Saturday 16 December 2017

Why sesame street must allow bert to break the last tv taboo

COMING OUT: Children's telly needs a gay character

If you are a fan of musical theatre, you might have heard of the show Avenue Q, which parodies children's programme Sesame Street.

In it, a character called Nicky, based on the TV show's Ernie, sings a song to Rod, based on Bert. "If you were gay," Nicky croons, amid Rod's defensive protests that he's being ridiculous, "that'd be okay, because hey, I love you anyway."

It's an affectionately knowing send-up of the longtime in-joke that Ernie and Bert, who live together and sleep in the same bedroom, are closeted gays.

Last June, comparing his hairstyle to that of A Team star Mr T, Bert tweeted on his official Sesame Street Twitter page: "The only difference is mine is a little more 'mo', a little less 'hawk'." It's been five months since the tweet, but only now has Bertgate blown open, with newspapers speculating that the word 'mo' is slang for homosexual while producers of Sesame Street insist it's nothing of the sort.

The Children's Television Workshop, producers of Sesame Street, told the LA Times, it "never crossed our minds" that Bert's Tweet would be interpreted as "consciously trying to appeal to gay viewers".

From the moment it was first broadcast in 1969, Sesame Street's mix of characters came from the wide range of ethnic groups that populated American towns and cities. The show encouraged pre-school children to view the world as a place where people of all colours and creeds co-operated with each other towards the greater good, where difference was not only accepted, but applauded.

Ernie and Bert were part of this mix from episode one, but considering the times they were created in, it's unlikely they were conceived as gay. Almost 42 years later, it's disappointing, if understandable, that the Street's producers have distanced themselves from the gay connotation.

Disappointing, because in not overtly including gay in its mix, Sesame Street's commitment to education about the acceptance of diversity means nothing. Understandable because they are in no position to do it.

Sesame Street is a key programme on PBS, a channel funded by the American government.

In 2002, Spongebob Squarepants appeared in a video for an organisation called We Are Family, aimed at instilling a sense of tolerance for gay people in America's children. It incensed powerful fundamental Christian organisations like Focus On The Family, who dubbed the video "an insidious means by which the organisation is potentially brainwashing kids".


What if Bert were to really come out as gay? Would organisations like Focus On The Family or the equally powerful Family Research Council (who employ a 'homosexuality detection expert') start petitioning for PBS's funding to be cut? In a country divided over gays in the army and same-sex marriage, the representation of homosexuality for pre-school audiences is an issue PBS can't afford get mixed up in.

The overt representation of gay people in children's programming is the last TV taboo. Just as we are uncomfortable with the idea of our children having a sexuality, we mistake the gay identity for one that is based on sex and sex alone. This means that children who grow up gay do not do so in a world that encourages their acceptance. As the gay-related suicides of five US boys in their teens and twenties this September might point out, it's well time the taboo was broken.

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