In 2013 when the Supreme Court of the United States struck down the Defense of Marriage Act and thereby legalized same-sex unions, The New Yorker ran a cover that, if I’m perfectly honest, made me a little weepy.
Speculation on whether or not Bert and Ernie were more than just good friends and roommates has attached to them for years. Most recently, Mark Saltzman, who won numerous Emmies for his writing on Sesame Street between 1985-1998, said in an interview that “I always felt that without a huge agenda, when I was writing Bert & Ernie, they were [lovers]. I didn’t have any other way to contextualize them.” Saltzman’s comment caused The Sesame Workshop, producers of the show, to issue a statement saying that they are just good friends and, furthermore, that as puppets they have no sexual orientation.
Leaving aside for the moment the obvious refutation about puppet sexuality (i.e. Kermit and Miss Piggy’s longstanding relationship, to say nothing of Gonzo’s veritable harem of chickens), Saltzman’s comments and the responses they evoked are just the most recent in a fairly long history of arguments about the true nature of Bert and Ernie’s relationship, something helpfully detailed in a great rundown by Aja Romano at Vox here. As Romano points out, though “Bert and Ernie seem to have been clearly modeled off Neil Simon’s famous Odd Couple, Oscar and Felix,” they “were loaded with queer subtext from the very beginning” (which seems to suggest that there was no queer subtext in The Odd Couple, but that’s another fox hunt altogether). Whether that subtext was present or not is at least partially besides the point: the lovely thing about Bert and Ernie is not that they have presented an either/or proposition—queer or not?—but that they’ve always been both/and. When they first appeared as original characters on Sesame Street fifty years ago (egad), that ambiguity meant that LGBTQ people who grew up watching the show could see an ordinary, loving same-sex couple fully integrated in their community. Or, conversely, children could see an example of two men who, for all of their differences, had genuine affection and love for one another.
This last point is why I’m of two minds on the question: while I’d be totally down with Bert and Ernie coming out and getting married and introducing into what is probably the most influential children’s show in the western world a long-standing gay relationship, one of the blights of toxic masculinity in the present moment is the social prohibitions on heterosexual male love and affection. The reflexive need of some men to cry “no homo!” after a hug, or the way in which sentimental expression is characterized as effeminate or gay, implicitly and explicitly, in popular culture, reminds us that patriarchy hurts men, too. The very idea that love and affection is necessarily sexual poisons assumptions informing the relationships we form.
Beyond this question, however, is the more literary-critical question of text. Which is to say: we cannot definitively comment upon Bert and Ernie’s sexuality because we have never been given any substantive indications one way or another. Mark Saltzman might say he wrote them as a gay couple modelled on himself and his partner, and Frank Oz might say that, as the creator of Bert, he can definitively declare him hetero, but in the end there has never been anything to confirm either perspective. As I tell my students, all we have to go on is the text: we can talk about suggestive subtexts, metaphors, hints, allusions, and so forth, but any interpretation you essay needs to be grounded in the text.
And that often means ignoring the author. Reading the latest kerfuffle over Bert and Ernie, I was put in mind of J.K. Rowling’s post-facto “revelation” that Dumbledore was gay, and that he and Gellert Grindewald had been lovers. Predictably, this enraged a good number of homophobic Potter fans; but it also enraged a not-insignificant number of Rowling’s LGBTQ readers, who thought her authorial claim rather weak tea. The revelation of Dumbledore’s sexuality was a not insignificant gesture (at least in terms of the predictable outrage it inspired), but it came across as cowardly after the fact—how much more powerful would it have been to have had queer and out characters represented in the novels?
The point, however, is that even with Rowling’s post-facto intervention, even if we now read the novels with the awareness that “Dumbledore is gay!” in the front of our minds, there is still nothing in the text that supports the author’s assertion—even less, really, than the evidence for Bert and Ernie’s ostensible congress. It is the sort of speculation that has been typified in the question “how many children did Lady Macbeth have?” That was a seriously posed question by readers of Shakespeare for a long time: at one point, Lady Macbeth, to emphasize just how far she’ll go to win the throne, tells her husband:
I have given suck, and know
How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me.
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums
And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this. (1.7: 62-67)
The suggestion here is that the ostensibly childless Macbeths once had at least one baby—which presumably died, or possibly just spends the entire play offstage in the company of a nanny (lucky kid, if that’s the case). But of course there is nothing else in the play that makes reference to Macbeth and his Lady having children. That does not, however, stop people from speculating: how many children? how many still births, crib deaths, and just where is that nanny anyway?
It might seem absurd, but this of course is the stuff of fan fiction. Well before Rowling outed Dumbledore, there were (and still are) endless online iterations, ranging from the modest to the pornographic, imagining the romances and hook-ups between Hogwarts’ usual suspects. I have to imagine there was some Dumbledore slash fiction in that mix. But the thing about fan fiction is that it is extra-textual: which is to say, it is not “canon.” What we have to work with, there, is the text itself … again, something I emphasize to my students.
One might argue that J.K. Rowling is the first and last authority on her own writing, which, if you make that argument to me, I will laugh and laugh and laugh. Since about the mid-20thcentury, literary critics and scholars have discounted authorial authority, recognizing that, to paraphrase Northrop Frye, writers are often mediocre critics of their own writing; but also that, once something is in print, there is not infrequently a desire on the part of the author for further revision. Sometimes new editions are released with changes, and then it’s in the hands of textual scholars (yet another fox hunt). It somehow seems unlikely that Rowling will issue a revised edition of all the Potter books, in which Dumbledore is out and proud.
That being said, this might change, given that the Potterverse is expanding; it is possible that in the new Fantastic Beasts film, in which Jude Law plays a young Dumbledore, we might see more concrete evidence: perhaps he’ll have a boyfriend, or perhaps we’ll see unmistakable sexual tension between him and Grindewald (though given the fact that the latter is played by Johnny Depp, I really hope not).
I do rather doubt it, however. Which is unfortunate.