Editorial: ‘Sesame Street’ misses educational opportunity


Wikimedia Commons/Children’s Television Workshop

Bert and Ernie perform in a scene in the 1978 TV special, “Christmas Eve on Sesame Street.”

By The Pitt News Editorial Board

This past week has been a rough one for children’s television.

The National Rifle Association pounced on “Thomas & Friends” last week for creating two new female characters from African countries. This week, Sesame Workshop provoked conversation about Bert and Ernie, the beloved roommates of “Sesame Street,” when it denied the idea that the two characters are gay.

For a show that has made concerted efforts to portray the kind of diversity that children experience in real life, this is a disappointing revelation. Sesame Workshop could and should have used the idea as an important teaching moment.

The debate over Bert and Ernie’s relationship status isn’t new, but Mark Saltzman, writer of the two characters for 15 years, reopened it on Tuesday when he told Queerty that he’d always considered the two characters to be a couple.

“I always felt that without a huge agenda, when I was writing Bert & Ernie, they were [a couple],” Saltzman told the gay and lesbian news and entertainment website. “I didn’t have any other way to contextualize them.”

Sesame Workshop responded to Saltzman’s comment with a statement via Twitter, saying that “Bert and Ernie were created to be best friends, and to teach young children that people can get along with those who are very different from themselves.”

While this was an important lesson to teach almost 50 years ago at the show’s conception and remains important today, “Sesame Street” missed an opportunity to address a topic that we can discuss more openly in 2018. The show has already made efforts recently to introduce characters of all backgrounds and start a discussion of diverse topics.

The show introduced Alex, a muppet whose father was incarcerated, in 2013 — an issue that touches about 2.7 million children in the United States, according to a 2014 Rutgers University study. About 10 million children across the country have experienced the imprisonment of a parent during their life.

The show introduced Julia, a muppet with autism, in 2017, who taught children about disabilities which they may never have been exposed to before. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated earlier this year that one in 59 U.S. children fall somewhere on the autism spectrum.

According to data from the Family Equality Council, in 2017 about 2 to 3.7 million children in the United States had an LGBTQ+ parent, about 200,000 of whom were being raised by a same-sex couple. This is a large demographic that “Sesame Street” could reach and include in their discussion of diversity — but the show chose to deny children this opportunity to see their own lives reflected on television, and to deny parents the chance to start a meaningful conversation with their children.

Curious children will likely still ask their parents about the nature of Bert and Ernie’s relationship — regardless of what Sesame Workshop says — and parents can decide how to use that as a teaching moment. But the show’s dismissal of the possibility that the puppets could be partners shows a disappointing unwillingness to further their current conversation about equality and acceptance across the board.

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