for rebellion against propriety, where performers can irreverently "play" with cultural norms ... the Muppets' zany performances present challenges, simultaneously gleeful and significant, to normative notions of ethnicity, gender, and sexuality.
Still, the weirdness is a bit more subdued on Sesame Street, a show designed to educate very young children, and with many characters who are supposed to be toddler-aged and presumably not yet concerned with sexuality. Why, then, have Bert and Ernie seemed so gay, to many, over many years?
Sesame Street is supposed to portray children who are outsiders in society, Carol-Lynne Parente, the show's executive producer, told the Los Angeles Times in 2010: "It was originally designed to speak to inner-city kids 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." Many poorly represented Americans saw themselves and their families in Sesame Street's welcoming characters—including queer American watchers.