Bert and Ernie, Still Not Gay: Liner Notes

I have a new column up at The Federalist, “Trying To Make Bert And Ernie Gay Makes LGBT Activists Look Insecure,” which is not the headline I would have written (though in fairness I submitted it with a headline someone else suggested). One might make the argument asserted in the headline, but the argument I make at the conclusion of the column is somewhat different. Even after accounting for the desire for clickworthy headlines, I tend to view this as a probable failure on my part to have made my point sufficiently sharp.

What I sought to suggest is that the desire on the part of the LGBTQ to claim Bert & Ernie as gay — an assertion rejected for decades by Sesame Street’s producers — is a reflection of a very specific moment in our culture. Historically less-represented groups are becoming more represented in the popular culture, but the internet age makes older, established intellectual property from the prior monoculture more valuable, incentivizing claims by rising groups on these older properties.  It’s perhaps not an idea that lends itself to an easy headline, especially when it is built on the observation that joking about Bert & Ernie being gay often used to come from latent or patent majority prejudices, making the cultural transition that much more striking.

What got left out? In sketching the evolution of the humor of imputing homosexuality, I skipped the Seinfeld episode that birthed the catchphrase “not that there’s anything wrong with that,” which I think brilliantly captured both the cultural transition under way at the time, as well as the lingering discomfort with it. Also, while the piece reflects my continuing interest in how the internet fracturing the popular culture has affected our culture and sub-cultures, I had to skip another of my favorite themes. The phenomenon described here also seems to me to be a reflection of the way consumers (esp. younger consumers) view producers as obligated to serve them in very specific ways, e.g., the tendency of college students to believe their schools must serve their psychological needs.  If you read George Gilder, supply-side economics has always been grounded in the idea of capitalism incorporating a measure of altruism in the sense of succeeding when consumer’s needs or desires are met.  But I don’t think he foresaw this particular mutation (reminder: I should effort reading some more recent Gilder).

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