Continuity, Artistic Intent, And Progressivism In Star Trek And Sesame Street

I realized that it might seem that I’ve been advocating a couple of contradictory positions this week: that Bert and Ernie shouldn’t get married because the Sesame Workshop has stated definitively that neither character is gay and they are not in a relationship, and also that J.J. Abrams is acting with cowardice in throwing up barriers to adding a gay character to the Stark Trek universe to complement the franchise’s racial diversity. There’s a complicated web of issues here, all of which deserve careful consideration and respect: the rights of artists to define their own creation; the powerful desire of minority groups to see their experiences represented and validated in the culture that’s important to them; and the role of popular culture in normalizing non-white, non-heterosexual experiences and imagining how the future will be different from the past.

I should say up front that I think the folks who create characters have a right to determine the basic facts around them and not to have them reversed. This is why the Star Wars Holocron makes sense both as business decision and as narrative device: it simultaneously protects George Lucas’s rights to determine the basic facts about Luke, Leia, Han, and company while opening up other space for people to experiment and produces a grand narrative that, though it differs stylistically, can be read as a whole without being confusing or contested. The Sesame Workshop has said that Bert and Ernie are not gay, and I don’t think, however much we wish it were true, we have the right to contest that definitive laying down of continuity. We can rage against the tide as much as we like with fan fiction, but as consumers, we have to accept the limitations of the universe that are laid down for us. That said, if a creator leaves room for a character to be shaded in and expresses no particular discomfort with additional detail, I’m comfortable with character expansion. George Lucas may have created a fighter pilot named Wedge Antilles, but for all we knew, he could have been the gay son of Corellian glitterstim smugglers. Lucas left it to Michael A. Stackpole to fill in Wedge’s history, to give him an attraction to strong, intelligent women and the lost dream of opening up a fueling station with his dad. If there are no objections from Gene Roddenberry’s family to filling in Hikaru Sulu’s — or another sexually undefined character’s* — background and fleshing them out as gay or bisexual, I think that’s fine and consistent with respect for artist-defined continuity.

If there were objections, of course, then I think they should be respected, however unprogressive I think those wishes are. But I do think if a universe is being rebooted, or expanded beyond its original conceptions, or if it has a tradition of adding new characters, then it is entirely appropriate for folks who want to see themselves and their experiences represented in those remakes or expansions to advocate for that. Archie Comics’ introduction of Kevin Keller has been handled beautifully in this regard. He was introduced in a way that was consistent with some of the core themes and storylines of the universe — as an object of rivalry between Betty and Veronica — but that added dimension to those old themes in a way that reflected not just the desire of Archie Comics to be more progressive but the actual lived experiences of teenagers today.

Julian Sanchez argues persuasively that the assertion that the Muppets don’t have sexual orientations# is an embarrassing dodge, and I agree. But it might be best to have two new characters who are introduced as a couple from the start and who are entirely no-nonsense about it. And if children are meant to model the Muppets’ behavior, it might also useful for the audience to see the Muppets treat an adult human gay couple (and perhaps their children) with love and affection as we’d hope they would in real life. Similarly, it makes sense for an Archie comics character date someone of the same sex, or deal with having a crush on someone who isn’t attracted to them, because those are the issues that the target readers are dealing with. In Star Trek, it’s less a matter of dealing with the specific characters’ relationships than it is establishing and reaffirming the values of the universe the audience is buying into. It makes sense to push for more diversity in art for the sake of realism and pulling new audiences and merely for its own sake, but if that representation can also accomplish strategic specific goals, so much the better.

*One weird thing to me in these conversations: does no one assume that the characters we see in heterosexual relationships could be bisexual? The persistent invisibility of bisexual in our culture, pop and otherwise, is fascinating.

#Another group of people who are invisible and our society and culture? Asexual folks.