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Posted by on Jun 28, 2013 in Law, Media | 2 comments

Controversy Over New Yorker Cover Showing Sesame Street’s Bert & Ernie Welcoming Supreme Court Gay Marriage Decisions

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Yes, times have changed…

Most companies jealously protect their copyrighted characters. I know someone in San Diego who was virtually run out of business a two ago because he offered a Barney character for parties and didn’t have permission. It’s also no secret Disney goes after those who misuse their characters. And the late country western singer Conway Twitty got a warning from Warner Brothers when he used Tweety Bird as a Twitty Bird in advertisements. No word yet from (literally) the folks who brought you Sesame Street about the New Yorker cover (a stroke of artistic genius to be sure) that features Bert & Ernie as clearly close friends welcoming the Supreme Court’s decisions on gay marriage.

“It’s amazing to witness how attitudes on gay rights have evolved in my lifetime,” said Jack Hunter, the artist behind next week’s cover, “Moment of Joy.” Hunter, who originally submitted his image, unsolicited, to a Tumblr, continued, “This is great for our kids, a moment we can all celebrate.”

True. But “branding” is a biggie for corporations and the “biggie” is being in total control of your product’s image. Control is just that: control over how the product is perceived and packaged. Doug Mataconis sees the same wrinkle here that I do:

Given how aggressive CTW generally has been in guarding their copyrights, I have to wonder how they feel about this. There’s nothing wrong with saying that what happened at the Supreme Court on Wednesday was a good thing, indeed I absolutely believe that it was, but utilizing someone else’s copyrighted characters to do it when they’ve emphatically stated that those characters don’t have any political/social meaning beyond the messages they impart to children? That seems like a bridge too far. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a strongly worded letter, at the very least, from CTW in the near future.

The cartoon went over like a lead cartoon balloon to many — and not only with those who might have had problems politically with the SCOUTUS ruling. A cross section:

Slate’s June Thomas:

It’s a cute image. Everyone loves Bert and Ernie. But it’s a terrible way to commemorate a major civil-rights victory for gay and lesbian couple.

ou see, Bert and Ernie aren’t lovers. Back in 2007, the president of the Children’s Television Workshop said that they “do not exist beneath the waist.” Then, two years ago, the Children’s Television Workshop declared:

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 identified as male characters and possess many human traits and characteristics (as most Sesame Street Muppets™ do), they remain puppets, and do not have a sexual orientation.

That’s not the only lesson Bert and Ernie have to impart. You see, straight America, there’s a difference between same-sex friends and gay lovers. Does America contain households in which lovers pass themselves off as best pals? No doubt. And as prejudice against gays and lesbians fades, more of these ambiguously gay couples will declare themselves. But that doesn’t mean that every pair of cohabiting friends is madly making out on a nightly basis.

Bryan Fischer:

The tony, elitist New Yorker magazine, read by those who fancy themselves our moral andintellectual superiors, is in effect promoting child endangerment on the cover of its latest issue, and shamelessly using Bert and Ernie to do it.

The cover features the two muppets, who according to Sesame Street “have no sexual orientation,” cuddling romantically on a couch in a darkened room in front of a TV set picturing the Supreme Court, which of course has just issued a ruling overturning the federal definition of marriage as exclusively the union of one man and one woman.

This is shameless, using figures who are iconic to children to promote sexual deviancy. And worse, it is dangerous and irresponsible.

According to the most extensive research on the subject ever done, Mark Regnerus of the University of Texas concluded that adults who grow up in homosexual households fare worse on 77 of 80 outcomes compared to children raised in an intact biological family.

–Gawker has this post noting that the cover was originally designed in 2012 and had them watching Barck Obama.

Think Progress on Fischer:

Fischer’s entire argument is based on Mark Regnerus’ thoroughly debunked family structures study, which claimed to find negative outcomes for the children of same-sex couples. He even preempted detractors by pointing out that the University of Texas’s research integrity officer dismissed allegations against Regnerus about improper research techniques. Of course, the problem with the Regnerus study has never been what research was collected or how, but what conclusions were derived from it. Only two — two — of the individuals in the large study were actually raised in a committed intact same-sex family. Thus, all of the conclusions it tries to draw about same-sex parenting are actually based on children who grew up in broken homes and whose parents may have had a same-sex relationship at some point. It has nothing to say about married same-sex couples working together to raise a loving family; all the studies that do only have positive outcomes to report.

Fischer conveniently ignores this reality, eager to refresh the unfounded stigma of the past that there is a connection between homosexuality and pedophilia. He makes no consideration for the tens of thousands of children already being raised by same-sex parents who probably quite enjoy watching Sesame Street with their families.


I can see why gay men might want to think that and also how the two muppets fit certain stereotypes about gay couples, but I don’t know that it’s cool to appropriate them as symbols of the struggle for gay rights. It’s not that muppets shouldn’t be sexualized. After all, Miss Piggy and the Swedish nurse are intentionally sexualized. But Bert and Ernie are not intentionally sexualized. They appear to me to be more like Felix Unger and Oscar Madison than a couple in physical love with each other. They are close friends that suffer compatibility issues. They drive each other nuts but get along anyway. And I think that is the point that the creators wanted to convey to young children.

Still, there is something silly about people arguing about muppets, teletubbies, and other made-up characters.

–Weasel Zippers:

Classy stuff.
–The Daily Caller:

Okay, alright, whatever. I doubt Jim Henson would disapprove. But please, please, please: Just leave Oscar alone.


And I thought they were just puppets. Silly me.

Flavorwire’s Tyler Coates:

Because here’s the thing: there’s nothing particularly fun about being victimized and marginalized not just by the mainstream community but also within the community to which one belongs. There’s also nothing breezy about having one’s emotions manipulated or infantilized by a national publication whose primary goal is to sell copies of a magazine. You know what kind of image would have been nice to see on The New Yorker cover? Perhaps one of actual gay and lesbian couples. Were the magazine’s designers struggling to find one that anyone might recognize? How about Edith Windsor and Thea Spyer, whose relationship was at the center of the case that determined DOMA was unconstitutional in the first place? Did they need help finding one? Here, I Googled it for you, New Yorker…

Wasn’t too difficult, huh? But instead, the editors chose an image that — and I’m not making this up — was sent “unsolicited, to a Tumblr.” Why bother using a thoughtful image of an actual pair of real-life people when you can forego any sort of rational editorial decision-making and instead lift what looks like a bad Photoshop cut-and-paste from the Internet? (I guess the rights to that poster of two camisole-wearing white women making out, so often found in college dorm rooms to inspire the masturbatory fantasies of 18-year-old boys across the nation, was too expensive?)

Instead, the whole ordeal was summed up in a conveniently cheap and cloying image of puppets looking at a frozen image of the Supreme Court justices on their TV. Because Bert and Ernie are now apparently gay icons, at least in the eyes of The New Yorker‘s staff. And that’s a shame, because I can list off a ton of names who have done more for the marriage equality fight with level-headed dignity and pride. Are these America’s most recognizable gay icons? Because that’s a shame. We deserve better — we at least deserve to be identified and recognized and treated with respect rather than belittled with the cheap and easy imagery used here.

The Guardian:

Initially, the cover was met with waves of adulation. But more considered voices staged a later backlash.

Both supporters and opponents of same-sex marriage shared their distaste, calling the illustration: “infantilizing,” “demeaning,” a “cheap gag,” and “crass and reductive.”

This is not the first time Bert and Ernie have become embroiled in a controversy over their sexuality – or lack thereof. In August 2011, in response to an online petition calling for the characters to wed on Sesame Street, the show’s creators Sesame Workshop pointed out they are best friends and do not have any sexual orientation because they are puppets.

While conservative publications and their readers responded with the predictable vitriol – the National Review published the cover on its own under the headline “Innocence. Lost.” – gay rights supporters were also disappointed by the cover.

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