Should Bert and Ernie Get Married? A Queer Feminist Perspective on LGBT Characters in Popular Media
The Internet has been all a-flutter the past few days with an unlikely question: Should Bert & Ernie get married on Sesame Street?
There have been a number of responses, from those claiming that queer representation for young children is crucial and Sesame Street should use the puppet-roommates to get back to its slightly subversive roots, to those suggesting that queer human characters make more sense, to those who are concerned that gay marriage might ruin the innocence of Sesame Street. The powers that be have explained that the Sesame Street puppets are not human, and therefore, don’t marry.
I’m not too invested in the outcome of the Sesame Street question, but I do think this is a good time to look at queer characters, and more broadly, what TV and film should be doing from a queer feminist perspective. My suggestions fall into two major categories.
1. Diversity. Having queer characters in film and TV is important. Having no queer characters is obviously harmful to those growing up with no examples, without media bothering to mention that queer people exist. Kids growing up in schools where queer people aren’t mentioned have a particular need for media examples. But portraying queer people as a monolith can be just as harmful. I’m less concerned about the fact that there are queer people than I am about who they are and what they say.
The absolute number of queer characters is less important than having queer characters who are people of color, who are trans, who are both poor and rich, who have disabilities, who are young and old, who are partnered and single, those for whom queerness is a big part of a character and those for whom it’s no big thing, who live in a variety of circumstances and have a variety of attitudes. To me, married Bert & Ernie symbolizes the current mainstream LGB(T) movement’s obsessive focus on the priorities of coupled middle class gay and lesbians. I want to see shows about prison including trans people of color, hell, I want to see any transgendered characters that aren’t caricatures. I want to see single gay men who aren’t partyboy stereotypes. I want to see young, smart, single lesbians. I want to see realistically portrayed bisexual people. I want to see queer people disagreeing with each other. TV has done a little better with this in recent years, but it has a way to go.
2. Values. Even in a show or film that has no queer characters, there are clear improvements that can be made from a queer feminist perspective. Although portraying queer people is important, in some ways it’s less about representation that it is about values. Again, the existence of queer people is less important than what they say, and I’d add to that the observation that non-queer characters can say powerful things. Beyond dialogue and characters, the writers can also send valuable messages through plot, framing, and story arcs. I’m not advocating after school special style talks about queer issues, politics, or feminist theory. I don’t think these are all that effective with a general audience. What can be effective, though, is more subtle.
Our goals as queer feminists are broad and require massive structural change. I’d like to see media tugging at those structures–for example, through heterosexual teen characters who don’t play to a sexual/relationship script where the characters seem to magically know what the other one is or should be thinking. Or how about a plot that challenges xenophobic attitudes towards immigrants? I’ve seen some great treatment of racism through complex characters of color and direct confrontation of the stereotypes that exist in our society, but we need more of that, and we need it to expand. I’d love to see more characters in ethical polyamorous relationships, challenging the commonly-understood relationship script. I’d love to see more realistic portrayals of people with disabilities that don’t take on the “magical healing” trope or the “superhero TAB person who actually cares about a disabled person hooray” trope. I could go on and on, but if we’re asking writers and directors for change, I think it may be more effective to think about the structural problems that exist from our perspective and how media can portray those problems and suggest change, rather than simply suggesting that we’d be satisfied to see more queer faces.
A few of the articles mentioned above on the Bert & Ernie thing: