Sesame Street aired on PBS for the first time on November 10, 1969. Accessible through any television for over four decades, three generations of children have grown up watching the show. Fans may know the show’s cultural prudence from its extremely diverse cast and its groundbreaking angle on controversial issues. However, a commonly overlooked piece of Sesame Street’s upbringing is the story of Mark Saltzman, one of the writers.
In an exclusive interview with the website Queerty, Saltzman discusses his coming out right before the AIDS scare of the 1980s. This was when he met the love of his life: Arnold Glassman, an acclaimed movie editor. Salzmann reveals that he tried to push an episode with a gay couple to the education department, who were in charge of the show’s content. Unfortunately, his proposal was rejected. So instead, he and several other writers ended up using their own experiences as members of the gay community as inspiration for their characters. Saltzman wrote a lot of the Bert and Ernie scenes around his own relationship with Glassman. Saltzman was an Ernie type, a jokester, while Glassman was like Bert, serious and organized. While Saltzman maintains that he didn’t have an “agenda” when writing these characters, he envisioned them as a couple. He also reveals that Big Bird and Snuffleupagus were characterized as an allegory for coming out. Here is the relevant section of the interview:
Saltzman: Snuffleupagus, because he’s the sort of clinically depressed Muppet…you had characters that appealed to a gay audience. And Snuffy, this depressed person nobody can see ... It’s sort of gay closeted too.
Queerty: The secret friend…because at that point Snuffy was Big Bird’s secret friend. It was later on he [came] out and everyone realized he actually existed.
Saltzman: That happened while I was there, yeah.
Learning about this story and the inspiration it gave to one of the best parts of the show was truly enlightening for me. LGBTQ representation like this on one of the most popular children’s programs in American broadcasting history has had a profound impact. Unfortunately, this did not last long. Recently, the Sesame Workshop came out with a statement that denied that Bert and Ernie were a couple, their reasoning being that puppets had no sexuality.
I’m sorry, but Kermit and Mrs. Piggy beg to differ, and both characters have appeared on the show multiple times.
This is a clear example of the double standard still held by most in our society, even by so-called LGBTQ allies. A worrying number of people today still view homosexual relationships as adult and risque, and believe that only teens and adults should be exposed to them. “Having a gay couple on a CW show is ok, but on PBS kids? That’s a little too much for my children,” read an online comment. “Think about them! My children are too young for that!”
On the other side of the coin, heterosexual relationships are omnipresent as ever, even in the youngest shows. You can show parental figures having loving relationships, as long as they aren’t gay. You can show small children crushing on each other, as long as they aren’t gay.
While stigma has lessened with the new wave of LGBTQ culture, it’s hasn’t done so easily. Shows like Steven Universe and Adventure Time have had to fight tooth-and-nail to incorporate inclusive relationships into their shows. In the Nickelodeon show Legends of Korra, the sexuality of Korra is revealed in the very last scene of the show. The latest season of the Voltron reboot, which has been on the air since 2016, revealed only a month ago that one of the main characters was gay, and only did so in a way that a homophobic parent could look at it and say, “Oh, they’re just friends.” And this was on Netflix, the network known for giving creators creative control, the network that gave us Queer Eye and Orange is the New Black. We all see this effort to give representation to the LGBTQ community, but never in a way that could be perceived as too outlandish for general audiences, which means the stigma is still there, alive and well.
The refutation by the Sesame Workshop was expected, but disappointing nonetheless. I believe what they should have done was to not make a statement at all and let people believe whatever they wanted to believe. However, regardless of what was said by public relations managers, Mark Saltzman’s story told through Bert and Ernie has had a hugely positive effect on our culture, teaching each and every one of us that despite all our differences, we could still love and care for one another. Love truly is love.
Photo credit Anita Shevett, Creative Commons