Gay lovers or asexual lifemates? The debate over Sesame Street's Bert and Ernie continues.
Sesame Workshop, the education company behind the iconic US kids' TV series, has issued a statement denying claims by an ex-writer that the two Muppets were written as a gay couple.
In an interview with LGBTQ publication Queerty published this week, former Sesame Street writer Mark Saltzman appeared to confirm Bert and Ernie were gay lovers.
Ernie and Bert, lovers… or not?
Saltzman, who began as a writer on the show in 1984, said he based the characters on his own relationship with late partner Arnold Glassman.
"I don't think I'd know how else to write them, but as a loving couple," Saltzman told Queerty.
"That's what I had in my life, a Bert and Ernie relationship. How could it not permeate? The things that would tick off Arnie would be the things that would tick off Bert. How could it not?"
But on Wednesday, the Sesame Workshop issued a statement denying Saltzman's claims.
"As we have always said, 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," the company's statement read.
"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."
The company has long refuted suggestions the two characters are gay.
In 1993, amid pop culture conjecture and conservative backlash, the Workshop issued a statement saying the characters "do not portray a gay couple, and there are no plans for them to do so in the future".
"They are puppets, not humans," the company said at the time.
In 2002, they threatened legal action against Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Peter Spears over a parody documentary which depicted Bert and Ernie as a heated couple.
Still, suggestions around the characters' sexual orientation have persisted. In 2013, following passing of the US's same-sex marriage law, The New Yorker released a cover image showing Bert and Ernie snuggling on a sofa as they watched TV news coverage of the landmark event, which went viral.
Filmmaker Frank Oz, who was the creator and original puppeteer behind Bert on Sesame Street, took to Twitter to back the company's stance.
"It seems Mr Mark Saltzman was asked if Bert and Ernie are gay. It's fine that he feels they are. They're not, of course. But why that question? Does it really matter? Why the need to define people as only gay? There's much more to a human being than just straightness or gayness," he wrote.
In this week's interview, Saltzman also suggested Snuffalupagus, Big Bird's best friend, was a "gay closeted" character.
He also said his attempts to broach "gay content" on the series during his stint as a writer, particularly amid the AIDS crisis, were "stonewalled" by the show's parent company.
"It made me think it was a lost cause," he said. "I would have liked to have been the first writer to do the 'two mummy' episode. I don't know if they've ever gotten to it."
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