I grew up watching Spongebob Squarepants; every night at eight, my brother and I would sit down in front of the TV to relish the antics of Spongebob and his underwater crew. For years, I regarded Spongebob Squarepants as the greatest TV show to grace the Earth. Until eighth grade, that is, when my peers began to tell me that Spongebob was “inappropriate” and an adults’ show. After all, the characters do all live in “Bikini Bottom.”
This disheartened me; I did not like to think that I had grown up watching an overtly sexual television show, and did not want to consider the fact that perhaps the sexual jokes had subtly made their way into my subconscious. As I processed this throughout middle and high school, though, I noticed some of the adult jokes in children’s shows that had flown over my head years before, be they understated phallic symbols or subtle references to drugs and sex. Whether these were the writers’ ways of keeping things interesting for themselves or for adult viewers, I take no issue with these jokes; cable television shows should be autonomous and it is up to parents to decide what they let their children watch.
My peers weren’t done after they hit me with the Spongebob reality, though; they went farther back into my childhood to enlighten me with another theory: that Bert and Ernie, the Sesame Street duo, weren’t simply best friends who lived together. Rather, said my peers (and many others on the internet, as I learned later), they are gay, living together not as best friends but as romantic partners. This idea has become widespread, becoming a joke on various television shows and other media outlets; New Yorker Magazine even featured Bert and Ernie as a couple on the cover of an issue that featured articles about Supreme Court decisions regarding same-sex marriage legislation.
Unlike the Spongebob realization, which is more of a fact than a theory, the idea that Bert and Ernie are gay did not trouble me; I have always taken issue with parents imparting to their children that homosexuality is inappropriate subject matter. Sesame Street, as a children’s television show airing on a public access channel, has a responsibility, unlike Spongebob, to teach its young viewers real-life lessons. Though Bert and Ernie had their TV debut in 1969, when homosexuality and same-sex marriage were quieter topics, I would not be surprised if the historically progressive Sesame Street featured gay characters to teach viewers acceptance of self and others.
Sesame Street was started to provide children, especially those of lower socioeconomic status, with educational television programming. Its creators wanted to do something positive using the addictive nature of television, and started a show that taught viewers not only about numbers and letters but also about real life. Targeted at inner-city, lower class children who were coming to preschool not as well-prepared as their wealthier counterparts, the set was modeled after a typical city and features places like a front stoop and a convenience store, to be relatable to inner city children. The original cast also featured actors of many races, in order to represent the diverse viewership the creators hoped to receive. This was so progressive at the time that Sesame Street was banned in Mississippi in 1970 because it featured both black and white children as cast members.
Throughout the almost 50 years that Sesame Street has been on television, the show has not shied away from sensitive and tough subjects. Characters on the show openly discussed death when one of the actors portraying a main character died, back in 1982. Since then, episodes have covered topics like HIV, divorce, incarceration and racism. Most recently, Sesame Street introduced a new character: a puppet named Julia who has autism. As an educational program on public access TV, the show has the unique opportunity to literally broadcast positive messages to its millions of young viewers, and has been successful in doing so. Children who watch the show learn lessons about tolerance, inclusion and kindness.
Though the producers of Sesame Street have denied that Bert and Ernie are a couple, I would not be surprised to see gay characters on the show. Disney has recently made headway in this realm; though subtly placed, two lesbian couples appeared in the Disney Channel show Good Luck Charlie and in the movie Finding Dory. Most recently, Disney announced that Lefou, a character in the live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast, is openly gay; he is featured dancing with another man at the end of the film. Though this announcement garnered major criticism for Disney, it is a big step forward for feature films and media that is aimed towards families and children.
It would therefore be reasonable for Sesame Street, a progressive program that is in tune with society and its advancements, to feature gay or lesbian characters. As homosexuality and same-sex marriage have become more mainstream and are no longer things to hide or not talk about, children are exposed to LGBT couples and individuals in their homes and schools. Therefore, it would not be ridiculously unreasonable for children’s television and movies to feature normal, healthy individuals, the likes of which children are encountering in daily life.
When I watch Spongebob today, I understand the sexual references and see the show differently than I did when I was eight. But Bert and Ernie’s sexual orientations are not important in their own right; whether or not they are gay does not change the show and does not make the show any less of an American institution. Sesame Street is already a progressive, trailblazing TV show, and adding gay characters wouldn’t be the biggest deal. Were Sesame Street writers to introduce a gay or lesbian cast member to the show, I would not even feel the need to commend them for being progressive. As a fixture of children’s television programming, the show has already proven itself one-of-a-kind in the way it deals with hot topics and sensitive issues. Sesame Street has already made history, and I trust that it will continue to do so, whether or not they add LGBT characters. But were I to turn the show on in ten years and see two married men dropping off their daughter to play with Elmo, I would still be grateful to the producers for providing young viewers with different types of role models and teaching them the invaluable lessons of tolerance and acceptance.