NAKED BERT & ERNIE
I'm sitting on the floor with my daughter, who just turned two. She's watching me draw Ernie, of Sesame Street fame, standing shirtless in red swim trunks. In one of his hands I draw a banana; in the other, an ice cream cone. Behind him there's a red barn with a fox inside. Elmo waves from a nearby tractor. It's a fairly idyllic scene, by our standards. Then my daughter starts shouting "Bert! Bert!"
I hesitate. I know where this will lead. But my daughter gets what she wants.
I begin with Bert's face, which ends up larger than I intended. "Naked!" my daughter shouts, and so I start on Bert's shirtless body. I draw the torso big enough to match the head, but in doing so all but ensure that Bert's lower half will end up behind the barn, so I skip down and start drawing Bert's legs. That way, I can position the legs how I want them and not get tangled up by the barn later on.
Maybe I'm drawing too fast, maybe I'm flustered by my daughter's yelled commands, but soon I realize I've made a mistake: there isn't room between the legs and the torso for the boxy swimsuit I usually draw. I improvise and draw something skimpier, but then I worry my wife will think it's underwear so I color it dark purple and decide (in my mind—I say none of this to my daughter) that it's a European-style bathing suit. Then, driven by the frantic energy that sometimes overtakes me during these sessions, I find myself drawing green sparks shooting from Bert's outstretched hands. I stop drawing and sit back, a little stunned.
There's a moment of silence while my daughter admires the drawing. Then she smiles and points. "Bert," she says. "Bert naked!"
I can't remember how it started: if my daughter learned the word naked and started demanding we draw the usual characters naked, or if she demanded they be in pool or pond and so, naturally, I drew them shirtless. But really, the whole thing is almost certainly my own fault. I'm sure I stuck Bert or Ernie in a bathtub without thinking, as one of the many variations I draw in order to keep myself engaged. After you've drawn Bert and Ernie two or three hundred times, engagement is hard to maintain. Other variations include the popular "sea Bert," a sort of merman Bert with a fish tail and webbed fingers, and the less popular "crab Ernie."
However it started, we got to the point that no drawing was complete without a naked Bert or Ernie or both, or multiple naked Berts and Ernies sitting in bathtubs, other bodies of water, lying on towels at the beach, lounging under umbrellas, doing tricks on dirt bikes. Ernie smiling in a bathtub while Bert, shirtless, flies a kite. Bert, shirtless, climbing a tree to pick apples while Ernie, also shirtless, watches from within a cyclone of my daughter's scribbles. Ernie, shirtless, coming out of a tube ("tube!") while Bert, also shirtless, stands with an octopus and a second shirtless Ernie does a bicycle kick and a second shirtless Bert holds a flaming ring for a kitten to jump through. Bert and Ernie on the beach in tiny, cup-like bathtubs while a second Bert and Ernie stand with Cookie Monster in the matching leotards of circus strongmen. Bert, in a swimsuit, doing the splits on top of a brontosaurus while Ernie does the splits on a triceratops and a second Bert and Ernie stand shirtless in the foreground and a third shirtless Ernie shoots out of a tube with a smiling turtle. Ernie sleeping on a beach towel while a second shirtless Ernie holds a cupcake and a third shirtless Ernie, along with Bert, stands in a shower whose nozzle is the tentacle of an octopus ("shower oc-pus!"). Ernie inside a bathtub, only the bathtub has feet and Bert's head. A green-headed duck with Bert's face. Two fish with Bert's head and an octopus with Ernie's head. Freddie Krueger Bert accompanied by crab Ernie and snake Ernie and a snake Bert that looks, I'm afraid, less like a snake than a sperm.
Despite my daughter's commands, my wife refuses to draw Bert and Ernie shirtless, let alone naked, and recently went as far as adding shirts and pants to my own Berts and Ernies. In response, I started drawing their nipples and belly buttons in black so my wife couldn't mask them with other colors. Not to be outdone, my wife started adding t-shirts with designs on them that happened to cover the nipples and belly buttons. So one day, while my wife was out working somewhere, I drew a shirtless Bert with curly hair under his belly button, and then a shirtless Ernie with a patch of straight, sort of sickly looking hair between his nipples. When my wife came home and saw this drawing, which happened to be on the brown cardboard back of the sketchpad, she called it "gross."
The word choice bothered me, but I let it slide at the time. That my wife didn't even try to mask Bert and Ernie's hairy torsos with t-shirts made me feel guilty, so I drew them myself. But I drew them quietly, full of resentful feelings, and maybe because of this mindset I found myself drawing a big skull on Bert's t-shirt. To mask the curly hair under his belly button, I blacked out one of the skull's teeth and drew dark liquid (almost certainly blood, though I never would have said this) dripping from the socket where the tooth had been.
When she saw the t-shirt, my wife made no comment, and I felt even worse than before. To be honest, I too was bothered by the drawing. The skull t-shirt reminded me of the Iron Maiden t-shirts kids used to wear in middle school, and of the quiet surly kids who wore those t-shirts well into high-school, by which time the collars were fraying and the black had faded to the sickly color familiar to anyone who has owned black t-shirts, like all the other dark colors (gray, brown, navy) are trying, and failing, to approximate black.
What bothered me, I think, wasn't the goriness of the skull with its bloody tooth socket but the adolescent-ness of it. The adolescent quality struck me as inappropriate, I realize now, but why? The people at the Sesame Street Workshop, formerly the Children's Television Workshop, play fast and loose with the ages of their characters, so isn't it possible Bert and Ernie are meant to be seen as adolescents? If not, how old are they supposed to be?
On one hand, Bert and Ernie are portrayed as children. They do childish things like collect bottle caps and bathe with rubber ducks, and they play with all the other characters, including Elmo, the youngest. In the book The Schoolhouse, for instance, Bert and Ernie are shown as Elmo's schoolmates, and the type of activities they do (building with blocks, playing with cars, etc.) suggests they're meant to be in Kindergarten or maybe first grade. And in It's a Secret, the whole plot hinges on the fact that Bert can't count past one hundred. So how old can Bert possibly be? Seven? Eight?
On the other hand, Bert and Ernie have no parents and live together as roommates. They have, and take on, responsibilities. In the book Circle of Friends, they're shown organizing a neighborhood block party. How old would one have to be to do this? Sixteen? Eighteen? Forty, more likely. What kind of teenager offers to "decorate the square with lights and crepe paper," as Bert does? And in Bert and Ernie Go Camping, Bert and Ernie go camping—alone. How old does one have to be to venture into the wilderness unsupervised? My father was eleven when a scout master, feeling ill, sent him and his fellow scouts alone down the Pamunkey River in Virginia, but that was in the fifties, before the Manson Family. Today, I would say eighteen, i.e. college age—sixteen at the absolute earliest.
Reading this, anyone familiar with Sesame Street might argue that yes, Bert and Ernie are adults, but they seem like children because they're childish adults. This is a major category in Sesame Street. The classic example is Big Bird, who lives alone and doesn't figure in overtly childish settings like that of The Schoolhouse, but when he interacts with younger characters he converses at their level. Really, he seems to think at their level. In It's a Secret, he tries to comfort Bert for not being able to count past one hundred by 1) writing him a terrible poem, and 2) telling him that for his own part he can't count past twenty. This puts Big Bird in the dimwitted company of Telly and, more famously, the caveman-like Cookie Monster. So, do Bert and Ernie belong in this category? It's tempting to put them there, except that Bert and Ernie are never presented as dimwits. Quite the opposite. As Ernie states, when he tries to comfort Bert in It's a Secret, "Oh no, Bert! Everybody knows that you are very smart!"
The singular ambiguity of Bert and Ernie's age may stem from an important difference between them and the other characters: whereas Telly and Cookie Monster are monsters, and Big Bird is a giant bird, Bert and Ernie are quasi-human. As the main quasi-human characters, Bert and Ernie are, with the possible exception of Elmo, the characters with whom children most easily identify, and so Bert and Ernie can't be dimwitted; they have to be smart, and they must behave responsibly. They can play like children, yes, but only as long as they behave the right way, setting an example for Elmo and the kids at home. This holds true not only in their behavior but in the clothes they wear, which are, in Bert's case especially, like clothes an adult would wear, or like clothes a child would wear if that child had domineering parents who dressed him as an adult. Whether the domineering parent is real or in Bert's mind, it circumscribes his choices, and so we'll never see Bert stroll out of the apartment he shares with Ernie at 123 Sesame Street in a threadbare Iron Maiden t-shirt, let alone naked.
The upshot of the skull t-shirt incident was that I decided to ratchet things back. I didn't stop drawing Bert and Ernie shirtless, of course, but I limited myself to beach and bathtub scenes, and I was careful not to paint myself into corners that demanded European-style bathing suits. I like to think my wife and I reached an equilibrium: I drew them shirtless, she drew them clothed, and my daughter seemed to enjoy the mix of the two.
To understand what happened next, I should go into a little more detail about my process. When I draw a Bert or Ernie, I start with the face. The moment I finish the face, my daughter shouts "body!" Then, the moment I start the body, my daughter shouts "naked!" But sometimes, in my haste to finish the face before she starts shouting "body" and "naked," I'll accidentally draw the collar of Ernie's crewneck sweater or of Bert's turtleneck, which he wears beneath his v-neck sweater. I used to ignore the beginnings of the sweater and quickly sketch Bert or Ernie's naked torso, complete with nipples and belly button, to distract my daughter from the misplaced line, but recently my daughter has gotten fixated on mistakes. Maybe it's her age, or maybe it's the repetition (she knows exactly what Bert and Ernie should look like, either shirtless or clothed), but she just doesn't let mistakes go anymore.
And so, a few days after the skull t-shirt incident, I was drawing Bert for my daughter when I made the mistake of starting his turtleneck. As usual, I recovered quickly. I even jumped down and started drawing his arms, to distract her, but my daughter kept pointing at the line around Bert's neck. I told her the misplaced line on Bert's neck was "like a collar."
"Leash," my daughter said, nodding earnestly.
"That's right," I said, "a leash. Like a dog has."
My daughter started pointing at the empty space next to Bert's neck, so I had no choice but to draw a long leash extending from the collar and then, naturally, to end it with a hand.
"Ernie!" my daughter cried, and I colored the hand orange. "Ernie! Ernie!" she persisted, and so I drew the rest of Ernie's body. In my head a little voice (my wife's?) told me I should draw him clothed, or, better yet, in his traditional jeans and horizontally striped sweater, and so I did this, over my daughter's strident objections, but then what I had in front of me was a drawing of Ernie, clothed, walking Bert, half-naked, like a dog.
While my daughter ate her snack of crackers and orange pieces, I tore the drawing out of the sketchpad and stashed it in a drawer. I suppose, looking back, I should have thrown it away, but I've always been reluctant to throw away images of other people. I have a drawer full of old Christmas cards that show my friends smiling with their spouses and children. I guess that's superstitious. Now I know my superstition extends to drawings, even drawings of puppet people. Anyway, my wife found the drawing and, predictably, declared it "gross." Also predictably, I took umbrage with the word gross. I told her it was her choice not to draw Bert and Ernie naked, but that it wasn't cool to call Bert's body "gross." Neither was it cool to imply that my decision to draw that body was somehow "gross." Hadn't we had lengthy conversations about how not to make our daughter feel ashamed of her own body? Isn't that why we use the word vagina so liberally? And if we don't want her to think her own body is gross, how can we call Bert's body gross? I was saying some version of all this to my wife. Then I said, "Really, if you think about it, I should be drawing Bert's penis. But I don't. And I'm not even asking to draw his penis, only his torso and sometimes his upper thighs."
"He's on his hands and knees," my wife whispered, so my daughter, still snacking, couldn't hear her, "wearing a leash. Ernie is walking him like a fucking dog."
This was a good point. There was a difference between drawing Bert shirtless and thereby (I would argue) celebrating his body, and drawing him on his hands and knees being walked like a dog. But I couldn't let it go. As usual, I stewed in silence throughout my daughter's snack time and my own work time, which followed.
A note about work time: we were spending the semester in Oxford, where my wife was teaching, and had no daycare. My wife was taking the mornings for her own work and usually worked through the end of my daughter's nap, leaving me with a couple hours in the afternoon for my writing. It was a reasonable setup, given that my wife, a university scientist, is the breadwinner in the family, but there was part of me that resented the disparity, and so I may have taken special umbrage at criticism of my artistic methods when I was the one who had to do so much art. I was easily drawing three or four Berts for every single Bert my wife drew.
Stewing, I started to wonder if what my wife really thought was "gross," though she would never admit it, wasn't the semi-nakedness of Bert and Ernie but what that nakedness suggested about their relationship. Onetime, after drawing a Bert and Ernie with such prominent dark nipples that my wife didn't even attempt to cover them with shirts, I felt bad and drew loose, pastel-colored tank tops that covered most of their torsos without having to cover their nipples. I thought this was a clever solution. I sketched an umbrella and made it a beach scene. But my wife took one look at the ensembles and called them "totally gay." I guess I wasn't surprised. I mean, my gay friends are more likely to wear tank tops than my straight friends, but honestly the gayness or straightness of Bert and Ernie's clothing had never occurred to me.
Does calling something "totally gay" mean my wife is prejudiced against gay people? I don't think so. My wife actually identifies as bisexual, or queer, which brings me to a question: how is it that my hip, queer wife, who has a nose ring and wishes she could spend more time rock climbing, is such a prude when it comes to Bert and Ernie? Well, it turns out just about everybody is a prude when it comes to Bert and Ernie. I've made tentative ventures into this story with several people, conversationally, and I would describe their reactions as falling somewhere between "confusion" and "uncomfortable laugher." And I didn't even show them the drawings!
But I think I might be a little obtuse when it comes to this issue, maybe because I lived for so long with male roommates. It never occurred to me, during the years I spent in New York City after college, that people might have assumed I and my closest roommate, a man named Dave who's married now with a baby and a gastroenterology practice, were adult men in a closeted gay relationship. But we spent a lot of time together and, perhaps more importantly, wore similar clothes. My wife tells me older women with similar hairstyles and clothes are often lesbian partners. I had no idea. Am I naïve? Apparently, but then again, did it really matter that some people mistook Dave and me for lovers? And does it matter that Bert and Ernie, with their striped sweaters, might be romantic partners instead of just roommates? Actually, wouldn't it be preferable? Sesame Street is diverse in every other way, so why not in this way? Why not expose our children to the variety of human experience?
The book Elmo Loves You is a classic, as anyone familiar with the Sesame Street bibliography knows. In it, Elmo takes us on a tour of love in its many forms. Like a furry red Virgil, he shows us how babies love noise, kids love toys, Bert loves pigeons, pigs love mud, and the Count loves counting things. What's missing, at least in the written text, is any mention of romantic love. This is particularly strange considering that Elmo Loves You is a sort of Valentine's Day book, full of pink and purple hearts. The book ends with Elmo asking for a kiss. Your kid kisses the book, at which point Elmo, on the next page, declares, "Thank you! Elmo is a happy monster." Now, are all kisses romantic? Of course not. Are all valentines romantic? No. Little kids exchange valentines at school. But in a book about the varieties of love, isn't it a little odd that romantic love is so downplayed?
Downplayed, but not absent. On three occasions, characters are shown in what might be described as romantic situations. The first happens at the library. The written text is as follows: "Zoe loves the library. Grover loves it, too. Elmo whispers quietly, ‘Elmo loves you!'" In the foreground, Zoe and Grover read together. In the background, Elmo peeps out from behind a bookshelf. There are two other kid-like puppets—one is taking out a book, the other is reading on the floor—and also two adult puppets. We know they're adults because one, the male puppet, has feet that reach the floor even though he's sitting in a large armchair. The other, the female puppet, is a librarian. The "romantic situation" is that, although the man is reading and the woman, some distance away, is carrying a stack of books, they're glancing at each other and smiling demurely. Their glance might be described as "stolen."
The second romantic situation comes near the end of the book, in a sort of montage. Two monsters (they're furry) are shown sharing a drink, and we can tell romantic love is meant to be implied because there's a heart around them and they're gazing sidelong into each other's eyes. Also, one of their hands (paws?) is resting on the other's. There are a few noteworthy things about this pair. One, they're stuck in the bottom corner, as if to de-emphasize them. The center of the page is dominated by a heart containing Ernie and his rubber duck. Two, they're adults. You can tell from the male monster's collar and necktie. Three, they're no-name monsters. The male monster resembles Herry, but he's orange, whereas Herry is blue. Murray is orange but this monster looks nothing like Murray. In other words, these monsters are a tier below even Herry and Murray, two of the least used monsters in the Sesame Street stable.
The third romantic situation—nearby on the same page, and then again on the following page—is that of a pair of twiddlebugs clasping hands and gazing at each other in front of a red heart. For those of you unfamiliar, twiddlebugs are tiny puppets halfway between humans (they have arms and legs, eyes) and bugs (wings, antennae). They're very small and can be found at night in Bert and Ernie's window box. Here, we can tell one is female because she has eyelashes, and so we infer this is some sort of heterosexual romantic love situation, but whether it's hetero- or homosexual doesn't really matter; what matters is that, yet again, romantic love is left to anonymous characters in the background or periphery of the book. If you're reading with a very young child, she's unlikely to ask you questions about these characters. My daughter, for instance, is much more likely to point at Ernie and bark either "Ernie!" or "duck!" And on the library page, she's so busy pointing at Grover and Zoe, and saying "peekaboo!" to Elmo, that she doesn't seem to notice the older humanoid puppets with their boring stolen glance.
More shocking yet: these downplayed, marginal instances of romantic love are the only ones in the entire catalog, as far as I know. I've scoured the books we own and have borrowed from the library. When I found one possible exception, involving the Count, I was informed by my sister-in-law, whose children are six and four, that the purple female puppet standing with the Count in Friendly Frosty Monsters while the Count counts snowflakes isn't his wife but his mother. I found this shocking. The count has his hand on the back of the bejeweled woman, who, judging by their matching faces, is exactly the same age as the Count. Okay, maybe she's ageless, an undead, but still, why not give the Count a wife? A girlfriend? A boyfriend? He's an eligible bachelor. His castle is huge. It's as though the people at the Sesame Street Workshop are going out of their way to avoid entangling important characters in romantic situations, or even implying that there's any romance in their lives.
I find this disheartening. Romance is a big part of life. My wife and I are engaged in a long-term romantic relationship, and eventually our daughter will (I hope) take a romantic interest in someone. I can imagine that Sesame Street characters could help our daughter understand the nature of romance just as, for example, P Is for Potty helps her understand the nature and use of potties.
Maybe if we watched the TV show instead of just reading the books, we would see romantic love everywhere, but I doubt it. Gordon and Susan are married, sure, but would we ever see them renew their vows? Would we ever see Big Bird sit down with Zoe for an earnest conversation about her unrequited crush on Elmo? Would we ever hear the Count sing a song about the pros and cons of lifelong bachelorhood?
I hope I don't sound greedy or ungrateful. My complaints, like my drawings, come out of love. My daughter loves the Sesame Street characters. When she sees Bert and Ernie on the cover of a book at the library, she'll get so excited that she buries her face in my side. Sometimes I'll start reading the book and she'll say "No, no," as though the pleasure of hearing about Bert and Ernie is just too much for her. And I'm excited too. "Look at this one!" I'll hear myself saying, if I find a Hautzig/Mathieu title that wasn't at the library the last time we visited. "Grover's Bad Dream! What's that about?"
The books (like the show, I imagine) represent only glimpses of what has become, for us, a Sesame Street world. While we appreciate the glimpses the Sesame Street Workshop and writers like Deborah Hautzig have chosen to offer, we know that to make the rest of the world is up to us. We make it in our minds, with our imaginations, and if we make up something we really like, why not bring it to life ourselves, on the page?
Thought of that way, our drawings become a sort of fan fiction. We love these characters so much that we want to tell more stories about them, and to see them in different situations. Earlier, I implied that the many variations I draw of Bert and Ernie (crab Ernie, Freddy Krueger Bert, etc.) are the products of boredom, and that's true, to some degree, but they also come from a place of exuberance. It was exuberance that caused me to draw sparks shooting from Bert's hands as he loomed, gigantic and shirtless, behind the barn.
And yes, it has occurred to me that my exuberance in creating my so-called "variations" has led me to draw variations that verge into the realm of slash fiction. But isn't slash fiction just a variety of fan fiction? To cite the classic example, some enthusiasts aren't satisfied writing fan fiction about Kirk and Spock discovering yet another alien race and saving the galaxy; instead, they describe Spock taking Kirk in his strong but tender arms for a passionate kiss on the holodeck. In the interest of honesty—and here I'm being more honest than I've been with my wife, so far—I should admit that sometimes, after I draw swim trunks, if my daughter is still shouting "naked," I'll hear myself saying things like "Well, maybe Bert will strip off his trunks when he goes in the water." What Bert and Ernie do while they're naked in the water is left to the imagination, my daughter's and mine separately. But whatever they do, they don't have to wear the same sweaters every day of their lives. They can take off their shirts, swim in the ocean, and shoot naked through tubes. They can ride dinosaurs and leap with kittens through flames. They can ride in hot air balloons over trees that grow baby ducks. They can sail the high seas while at the same time living as squid-men beneath the waves.
Naked Bert and Ernie get to do what they want, in other words. And they're free to be who they—and we—want to be.
In case you're interested less in watching Sesame Street than in reading the books again and again, here are my top ten:
1) It's a Secret (1988), written by Deborah Hautzig / illustrated by Tom Leigh
2) Grover's Bad Dream (1990), Hautzig / Joe Mathieu
3) A Visit to the Sesame Street Museum (1987), Liza Alexander / Mathieu
4) My Name Is Elmo (1993), Constance Allen / Maggie Swanson
5) Happy Halloween (2014), Lillian Jaine / Ernie Kwiat
6) I Don't Want to Go to School (2001), Sarah Albee / Tom Brannon
7) Sleep Tight (1991), Allen / David Prebenna
8) What's Up in the Attic? (1987), Alexander / Tom Cooke
9) I Think that It Is Wonderful (1984), David Corr / A. Delaney
10) A Visit to the Sesame Street Library (1986), Hautzig / Mathieu