Bert and Ernie are Friends

Like a lot of people my age, I spent a lot of time watching Sesame Street growing up. This was back when Mr. Hooper was still tending the store and long before Elmo showed up. Two of the best characters, at least for me, were Bert and Ernie. They were carefree and careful, silly and serious, and great friends.

A few years ago I became aware of the question about their sexuality – were they gay? It struck me as absurd. They were friends, and friends can love each other without any kind of sexuality involved. Recently, a long-time writer for the show, and Bert and Ernie specifically, said that he wrote them as a gay couple. And more than that, he had no other context from which to write about their relationship.

From the Washington Post article:

 

“I remember one time that a column from The San Francisco Chronicle, a preschooler in the city turned to mom and asked ‘are Bert & Ernie lovers’…” he told Queerty. “And I always felt that without a huge agenda, when I was writing Bert & Ernie, they were. I didn’t have any other way to contextualize them.” He added that he didn’t “know how else to write them, but as a loving couple.”

 

There is another context – a much deeper context – in which to understand the two characters: they are friends.

When a culture over-sexualizes everyone at every age regardless of gender interaction, one of the loves that suffers the most is the love of friendship. Maybe we can help re-create the context in which to understand Bert and Ernie by recapturing friendship. We will all be better off if we do.

In our Greek past, there were several words for “love” that carried with them various shades of meaning. “Eros” stood for romantic and sexual love. “Philo” or as we would know the word, “philadelphia”, stood for the kind of love that families and friends had for each other. It is often translated into English as “brotherly love.” Lovers can be friends, and it is possible for friends to not be lovers. In fact, friendship is so different from “eros” that it received extended philosophical and theological reflection in the ancient world. The human race requires eros to perpetuate the species; it needs friends to live.

Aristotle called friendship reciprocated good will. His explication of friendship in the Ethics, Book 8 is utterly non-sexual. Augustine said that humans need two things to make it in this world: life and friends. They both agree – an individual can have all the material goods and sexual partners possible, but if they lack friends, their existence is a shadow of what it could be.

C.S. Lewis thought deeply about the various kinds of love, including friendship, in his work, The Four Loves. Even in 1960 at its original publication, Lewis felt he needed to spend space on the confusion between homosexual love and friendship. He is worth hearing at length:

 

To say that every Friendship is consciously and explicitly homosexual would be too obviously false; the wiseacres take refuge in the less palpable charge that is really [under surface appearances]…homosexual. And this, though it cannot be proved, can never of course be refuted. The fact that no positive evidence of homosexuality can be discovered in the behavior of two Friends does not disconcert the wiseacres at all: “That,” they say gravely, “is just what we should expect.” The very lack of evidence is treated as evidence;…Those who cannot conceive Friendship as a substantive love but only a disguise or elaboration of Eros betray the fact that they have never had a Friend.

 

Is this where we have come to when we talk about two puppets? Because the writer cannot conceive of the context of friendship, they must be gay lovers?

The article argues that whether they are gay matters. It concludes that it matters so much, they must to be gay to teach kids about that kind of lifestyle.

I also say it matters, but for a much more lasting reason – we all need friends and need to learn how to love and live with friends. We all need to learn that we are more than our sexual urges, and that other people are far more than just potential sexual partners. I really can stand side-by-side with you through life as we head in the same direction, enjoy each other, support each other, correct each other, and yes, love each other.

It is sad to me that a smart adult says he has no other context for understanding two men who love each other. But I believe his case is indicative, not unique. And if that is true, we are losing something critical to the flourishing of the human species. The more we understand friendship the more our understanding of our neighbor is elevated; the more human and less animal they become.

I can love someone as a friend. So can you. And we will all be better off if we re-learn this kind of love.

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