If you’re in the Muppet fandom—a Muppethead, a Fraggle Groupie, a Sesame Stan—you’ve heard the big news that Bert and Ernie are officially Extremely Not-Gay Puppets. Following claims by former Sesame Street writer Mark Saltzman that the characters were written with a gay relationship in mind, Frank Oz took to Twitter to reaffirm the Muppets’ heterosexuality. Shortly afterward, the long-running show issued an official statement backing his claims.
As somebody who’s owned at least one Fozzie plush in my lifetime, it’s not like I want to be petty enough to pull receipts on Frank Oz to argue Muppet sexuality. I don’t want to be—but I am. I’m going to pull receipts.
Why should we think Bert and Ernie are in a platonic, heterosexual-male relationship? Let’s look at the facts.
1. Bert and Ernie are designed to show preschoolers how to navigate the challenges of a platonic friendship with somebody very different from yourself. Making this relationship canonically romantic would introduce new complications, and also hold less relevance and relatability, for preschoolers.
2. Homophobic people buy a lot of plush Muppets, and Muppeteers gotta eat.
3. Unbeknownst to all of us, the upcoming season of Sesame Street involves a huge story line centered around Ernie’s heterosexual relationship with a female Muppet, and there is a scene in which he says out loud, “I have never been gay, or even bi.” The scene is already shot, and removing it would disrupt the narrative of the entire season.
Sesame Street kind of mentioned reason No. 1 in its statement on Twitter: “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.”
Bert and Ernie can’t have a sexual orientation because they’re puppets? But wait—Kermit and Miss Piggy are pretty clearly heterosexual. Pepe the King Prawn is sexually attracted to both muppets and humans. Undoubtedly, Gonzo has eyes for Camilla the Chicken (again, no judgment).
Why is Sesame Street forcing me to contemplate the details of Muppet physiology? I don’t want to know if Muppets have genitals, but I do know Muppets can procreate. In the Muppets Most Wanted song “Something So Right,” Kermit and Miss Piggy sing about their dreams of a life together, with the lyrics describing “a little pink frog and a little green piggy.” The fantasy sequence in the film shows the Muppet children, looking like a perfect genetic mix of both parents.
Is this the world Frank Oz envisions, of soulless plush creatures living in this hellscape where they can eat and breed and feel pain and die, but not fall in love?
In Muppets Most Wanted, Kermit and Miss Piggy plan a wedding, and way back in The Muppets Take Manhattan (directed by Frank Oz), they were actually married. If Muppet marriage is legal, is gay Muppet marriage legal? What does marriage mean to a Muppet? Are these platonic marriages, devoid of attraction or physical love?
Even specifically within the Sesame Street canon, we see Muppet romantic pairings and family units. Elmo has a mother and father, who are married. He has an extended family of aunts, uncles and cousins. In the special episode "When Families Grieve," Elmo visits his Muppet aunt, who is a Muppet widow after the recent death of Elmo’s Uncle Jack.
So, Muppets can die now too? What did he die of? Can a Muppet die in a violent accident? That makes the comedy sketches with Beaker and Dr. Bunsen Honeydew seem a lot grimmer in hindsight. Did Uncle Jack have a Muppet terminal illness? Did he go to Muppet war? (Muppet wars exist, right?)
Is this the world Frank Oz envisions, of soulless plush creatures living in this hellscape where they can eat and breed and feel pain and die, but not fall in love? After hours of arguing on Twitter with fans upset by his statement, Oz finally signed off with one last message: “Thanks for those who tweeted with me. Next time, I would be very interested to know: If Bert and Ernie were indeed gay, would they be different than they are now?”
It’s a good question, Foz. So, why is it so important that they not be?