The Bert & Ernie Debate and What it Says About Grown-Up Agendas

My niece happens to be in love with Olivia, the spunky little pig character created by Ian Falconer. When her grandmother reads to her, she puts special tsk, tsk emphasis on the part where Olivia messes up the walls with paint. When I read the same book with her last weekend, I marveled at the Degas and Pollack works on the pages. Regardless of which of us is sitting beside her, my niece delights in our individual versions of whats unfolding on the page.

The idea of childrens entertainment is to educate and stimulate children, but there is also a big piece thats about provoking thought and starting conversations with the adults in their lives. Ideally, they are moved to ask questions. It is then that parents or caretakers can answer and give a point of view. And what an opportunity and privilege each and every time.

If it takes a village, then the best case scenario is that the villagers bring a diversity of viewpoints to the child, all from a place of love and nurturing.

This brings me to the petition for Bert and Ernie to marry and every other darned trumped up controversy over kids entertainment were subjected to these days. We dispensed with evangelical fundamentalist Southern Baptist pastor Jerry Falwells evil homosexuality scandal regarding Tinky Winky the purple character in the Teletubbies back in 1999 and then again in 2007 when Polish politician Ewa Sowinska bristled at his little red bag and took it as far as having a sexologist declare it had no ill effects on children.

Goodness. It is already mortifying enough that so many grownups cant decide where they stand on an issue until they consult with their political partys talking points, but now were going to keep taking our agendas to preschoolers TV programming? How very high road.

The Bert and Ernie petition on Facebook posits that its important for our children to be educated that its okay to be gay. For over 40 years, our beloved Sesame St. characters, Bert and Ernie, have been living as roommates and we would like PBS and Sesame St. to allow them to live as a gay couple and maybe eventually, marry. It would show children and their parents that not only is it acceptable but also teach children that homophobia is wrong, bullying is wrong and that Sesame street should recognize that there are LGBT relationships, families, and include them in their show.

I agree with the first sentence, but part with the petition on how that gets executed. The folks at Sesame Street issued this statement in response:

Bert and Ernie are best friends. They were created to teach preschoolers that people can be good friends with those who are very different from themselves. 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.


Taking this further, by keeping the characters asexual it allows adults to project on to them whatever they want to teach their children. For example, what is stopping a mother who wants to give her child a message about homosexuality positive or negative -- from pointing to Bert and Ernie and doing so anyway? Why must their sexual orientation be declared for that to occur? The larger intent of teaching children about friendship allows for the takeaway to be that simple or for parents to take it to another level if they feel so inclined.

Toys and books and television are places where we discover and form. As we move past preschool and get into grade school and beyond, there is more opportunity to identify and clarify ones role and place in the world. Just because I was making my Barbie and Ken dolls kiss when I was little doesnt mean that there werent girls making Barbie kiss one of her female friends because that felt natural.

Of course there is a difference when we talk about entertainment geared to an older audience. The Nancy Drew books that so helped me understand myself werent exactly an Italian-American familys dream. They promoted female independence, the antithesis of my ancestors family-centered culture. Look at the show Glee. That series has been refreshing validation for many adolescents confused by their burgeoning sexual feelings and it continues to inspire.

This isnt really about television programming at all, though. Thats just where it manifests and boils over. We dont need Bert and Ernie to get married to show tolerance. We need Mommy and Daddy to have more tolerance. We dont need SpongeBob and Mr. Krabs to show both sides of the global warming issue. We need Mommy and Daddy to get educated about what is happening in our world.

Think about it. An animated television series created by a marine biologist -- Stephen Hillenburg -- that is grounded in science. Oh, the horror. Thats almost as bad as the grade schoolers who were taught a song about the president of the U.S. a few years ago.

What is the world coming to?

Nancy Colasurdo is a practicing life coach and freelance writer. Her Web site is and you can follow her on Twitter @nancola. Please direct all questions/comments to