The July 8 & 15, 2013 cover of The New Yorker features Bert and Ernie relaxing together on a couch, cuddling while viewing the Supreme Court justices on TV. Although one can argue that it is ambiguous (and I have, largely as a devil’s advocate), it is a commentary on the Supreme Court decisions this week about marriage equality, and is entitled “Moment of Joy.”
On one level, Bert and Ernie mean nothing to me, because I was too old for Sesame Street when it came along. I have no fond childhood memories. I haven’t seen any of the Muppet movies. I remember watching the Muppet Show on TV, I think, but I’m not sure Bert and Ernie were even on it.
But as an observer of popular culture, if not always a participant, I know that Bert and Ernie are both guys, that they are always mentioned together, and that they are roommates. At some point, I became aware that some people thought they were gay, and that some people started a petition for them to get married, to which the Sesame Street people responded by saying they’re just friends, meant to be models of how people who are different from one another can still be close friends. They also said that they are just puppets, without sexual orientation.
Well, be that as it may, Miss Piggy and Kermit, also “just puppets” certainly have a sexual orientation. I think it’s legitimate to consider that Bert and Ernie may have a sexual orientation, even in light of the Sesame Street people’s protestations.
Puppets are screens upon which we project what we need or want, individually. The creator doesn’t own, and cannot dictate, my projections onto the puppets.
I can see, but do not feel, the objections by some that a universal friendship is being forced to become particular. (I have a long aside about the parallelism of Ruth’s words to Naomi being sexualized by those who use them in marriages, which is actually just a rhetorical feint, so I’ll only mention it in passing.)
What I see is that Bert and Ernie, in the context of the Supreme Court of the United States saying that marriages between people of the same gender, lawfully recognized by the various states, must be recognized by the federal government, finally feel comfortable being themselves, being the people they really are, being the people they have always been. It makes me cry gentle tears of joy.
There is a long, long tradition of the heterosexual majority erasing gay and lesbian relationships. Jonathan’s love of David “surpassing the love of women.” The Roman centurion and his slave. No, we can’t say that all Boston marriages were sexual, but it seems entirely unlikely that none of them were romantic. Willa Cather and Edith Lewis. Eleanor Roosevelt and Hick and Tommy. Decades of couples being “just friends.”
It is in this context that I’m offended by those who resist the interpretation promoted by the cover. The worst of the complaints explicitly condemn gay relationships as other, less, or sinful. But even those who celebrate the right of gay and lesbian couples to marry yet are sad that a “universal” symbol is no longer universal are, from my point of view, perpetuating and defending a heterosexist status quo. I totally get that seeing Bert and Ernie as a universal symbol of friendship is a legitimate projection onto them. But resisting a new, and I would say deeper, liberating, symbol feels to me as though my reality is being made, once again, less than, less real than, less important than the heterosexual majority.
So sure, they’re just puppets. But they’re puppets that I can now see myself in, in deeply satisfying and healing ways, and I refuse to allow anyone to make me anything but delighted at seeing them that way.