What Else Don't We Know About Bert And Ernie?

The world was rocked this week by the news that Bert and Ernie, Sesame Street’s most beloved odd couple, are gay.

It was then quickly rocked again by the news that, actually, they’re not. The saga began with the declaration by Sesame Street writer Mark Saltzman that he based his writing of Bert and Ernie on his own experience in a gay relationship.

This was greeted joyously by a public that has always kind of suspected as much, only for the celebrations to be interrupted by a statement from Sesame Workshop stating that Bert and Ernie have no sexual orientation of any kind, and a tweet confirming this by Frank Oz, who created the characters with Jim Henson.

What it did, though, was open the floodgates of opinion, as everyone who had grown up with Sesame Street and formed their own view on Bert and Ernie’s sexual preference staked their claim to the truth, and it quickly became clear that every one of us decided long ago whether Bert and Ernie are gay, and we are not about to shift.

In the great scheme of things, it probably doesn’t matter. In one sense, fictional characters can’t be anything except what they are depicted as being in their fictional universe, so they’re not gay. In another sense, given they’re two men living together, with great affection for and dependence on each other despite constant bickering, we might as well think of them as gay – after all, we’re never going to get a glimpse of Sesame residents’ sex lives, so if there were a gay couple, they’d look pretty much like Bert and Ernie.

And I’ve no doubt the thought of them being gay would be enormously cheering to an LGBTQ community that hasn’t exactly had a plethora of role models in the realm of kids’ TV. But I don’t want to be seen as contradicting Frank Oz, either -- God forbid!

READ MORE: Bert And Ernie NOT GAY Says Sesame Street

What the whole brouhaha has shown more than anything, though, is just how much we enjoy speculating on the unseen lives of fictional characters who, by their very nature, have no unseen lives. The “Are Bert and Ernie Gay?” conversation is just a retread of the old “Are Holmes and Watson gay?” conversation. Logically speaking, it’s a bit silly: asking what Holmes and Watson get up to when we’re not looking is an incoherent question, because they don’t exist when we’re not looking; what you see in the books is all there is.

But just because it’s an incoherent question doesn’t mean it’s not a fun question, and as the massive popularity of fan fiction proves, one of the ways we as an audience make our entertainment experience richer is to imagine those non-existent unseen lives. Bert and Ernie are great fun, but aren’t they even more fun when we can play do-they-don’t-they with them?

The world of fiction is full of characters who we can make more compelling and rounded by hypothesising on what they might be getting up to on their time off from being fictional. Let us, for example, examine the vexed question of Gandalf. Maybe he was gay, although it’s hard to believe he’d have considered anyone of any gender worth his time.

There’s a better question: we know what he did when the world was in peril, but what did he get up in all those centuries when things were basically OK? Did he hang out at a Men’s Shed? Did he use his skills in the hired assassin trade? Or did he cash in on his public credibility by spruiking compression stockings and Werther’s Originals and make millions? You could get at least another trilogy out of Gandalf’s adventures in the corporate world.

Or consider James Bond. We have only the tiniest window into his world, and we can only guess at what his life might look like when he clocks off for the day. I imagine he’s very into gardening, and probably enjoys a good round of mini-golf. I also get the distinct impression that he lives with his mother – he says he looks after her but really he needs her more than she needs him.

It’s quite a homey lifestyle really, and in stark contrast to that of Ethan Hunt from Mission Impossible, who I’m pretty sure is not only homeless but heavily involved in a dog-fighting ring. And didn’t that franchise suddenly come to life for you just then? Aren’t you much more invested in the MI team’s adventures when you know Ethan is depending on this job to pay back the debt he owes to Junkyard Joe?

That’s the beauty of these arguments: they make our fictional worlds more vivid. Just as Bert and Ernie are far more interesting when we’re debating whether they do it with each other, we can engage like never before with Pennywise the Clown when we countenance the possibility that he volunteers at a donkey sanctuary on weekends.

Wonder Woman’s guitar lessons; Travis Bickle’s part-time dog-washing service; the secret marriage between Jessica Fletcher and Magnum PI; these are the brushstrokes we add ourselves to the canvases of others’ imaginations, and the colours shine all the brighter for it.

So are Bert and Ernie gay? I have no idea, but I hope they keep us guessing forever.

Feature Image: Getty