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June 29, 2013

Bert and Ernie Gay (and Illustrators DOA) in Cutest Fail of Historic Week

Here are our takes on how this was couched:

• What makes this a viral cover is the novel juxtaposition of two brands. It’s a thoroughly creative combination like this which makes fireworks go off in the brain. In this case though, the winner is primarily the illustrator for hitting it out of the park for cleverness and cuteness, not the magazine for framing the movement or the Supreme’s decision in any particularly significant or poignant light. Instead, the novelty comes at the price of infantilizing (or, at least, failing to creatively tackle) the ongoing battle being fought by gay couples for full (not cartoon, not puppet) equality.

• Bag contributor Karrin Anderson sees the popularity of the illustration for how it either panders to the far left or, at least, takes advantage of a huge progressive victory:

To me, it looks like a mini victory lap after the (momentary) defeat of political forces who have also looked to defund PBS in their misguided attempts to police the nation’s morality. Much of the euphoria after the SC ruling can be attributed as much to people’s enthusiasm for the fact that liberal policy can become the law of the land (even with a broken Congress and an intrusive executive branch) as it can be to general support for gay rights.

• My thought when I saw this is that the editors fell for the cuddly before they thought through the sexual politics. (I’m in agreement with what June Thomas said at Slate, that there’s a difference between same-sex friends and gay lovers.  ”Outing” two Muppets reinforces the lizard-brain stereotype that males who are more emotionally expressive must be homosexuals.) The editorial seduction made even more sense after I read the etiology of the May 2012 illustration (via the Hollywood Reporter. More tidbits at Gawker):

The image has circulated online since last year, when artist Jack Hunter submitted it to a tumblr for a contest. The original image had President Barack Obama on the TV set, not the Supreme Court, and it was created around the time Obama came out in favor of gay marriage.

It’s tricky applying something you had saved up in your pocket to a monumental event that generates its own currents and nuances in the immediate moment.

• Also little noticed in the buzz is the fact the illustration was produced by an amateur. If there’s something substantive to take away from this cover, it’s the fact that a publication as esteemed as the New Yorker chose citizen art to grace the national newsstand’s most coveted graphic real estate to commemorate, and recognize for posterity  this historic civil rights milestone.

If photographers have been worried about citizen journalists driving them out of business or simply lowerIng the value of their work product in the marketplace, illustrators – as diminished as the market for political illustration has become over the last decade – now have even more to worry about. If anyone was infantilized here, it was the community of professional illustrators — trained as they are, by the way, to package a lot more messaging and depth with the cotton candy.

Update: I was thinking further about Karrin’s take and the Scarabus comment below and can understand the idea how the combo of the ruling, the Court and the Sesame Street pair could drive many on the right into seeing events this week as a  great liberal conspiracy. I still see Bert and Ernie as trivializing the argument however. I’m prepared to be proven wrong though. One thing that would do so is a Tumblr meme inviting different pairings photoshopped onto the couch watching the Supremes. What would really mess with some heads (and would have made the original illustration really worth all the buzz, as well the interpretation of the ” liberal scare”) would be Glenn Greenwald nuzzling with Edward Snowden.

(illustration: Jack Hunter)

  • Scarabus

    My impression thus far, Michael, has been that the majority of those objecting to this cover have been concerned about its potential impact rather than its “cotton candy” triviality. As to the illustrator’s being an amateur rather than a professional …? Come along, Michael.

    Arthur Ashe was an amateur when he won the U.S. Open tennis tournament, and Tiger Woods was an amateur when he won the U.S. Open golf tournament. Maya Lin was still an undergraduate when she won the design competition for the Vietnam Memorial.

    Alexander Pope, Essay on Criticism:

    Some judge of authors’ names, not works, and then
    Nor praise nor blame the writings, but the men.

    Personally, while I deplore the illustration’s use of the Muppets, I like its design. (Incidentally, Disney owns the copyright on the Muppets now, so they must have given permission to use their intellectual property for this cover. That makes them complicit, doesn’t it?)

    • jonst

      Ah, i don’t think Woods was an amateur when he won the US Open. And personally speaking, I think the Lin design is horrible.

  • quax

    C’mon, Ernie and Bert live together and share a bed room. Sesame street of course does not sexualize them in any way, just as they don’t sexualize any of the other child like characters, but one may as well think of them as gay.

    That what’s so clever about this illustration. It transports that gay couples are nothing exotic or overly sexualized. They are just two individual (incidentally sharing the same gender) who love each other and want this union to be recognized.

  • black_dog_barking

    Like anyone watches on black&white TV’s with rabbit ears. Or TV for that matter. I mean, hello?, Netflix instant queue? This is so old fashioned. Sorta like marriage come to think of it.

    Laugh while you can, New Yorker. You’re next.

    • Scarabus

      Sesame Street? I watched the show with my daughter a long time ago, and with my granddaughter a couple of years ago. I still like it as a kid show.

      Marriage? I love being married. Just made breakfast in bed for my bride of 46 years, a Sunday morning ritual. What’s old-fashioned is the way social conservatives define and perceive marriage.

      New Yorker? Great idea! This afternoon I’m going to create a parody featuring that cover.

  • Thomas

    I think your and Karrin’s observations are really on the mark. The editors may have thought they were archly sidestepping the cultural complications, but the kitschy-nostalgia omission actually gives it greater presence and this ends up certifying a pretty naive depiction of marriage. Cartoonish roomies with benefits, really. It is a characterization that is more likely to emerge from opponents of the ruling, who have focused on the redefinition of marriage. Supporters have very, very consistently spoken of this as a civil rights issue, so it would seem that editors wanting a celebratory cover would use the same framing. Yet they didn’t, which is curious. Perhaps professional illustrators ought to also worry about editors who have only a shallow interest in or understanding of an issue.

    • Thomas

      *your and Karrin’s

  • cehti

    I think they should leave Bert and Ernie out of it for three reasons. Just because a couple of same-gender people are friends does not imply anything at all about whether or not they have sex. Also, Sesame Street has an uphill battle supporting education already without other people bringing them into other controversies. Three, it is just plain wrong to steal other people’s histories and use them for your own agendas.

  • LanceThruster

    Most the feedback I’ve seen is positive. Are us heteros supposed to be upset when we’re depicted as Muppets or anthropomorphized animals of various species (as when a lead female character is depicted as a pig)?
    I don’t see it as demeaning but rather mainstreaming. Maybe I shouldn’t?

  • Jason E

    The TV in this image reminds me of the set we had when I was little in the 1970’s. imagine if we as nation had ended this discrimination way back then? How many suicides could we have prevented? How many children could have been placed into loving homes? Why couldn’t we see that discrimination is always wrong? There are 3 things that all American’s should keep in mind when making personal decisions about political issues: Liberty, Justice and the Pursuit of Happiness.

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