Here's why I hope Ernie and Bert never get married: Their relationship enables our imagination
It was a line that reminded me of the coolest moment from James Cameron's most-excellent film Aliens, when plucky child survivor Newt reminds hero Ripley that a doll she owns doesn't have bad dreams because she's "just a piece of plastic."
The more recent line, however, came courtesy of Sesame Workshop, the company which produces venerated children's show Sesame Street, in reaction to a deluge of online petitions demanding Muppet characters Bert and Ernie declare their love for each other and get married, in the wake of New York's historic move to legalize gay marriage.
(Change.org claims that more than 7,800 people have signed its petition asking that Bert and Ernie marry, or a transgender character be added to Sesame Street).
"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," read the company's statement, which also noted Bert and Ernie are best friends, designed to show kids how cool it is to befriend someone different than yourself on a show set in a fictional New York neighborhood.
As Newt might say, Bert and Ernie won't get married, because they are just pieces of foam and fake hair.
That the gay marriage debate has reached the threshold of preschool-aimed puppet characters -- again! -- says so much about how mainstream the gay rights discussion has become in America. It's also proof, unfortunately, of how wacky we can get in trying to make every corner of pop culture reflect our own particular sentiments on important social issues (see my 2005 column on the fight over whether SpongeBob SquarePants was used to enable a pro-gay agenda).
I resist the attempt to slap a sexual orientation on Bert and Ernie for a slightly different reason: I've always loved the way Sesame Street leaves so much of their lives to our imagination.
Are they children or adults? Roommates or siblings? Best buddies or significant others?
The truth is, Bert and Ernie change according to whatever the moment requires. But part of the fun for older minds who might find themselves stuck in front of a Sesame Street broadcast from time to time -- i.e., parents -- is imagining who they actually are, using the meager evidence Sesame Street provides.
I'm probably overthinking this -- practically a job requirement for a TV critic.
But the simple message of embracing people who are different than you would probably do more to make young minds amenable to the fight for gay rights than any wedding (though I can't lie, I would LOVE to see Guy Smiley officiate, while Elmo carried the rings and Cookie Monster -- who else? -- brings the desserts).
Check out the most innuendo-filled Bert and Ernie clip I could find on YouTube, along with one of my favorite Bert and Ernie clips: