Gay but not too gay? A look at the depiction of homosexuality in media
Yesterday, September 18, a former writer for Sesame Street, Mark Saltzman, revealed that Bert and Ernie are indeed a gay couple. He said that he was with his now-late partner of 20 years, Arnie, at the time he started with the show in 1984, telling Queerty in the interview, “I didn’t think I’d know how else to write them, but as a loving couple.”
However, Sesame Workshop released an official statement saying that they are just friends, angering a lot of people.
Sesame Workshop provided “as we have always said, Bert and Ernie are best friends. They were created to teach preschoolers that people can be good friends with those who are very different from themselves. Even though they are male characters and possess many human traits and characteristics, (As most Sesame Street Muppets™ do), they remain Muppets, and do not have a sexual orientation.”
Puppeteer and longtime collaborator of Muppets creator the late Jim Henson, Frank Oz, said via twitter,
“It seems Mr. Mark Saltzman was asked if Bert and Ernie are gay. It’s that he feels they are. They’re not, of course”, saying “but why that question? Does it really matter? Why the need to define people as only gay? There’s so much more to a human being than just straightness or gayness.”
Frank Oz’s tweet received mixed reactions, with many disappointed LGBTIQ members replying to him citing the importance of positive media representation of queer individuals and the lack thereof, to which he said, “I understand, it must make you feel very alone. But please read what I wrote: I’m very pleased people see themselves and others in a character I created but that does not change the truth of who or what that character is.”
Bert and Ernie’s sexuality has been broadly speculated for years, but many have expressed that, while the Sesame Workshop’s statement may be disappointing and feel somewhat dismissive, it is what it is.
However, what Frank Oz has said about certain characters resonating differently with each individual rings true; they may have been created for a specific purpose, but it need not be so for you, if these characters helped you come to terms with your personal struggles, then your initial perception of those characters and their purpose is not made any less true or real by word of god.
There have been somewhat similar examples over the years in the media with the vague and ambiguous representation of LGBTIQ characters. Many being revealed to be gay once the show has ended, free of any backlash risking a drop in ratings and some being revealed out of nowhere, to gain a bit of traction and win favour with the LGBTIQ community.
In Western Animation
The Legend of Korra has one of the more recent and prevalent examples of this with the relationship between Korra and Asami which was made “official” in the final episode of the show but it was left terribly ambiguous, so much so that the creators wrote blog posts to confirm their romantic relationship and their bisexuality. Although many of the fandom and even those who did not initially ship them together, by that point, did consider their relationship to be canon.
In the musical Hamilton, during the song “My Shot”, Alexander Hamilton tells his new friend John Laurens “Laurens, I like you a lot”, and creator Lin-Manuel Miranda confirmed that this line was included to indicate what historians have speculated about Lauren’s and Hamilton’s relationship being more than friends, especially with a letter which could easily be viewed as a love letter.
Probably the most famous of all cop-outs; J.K. Rowling revealing that Dumbledore was gay when the series had ended. He was a celibate hero, kept out of romantic relationships because he once fell in love with a man, and this might be a SPOILER! Said man was Gellert Grindelwald who then went on to become the equivalent of wizard Hitler.
This however could be justified by the fact that UK law at the time prevented books with any gay characters being included in school libraries (Section 2A to the Local Government Act 1986).
As for the new film adaptation, to be released on November 22, which explores Dumbledore’s relationship with Grindelwlad to some extent, audiences will just have to wait and see.
In Film Animation
While the writer and co-director of Frozen, Jennifer Lee said that Elsa’s orientation is best left unsaid, Co-producer of Zootopia confirmed that Prok Oryx-Antlerson was married to Bucky Oryx-Antlerson, making this the first mainstream Disney movie to acknowledge the existence of a gay couple.
In Comic Books
While many of these examples are rather recent, there have been subversions to this trope, such as Harley Quinn’s and Poison Avi’s relationship in Batman; the cannon acceptance of a lesbian relationship in Gotham City Sirens. Writers Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti of Harley’s new 52 series described Harley and Ivy as “girlfriends who aren’t hung up on monogamy”.
Many of these examples where creators have opted to either portray these characters as ambiguously gay and to never confirm it, or to say that they are in fact gay out of nowhere, can come as an industry collective cop-out. However, there are examples such as Bert and Ernie, where the community embraces beloved characters and christens them as one of their own, out of sheer desperation to feel included and represented.
Call Me By Your Name movie poster/Pic credit – atwoodmagazine.com
It is unfortunate, that in 2018, even in western cultures, people are uncomfortable to discuss LGBTIQ topics in mainstream media, there is barely any representation, more importantly, accurate representation. However, things are changing, and with Oscar recognised films such as Call Me By Your Name, Moonlight and then Boy Erased which is yet to be released, featuring mega stars like Nichole Kidman, queer audiences and allies alike may finally get what they’ve been pining for.
By Dimithri Wijesinghe