The New Yorker Memorializes DOMA With Controversial Bert And Ernie Cover

This week, the Supreme Court made the historic ruling that the Defense of Marriage Act and Prop 8 are both unconstitutional.  It’s an enormous victory for gays and lesbians, their families, and anyone who cares about equality.

So how did The New Yorker, arguably the most reputable magazine in the country, memorialize the occasion on their cover? With Bert and Ernie, two puppets from “Sesame Street,” watching a television with the Supreme Court justices shown the screen.

The background, in case you aren’t aware, is that there have long been jokes that roommates Bert and Ernie are actually extra-special roommates. Predictably, some whackadoodles have gotten upset about children watching “Sesame Street” and wondering why two male puppets (and their rubber ducky) live together.

I’ll be honest: I think the cover is a little cute just because I like Jim Henson puppets, especially the ones from “Sesame Street.” I also think it’s an eye-catching image, which means it may sell better on the newsstands (and is likely the primary reason The New Yorker chose it). The media is a business after all.

But not everyone feels the same way I do. Let’s ignore the National Review’s Kathryn Jean Lopez, who posted the image under the homophobic title “Innocence. Lost.” Blogger Tyler Coates of Flavorwire, whom I implicitly trust to interpret all things LGBTQ-related, blasted the cover as “infantilizing,” “offensive,” and click-baiting for Internet outrage.

Coates wrote:

[T]he notion that Bert and Ernie are gay lovers is ridiculous, and the propagation of the narrative is a childish statement that says more about the sexually obsessed and slightly homophobic tendencies of our culture. Homophobic? Absolutely: it’s a continuation of the idea that sexuality affects personality as much as it speaks of our obsession with outing the private lives of public individuals — in this case fictional characters that most of us grew up with. “Bert and Ernie are two boys who live together! They must be gay!” In what way is that not some borderline schoolyard obsession with the idea of two dicks touching each other? It isn’t nice when it’s aggressive, and it’s certainly not cute when it’s pushed upon two fictional characters in a supposedly charming attempt to symbolize an entire community’s struggle with acceptance and equality, even if the intentions are lighthearted and fun.

While I understand his logic, I don’t share Coates’ anger that the cover is plays into homophobic impulses to “out” people’s sexuality in an attempt to humiliate or stigmatize them. Visually-speaking, I perceive Ernie leaning on Bert’s arm as a tender gesture, which to me, reads as a respectful way of dealing with their (imaginary) sexuality. However, I do completely agree with Coates that childrens’ pop culture figures — be they Bert and Ernie or, a decade ago, Tinky Winky — are not the most appropriate way the DOMA and Prop 8 victory could have been illustrated. He writes:

You know what kind of image would have been nice to see on The New Yorker cover? Perhaps one of actual gay and lesbian couples. Were the magazine’s designers struggling to find one that anyone might recognize? How about Edith Windsor and Thea Spyer, whose relationship was at the center of the case that determined DOMA was unconstitutional in the first place? … Instead, the whole ordeal was summed up in a conveniently cheap and cloying image of puppets looking at a frozen image of the Supreme Court justices on their TV. Because Bert and Ernie are now apparently gay icons, at least in the eyes of The New Yorker‘s staff. And that’s a shame, because I can list off a ton of names who have done more for the marriage equality fight with level-headed dignity and pride. Are these America’s most recognizable gay icons? Because that’s a shame. We deserve better — we at least deserve to be identified and recognized and treated with respect rather than belittled with the cheap and easy imagery used here.

That’s true: The New Yorker could have done better. Much better. Even if this cover is more eye-catching, the magazine wasted an opportunity that could have celebrated the activism of Edith Windsor or Harvey Milk or the victims of Stonewall or real life gay people and couples everywhere. After such a powerful, historic week that was the culmination of God-only-knows how much blood, sweat and tears, I don’t blame anyone for feeling like that rejection is a slap in the face.


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[Image via The New Yorker]