In 1999 the Rev. Jerry Falwell was mocked and ridiculed when he claimed in his National Liberty Journal that the ‘Teletubbies,’ a television program for children under the age of 3, was ”modeling the gay life style” through the character Tinky Winky. “The character, whose voice is obviously that of a boy, has been found carrying a red purse,” wrote Falwell. “He is purple — the gay pride color; and his antenna is shaped like a triangle — the gay pride symbol.” Falwell, a pompous evangelical pastor who helped usher in the Moral Majority in 1980s America, wrote a lot of bombastic critiques of American popular culture and over-the-top rhetoric about homosexuals and their lifestyle choices. But with the latest news about a former Sesame Street writer claiming that Bert and Ernie were a “loving couple” and that he wrote them as gay, what was meant to be seen as Jim Henson’s company as a progressive entertainment troupe, has in fact only made the paranoia of Falwell come back alive. While one couldn’t care less if fictional Muppets are gay or not, the need to apply a sexual identity to Bert and Ernie feeds into the enemies of the gay community more than it shuts them up.
Back when Falwell wrote his article on the “gay agenda,” he was met with harsh criticism: “Jerry Falwell’s paranoia about gay people has reached a new and ludicrous high-water mark,” said David Smith of the Human Rights Campaign. “As farcical as it may sound, Falwell’s latest ranting has serious consequences.” While the Teletubbies debate moved on, the latest Bert and Ernie story gives validity to the idea that writers do have agendas, which was the point Falwell was trying to make, however judgmental and crudely.
For those not knowing what happened recently, former Sesame Street writer Mark Saltzman set off a Twitter fire when he told the LGBTQ website Queerty that he always saw Bert and Ernie as a “loving couple” when in charge of writing sketches for the beloved Muppets.
After the Internet blew up he tried to soften his stance by saying, “Maybe they were gay when I was writing them, but I never felt I had the authority to declare them to be gay. I’m sure when straight writers were writing Bert and Ernie, they were straight.”
Saltzman explained that he drew from his relationship with his late partner Arnold Glassman.
“He was a Bert. And I confess to being an Ernie.”
Saltzman realized that his statement hurt the Sesame Workshop’s branding because immediately the production company responded with a tweet:
“Bert and Ernie are best friends. They were created to teach preschoolers that people can be friends with those who are very different from themselves. Even though they are identified as male and possess many human traits and characteristics, they remain puppets, and do not have a sexual orientation.”
That, of course, is the correct answer. They are puppets (or Muppets), and while I’m sure the staff of Sesame Street is left-leaning, they understand that the agenda of the show is teaching math, language and basic values that are appropriate to very young children. If the show was trying to promote some type of heterosexual agenda, it would be just as problematic. Teaching children about sexual orientation before they reach an age of sexual understanding should not be anyone’s goal.
While Jerry Falwell might have come across as a buffoon, what his detractors don’t understand is that there is still a large sect of society who believe that certain lifestyles are wrong. While many find these views ignorant, those who profess to accept the controversial lifestyles have for years claimed that they weren’t trying to push any agenda through their work. So, while Saltzman might feel his comments shouldn’t have sparked a national firestorm, his ignorance is in thinking that just because the “gay agenda” is not on the right-wing radar anymore doesn’t mean it is not still a hot-button issue.
Jerry Falwell thought he was onto something, and right now, wherever his soul may be, he could feel vindicated by this one story about two little puppets who had no idea that their friendship could be the symbol of so many types of love to so many different types of people.