Bert and Ernie and TV propaganda campaigns
As I write this, a petition asking that the producers of Sesame Street perform a gay marriage between Bert and Ernie, two beloved characters on the long-running children’s television show, has gotten over 9,000 signatures. It seems like a silly sideshow while civil wars rage in the Middle East, riots smoulder in London and the world economy continues to teeter and creak, but tragedy and farce are often locked in a tight orbit, egging each other on with greater speed and recklessness.
The petition was started by Lair Scott, a gay activist from Chicago. This seems to be his first turn in the media spotlight, and little is known about him, but his MySpace page reveals his love of ‘70s era glam rock, a fascination with lions and a fond wish to be reborn as a merman. He isn’t without media savvy, however, and launching his petition – his second on the matter of Bert and Ernie’s sexual orientation – in the dog days of summer was a canny move. August has long been known as the “silly season” for news, with governments in recess and cities half-emptied by vacationers, so a “weird news” tidbit that would once be given a filler paragraph at the top corner of a broadsheet’s back pages has gotten picked up by the Associated Press, BBC, the Huffington Post, and Wall Street Journal, and given wryly sympathetic treatment by National Public Radio, sister broadcaster to PBS, Sesame Street’s longtime TV home.
Never mind that change.org, the online petition site that also hosts Scott’s overture for same-sex equity for the felt-covered, currently features another petition demanding that California governor Jerry Brown ban methyl iodide, a pesticide used on strawberries. At 31,610 signatures, it has far more support than the appeal to allow two puppets to pledge their union in front of a minister or legal officiant of their choosing. A petition against auto manufacturer Ford using Ringwood State Park in New Jersey as a landfill site has 62,543 signatures, and another calling for Wal-Mart to stop buying products made in a Jordan factory where female employees have been raped and abused currently boasts 123,153 signatures, but none of these likely worthy appeals has anywhere near the same amount of press coverage as Lair Scott’s plea to sexualize two puppets. In his words, “(c)hildren and parents need to learn that acceptance of humankind, even puppets, would indeed plant a seed of peace that will reverberate throughout the universe.”
Scott insists he’s not asking “that Sesame Street depict anything crude or disrespectful; this is NOT about any other issue other than education.” And education, in the eyes of activists for the issue of gay marriage, can’t begin soon enough. Sesame Street representatives have been officially dismissive of Scott’s petition, but neither their lack of public sympathy nor any merely commonsensical arguments will ultimately discourage this absurdity from spreading, even thriving, and that’s the whole point.
It’s a shameless society, so sniggering gags about Bert and Ernie are hardly new, and the publicity garnered by Scott’s petition has revived them. On All Things Considered, NPR’s flagship news program, Time magazine TV critic James Poniewozik joked that “Ernie is kind of a jerk to Bert. You know, he tricks him, he lies to him, he steals his pizza. It’s not, you know, a loving, adult relationship to me, frankly … Bert deserves, you know, a nice man who’s going to treat him right.” And late night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel got on his high horse – literally; it’s a running gag on the show – to deliver a sarcastically stern monologue on the petition that dismissed gay rumours about the characters by pointing out Bert’s unibrow and the pair’s dismal dress sense – inconceivable fashion faux-pas for image conscious gays, don’t you know – before asking, with mock outrage, “What if they are gay? What if they’re neck deep in each other’s fuzz every night? How is that any of our business?”
“And what about Dora the Explorer?” Kimmel finally asked, pushing the joke as far as he could. “What is she exploring with that butch haircut, anyway? I’ll tell you what – her sexuality.”
It’s unlikely but undeniable notoriety means ignoring Scott’s petition is clearly not an option, and dismissing it with any kind of rational argument has been superseded by lightheaded mockery by the sort of people – critics and comics – whose liberal sympathies oblige them to treat both sides with sophomoric contempt. Which means that, even if Sesame Street’s producers stick to their current policy, we’ll still have skipped blithely past yet another landmark in the ongoing sexualisation of every aspect of life and society, where every relationship is a potentially carnal one, no friendship is platonic, and childhood merely an impatient prelude to Girls Gone Wild.
In Primetime Propaganda: The True Hollywood Story of How the Left Took Over Your TV, a book I’m reviewing in an upcoming Interim column, author Ben Shapiro devotes a chapter to brief histories of the liberal agendas of so many classic children’s programs, Sesame Street among them. “Diversity” has always been the show’s mission – a word that’s become ubiquitous even as its actual meaning has been diminished – and its creators can be counted on to respond to pressure to advance a social agenda.
It hasn’t always been successful; a 1989 effort to introduce the topic of divorce on the show involved the parents of another puppet, Snuffleupagus, and backfired so badly on a test audience of preschoolers that it was shelved, but out gay TV star Neil Patrick Harris did eventually do a guest spot on the show as “The Fairy Shoeperson,” a gag clearly aimed more at knowing parents than their children, and proof that, when putatively vanguard social issues are in play, the producers of the show are more likely to respond to the whims and wishes of parents and activists than the children who make up their audience.