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Can America Afford Not to Let Bert and Ernie Get Married?

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Bert and Ernie may be Muppets with nothing but a human arm occupying their undercarriages, but that's never stopped fans from wondering what they might get up to between the sheets.

For years, the longtime Sesame Street roommates with the bickering, Odd Couple-ish dynamic have been subject to speculation about their sexuality. Now, with gay marriage legal in the Muppets' home state of New York, calls have intensified for the pair to push the twin beds in their shared bedroom together and finally make their relationship official.

An online petition asking the show to let the two marry has gone viral this week, attracting thousands of online cosigners who think an open gay relationship on Sesame Street would be an important step for gay rights and acceptance.

Sesame Street's producers have never approved of the rumors about the confirmed-bachelor Muppets, though, and they took to their Facebook page this afternoon to shoot down the idea that the puppets' cohabitation could be anything but platonic. We reproduce their post in full:

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 (as most Sesame Street Muppets do), they remain puppets, and do not have a sexual orientation.

Sounds definitive, right? But on closer examination, this is a classic non-denial denial. To call Bert and Ernie “best friends” doesn't preclude a romantic relationship: Many humans, after all, describe their significant other as a best friend.

And to say puppets “do not have a sexual orientation” is a curious line of argument when anyone who's seen a Kermit-and-Miss-Piggy sketch knows that sexual attraction, and acting on it even aggressively, aren't outside the bounds of normal Muppet behavior.

If anything, denying Muppets have a sexual orientation can be read as acknowledging that gender preferences are fluid in Muppet society. Which certainly doesn't do much to dissuade advocates of a Bert-and-Ernie romance.

Another way to read the Muppet Workshop's statement is: Please get off our backs with this gay stuff. Our bosses at the Public Broadcasting Service are scared to death of inflaming the Christian right at a moment of crisis when Congress is obsessed with cutting spending and Republicans have already proposed to strip funding from public broadcasting.

Of course, there's been a backlash from the pearl-clutching crowd, who argue that children shouldn't be exposed to gay relationships (nevermind that many kids have gay parents), or that Sesame Street is no place for romance of any kind (conveniently ignoring that characters on the show have married before.)

Still, it's clear that, for whatever reason, the suits behind Sesame Street will only skirt around this issue. So let's go to the evidence.

Exhibit 1: The Tweet
Last fall's smoking gun, if you will, that led many to believe Bert had outed himself, sparking a round of media pondering of Muppet sexuality.

For those not in the know, 'mo is a common shortening for homo. As the Los Angeles Times wrote in its exegesis of Sesame Street's apparent "gay-friendly vibe:"

Ed Kennedy of the gay pop culture site noted that the tweet came during a week when many cities were hosting Gay Pride celebrations. "The people at Sesame Street are way too clever for their own good," he wrote.

They really are. No one would accuse Sesame Street of employing witless writers, and it strains credulity to think the Muppet Workshop could have been made that joke inadvertently. If they weren't trying to out Bert, they were at least tipping their hats in that direction.

Exhibit 2: The Great Adventure

Here's the intro to Bert and Ernie's Great Adventure, the standalone short claymation series that debuted in 2008. Some consider this the point where Jim Henson's successors dropped the subtle nods in favor of unreservedly winking camp.

Does this one even require comment? We think not. If you don't see it, though, here's a conservative parent airing her qualms regarding what, exactly, is meant by lyrics like "every time the bed gets tapping / something special's gonna happen."

Now, there's little question that a marriage of two iconic puppets would be a watershed moment for the burgeoning gay-marriage movement. Some will complain this would amount to the federal government using taxpayer-funded broadcasting to force cultural liberalism onto the public. It's not our place to wade into that debate.

But since we're in the aforementioned budgetary crisis mode, it's worth looking at the economic impact of foisting acceptance of gay marriage on the heartland.

The New York Times' Economix blog notes:
(In) 2004, the Congressional Budget Office released a study on the economic effects of legalizing same-sex marriage in all 50 states and on the federal level, estimating that the changes would improve the federal budget’s bottom line by $1 billion a year over a decade.

More specifically, the Christian Science Monitor explains, as quoted in MarketWatch:
The CBO calculates that same-sex couples would boost Social Security spending, because the partner of a deceased worker would receive 100 percent of the worker's benefit. But the federal government would save money on Supplemental Security Income, Medicaid, and Medicare.
Add that to the stimulative effects of more marriages on the private economy -- Forbes estimates an instant $17 billion windfall -- and you're left with one question:

Can America afford not to let Bert and Ernie marry?
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