Gay or nay, let's let muppets be puppets
August 16, 2011/the AGE
"That's what Bert and Ernie are, old buddies. We should leave them alone so they can continue their job of entertaining generations of children." Photo: AP
When I was a television producer I was told one thing: your job is to entertain. I imagine Bert and Ernie, stars of Sesame Street, receive a similar brief from their producers. But the loveable pair have become unwittingly embroiled in a politically correct argument about their sexuality.
So here we go again. Has anyone noticed Bert and Ernie are puppets? They're constructed of cotton, wire and acrylic hair. Their purpose is to distract, educate and entertain millions of porridge-munching children sitting in high chairs.
Sesame Street makes no bones about wanting to be entertaining and educational. It was created to help children from low-income families be better prepared for school, ''to think, dream and discover; to reach their highest potential''. The founders realised that television could be a powerful tool to assist children's learning.
But when Lair Scott launched his online petition for marrying Bert and Ernie, to ''teach'' acceptance of gays and lesbians, it ignited international debate.
Producers explained: ''Bert and Ernie are best friends. They were created to teach preschoolers that people can be good friends with those who are very different from themselves. Even though they are identified as male characters and possess many human traits and characteristics … [they] do not have a sexual orientation.''
Censorship is one thing. No one wants toddlers exposed to issues that are disturbing or frightening. But manipulating children's entertainment as a platform for individual causes is pure politically correct interference in childhood.
In the early days of Australian television the screens were filled with westerns, many, like Rin Tin Tin and Broken Arrow aimed at children. Scene after scene depicted American soldiers and cowboys pursuing ''red Indians'', always portrayed as the baddies, until they were shot and felled from their horses.
We are more sensitive to the real story of the indigenous American in the 21st century and these shows have gradually disappeared from the studios. Like all my childhood friends, I played backyard games of cowboys and Indians for hours, decked out with plastic guns and a broad-brimmed hat, blithely shooting at pretend Indians until it was time for dinner.
Not once did the antics of my childhood influence my adult understanding and empathy for the plight of marginalised populations.
Poor Noddy has experienced anti-racist and anti-sexist slurs for years. The friendly fellow was carved into life in the late 1940s and Enid Blyton's depiction of his encounters reflected the life and society in which she lived. But he's since been accused of having all sorts of questionable relationships with Big Ears and has been re-engineered to be politically correct to within an inch of his little blue hat.
The danger in creating a monotone environment for our kids is that it builds parameters around a child's imagination - the first step to killing their creativity.
Television and books tell us so much about our past, how our country evolved and what we have learnt. Social history is destroyed when Noddy is rewritten. And Lair Scott is attempting to compartmentalise Bert and Ernie to suit his argument. Surely this is antithetical to the freedom of choice he desires in his personal crusade.
We have no right to inflict adult opinions into the world of our child's imagination. The magic of watching a child enjoy Sesame Street for what it is, an entertainment filled with colour and music, should be left alone. There are plenty of current affairs shows for political activists and do-gooders to air their issues.
Here's how Bert describes himself on the Sesame Street website: ''I am the long-suffering sidekick of Ernie. I am more mature, analytical, and the voice of reason in our relationship. ''Some might view me as eccentric because I collect bottle caps and paper clips, play the tuba, and love Bernice, my pet pigeon. I'm not always a willing participant in Ernie's escapades because I always sense that the tables are destined to be turned on me, or that I will end up with the short end of the stick! In the end, however, I always forgive Ernie, forever remaining his 'old buddy'."
That's what Bert and Ernie are, old buddies. We should leave them alone so they can continue their job of entertaining generations of children.