Friday, June 28, 2013

the "Bert and Ernie are gay" thing says a lot

So this trope is old, but here's the New Yorker's new cover:


I would argue that this is in fact a really unfortunate portrayal of common attitudes. First, it's actually not conducive to gay rights or gay dignity to act as though every close male relationship is necessarily a sexual or romantic relationship. But worse, this is subtly a perfect distillation of how your average liberal views gay people, as Muppets: sexless, harmless, inoffensive, childish, silly, and ultimately mere fodder for the condescending entertainment of straight people.

Personally, I don't think that a group that has for decades labored against a brutally oppressive regime that humiliated them, assaulted them, and systematically denied them equal rights should be analogized to imaginary characters that have been built out of felt for the edutainment of children, nor that American liberalism's obsession with meaningless symbolism and empty uplift is a long-term strategy for success. 

34 comments:

Mr. said...

Well, they do sleep in the same bedroom. Separate beds, though.

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

Given this week's decision, and the generally overwhelming progress of gay rights in the last twenty years, I'd say meaningless symbolism and empty uplift has proven an excellent strategy for success.

Freddie said...

If you think that these recent victories have been the result of straight people saying "awwwwwwwww" over meaningless images like this one, rather than the tireless efforts of thousands of activists who did the hard, day-to-day work organizing, of protesting, of primarying, of fundraising, of letter stuffing, of pressuring, and of agitating, you are profoundly ignorant. I assure you: the right to marry has not been a gift given to gay people by straight people who were moved by Will and Grace. It has been won by fierce effort over many decades by gay people.

Freddie said...

I don't mean to be a dick, I really don't. But I've seen so many friends on Facebook post pictures of gay people celebrating the end of DOMA and then literally writing "awwwwwwwwwwww" under it, or similar. That's not how you show respect to people who have participated in such a pitched battle for basic rights! The goal should be equal rights and equal dignity for all people. We've come a long way on the former. But I would argue we're getting worse on the latter, and it's okay for me to celebrate the legal victories while lamenting the attitudes.

Tim Donaghy said...

It's probably not scientifically accurate to judge what your "average liberal" thinks by a tired, jokey NYr cover.

Freddie said...

No, I know. I'm just reacting to people I know-- my Facebook feed, my friends at school, my friends back home.

Ethan Gach said...

The revolution will not come about because of Buzzfeed listicles, profile pics on facebook, or a Tumblr image that gets a ton of <3's.

It will not happen within the confines of neat and tidy emotions, warm feelings, or funny one liners from the Daily Show.

Remember, if there's no sweat and discomfort involved--you're doing it wrong.

Brett said...

When I was a kid and watching it, I always thought they were brothers.

Freddie said...

Let me put it this way Fuzzy: I don't doubt the importance of symbolism, but I am sensitive (maybe too sensitive) to the suggestion that symbolism comes first. And, at the same time, the symbolism of this particular image and trope disturbs me because I think it points to a broader problem with a common portrayal of gay people.

giandujakiss said...

If we lived in a world where gay people regularly appeared on TV, and children's shows, living their lives, being heroes, etc, this complaint would make sense to me. But in the actual world, sometimes you have to "read" close same-sex relationships as gay just to see gay people in pop culture at all.

jw said...

Your point is well taken, but you're giving Muppets kind of a bad rap here, man.

giandujakiss said...

I'll add that I'm apparently not the only person who feels this way - the cover was posted to the AfterEllen blog, here: http://afterellen.tumblr.com/post/54097460593

nathan said...

Meaningless symbolism and empty uplift can have profound cultural effects: it's why Martin Luther King urged Nichelle Nichols to remain on Star Trek when she thought of leaving. I'd argue that positive cultural portrayals of gay people, whether intentional like Will and Grace or suggested like Bert and Ernie, helped bring us to this point, at least as much as the hard, necessary work of activists and organizers.

Ethan Gach said...

"Meaningless symbolism and empty uplift can have profound cultural effects"

It's not meaningless then, is it?

nathan said...

@Ethan

I agree with you. I was quoting the end of Freddie's blog post.

Ethan Gach said...

Just to be clear, Bert and Ernie are not openly gay, correct? So everyone claiming that this image sends the message to kids that it's alright to be who you are, are leaving out the apparent fact, via that reading of Bert and Ernie, that it's still not alright to openly be who you are?

nathan said...

I think you're reaching. It's a sly joke about public perception, like the Obama fist-bump cover from 2008.

Ethan Gach said...

So it is a joke then?

nathan said...

No, it's a manifesto. It's the beginning of The New Yorker's "One Felt, One Love" campaign.

Jonathan M said...

The pictures I see this sort of caption under are ones of, say, gay couples kissing in celebration. "Awww" is a normal way for well-adjusted people to react to pictures of humans - gay or straight - expressing love for one another. But if you insist on viewing them not as two people in love but instead as a means to yet again promote your unreachable standards of political purity, that's fine, too.

JoeVol said...

Freddie, you've touched on this topic before and it makes me think that there's a better academic conversation to be had. Perhaps articulate the relationship between symbolism and real, material effect in the world? This is a MAJOR tension in the academy and one that I have to navigate all the time in my own research. I work in the field of environmental education, where the symbolic and the material are intimately related. I've since rooted my work in the philosophy of critical realism and recommend that rabbit-hole if you get some time.

Gerry Canavan said...

I think it would be interesting to put this in conversation with something like Will Brooker's BATMAN UNMASKED, which has a lot of interest in queer readings of Batman and Robin that originates in the gay audience of the comics (exactly as giandujakiss suggests upthread). Or Kirk/Spock slash fiction.

Personally I always thought the "Bert and Ernie are gay" thing was silly, borderline offensive trolling until I started watching the show as an adult with my daughter. The idea that this is actually a long-term romantic relationship rather than a friendly one is basically skin-deep: they're together constantly, they bicker but obviously care deeply for one another, thy have no evident boundaries of the sort you might see between male roommates, and indeed they sleep in the same room in matched twin beds like heterosexual married couples from early TV sitcoms. A third or more of the modern Bert and Ernie sketches take place at night, with Ernie refusing to let Bert sleep. As far as queer readings go it's pretty much a slow pitch -- and that's not even getting into the Muppets' larger history of queer and drag characters and performers (or children's entertainment more generally, for that matter).

I think Freddie's characterization above is provocative, and I've certainly seen a bunch of liberal condescension towards gays and lesbians in the last few days, but there's a perspective from which this is not only harmless but actively trying to foster a world in which you *could* have Bert and Ernie be gay on a children's program and no one would bat an eye. I don't think it's necessary all bad, and find the cover itself to be pretty effective at suggesting an old, loving couple amazed and moved by the way the world has changed. (@studentactivism was talking about this all morning on Twitter and has a good reading of the image, I think.)

Gerry Canavan said...

Oh, he wrote it up as a blog post:

http://studentactivism.net/2013/06/28/ernie-and-bert-and-the-new-yorker/

ohtarzie said...

"I'd argue that positive cultural portrayals of gay people, whether intentional like Will and Grace or suggested like Bert and Ernie, helped bring us to this point, at least as much as the hard, necessary work of activists and organizers."

The two aren't separate. So-called positive cultural portrayals aren't possible until the hard, necessary activism -- which includes media activism -- has brought things to a certain point.

ohtarzie said...

I kinda like both Freddie's and Gerry's reading of the New Yorker cover, by the way, and don't see them as necessarily contradicting each other. I think everything Gerry says could be true and the cover would stil be reductive and condescending.

I was actually shocked by how patronizing a lot of people were this week. Along with the Awws at cute gay couples, there was also a lot of 'now let's move on to important stuff', constant reminders of the VRA defeat, plus of course all the radicals who are very disappointed that queers haven't toppled capitalism yet.

We're still very much on the margins, despite appearances.

Lorraine said...

It's long been a matter of record that Ernie and Bert are not gay, but then came the musical Avenue Q, with voices that sound exactly like Ernie and Bert, to muddy up the waters, I guess.

Drew Johnson said...

At least Tyler Coates agrees with you: http://flavorwire.com/401071/the-new-yorkers-bert-and-ernie-doma-cover-is-infantilizing-and-offensive

Unknown said...

Freddie, I read your post and my response is, "you have got to be kidding."

The average liberal most certainly doesn't view gay people as harmless, sexless Muppets. That's ridiculous. You're more-or-less slandering the views of a huge subsection of the populace (liberals) by saying that they are insufficiently respectful of other people's dignity.

If you're going to make that argument about "the average liberal" you had damn well better have a LOT more to base it on than some posts on your Facebook feed. It is a serious overreaction and you are seeing things that aren't there.

The image quite obviously is not intended to portray all gay people as Muppets -- it is intended to evoke an "awwwwww" moment by showing us this week's events from the perspective of characters we can identify with and already have nostalgic feelings for.

Having a moment of happiness for those characters and the gay community more generally in *no way* diminishes the the hard work of everyone who has organized and spoken and fought and suffered to make this possible. I am certainly capable of holding those two thoughts in my head at the same time and I'm sure the "average liberal" is as well.

You need to lighten up.

(Whether or not Bert and Ernie were intended by their creators to be gay, or be seen as gay, I have no idea but the joke is well-known enough that the "awwww"-moment definitely works.)

Jon Smith said...

After your post where you lament that gays aren't doing it right (the whole fight for equality thing...), I think you're the last person who should be mocking other people for how they see gays (of course, you also just completely made it up and projected it on the average liberal).

Seriously, you view gay people not as people, but as a more flaming version of Nathan Lane in the bird cage. Work on your own prejudices and caricatures before you go bomb throwing.

Tim Wayne said...

This is the dumbest thing I've read all day.

Heliopause said...

Freddie, I've just had an interesting experience. When I first read this I was tending to think that you were off-base, but after reading relentless and self-satisfied mockery on a couple of liberal blogs I'm more inclined to see it your way.

Freddie said...

Here's the fundamental thing about Balloon Juice, LGM, et al, Heliopause: the commenters go apeshit about me because I have a healthy, adult attitude towards their opinion. Which is to say, I don't care. It is entirely irrelevant to me what nameless, faceless people have to say about me on the internet. That should be the social expectation; to be an adult who has actual convictions, you should expect that some majority of strangers will not like you and will say so. But the internet is a strange place, and it's filled with people without particularly healthy emotional lives. So those people tend to get very emotionally invested in not liking me, which they express in over-the-top derision. Typical of that sort of behavior, it reveals far more about them than it does about me.

They have an opinion about me. I don't have an opinion about them. That's all that really matters to me.

dhollings said...

Bert and Ernie are not gay. Ernie is Bert's illegitimate son from a spring break fling.

Don O'Neill said...

I've missed reading your posts for the last few weeks, Freddie. Hope you are well.