A few quick thoughts on next week’s New Yorker cover, which I instantly loved but which some other folks really hate.

Ernie and Bert on the cover of next week's New YorkerThe “Ernie and Bert are gay” trope is old and tired, yes, and it wasn’t all that sharp even when it was new. If that was all this cover had been — a Muppet gay wedding — I’d whole-heartedly agree with the critics. But that’s not all it is.

I was initially puzzled by the outdated, rabbit-eared television the two are watching. At first I wondered if it was intended to place Ernie and Bert back in the sixties, when we first met them, but that didn’t  make much sense. Old-fashioned TVs “read” visually as TVs better than new ones, of course, and for a moment I thought that might be the explanation, though it wouldn’t explain the black-and-white image on the screen.

As I mulled, however, I realized that a black-and-white cathode ray set is exactly the television I’d expect these guys to have. They’re an old couple by now, set in their ways, hunkered down in the same spacious but shabby New York City apartment they’ve shared for the last forty-five years. The set in the picture isn’t an anachronism, they just never saw the need to upgrade to digital.

And yes, I used the word “couple” in the previous paragraph, and I used it advisedly. Because straight or gay or — canonically, and most satisfyingly — neither, a couple is who they are, and always have been. They bicker, they joke. They exasperate and console each other. They share a bedroom (though not a bed). They’re friends, but they’re more than friends. They’re partners.

And that’s what the cover portrays them as. It’s not a sexual depiction, or even a particularly romantic one. It’s a domestic depiction, one that draws on the easy intimacy that’s been built into their relationship since the beginning. It’s our old buddy Bert and our old pal Ernie, at the end of their day, watching the news together as they’ve been doing since before Gay Pride, before Stonewall [1], before Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and DOMA and Proposition 8.

Ernie and Bert are still Ernie and Bert, just as they’ve always been. But the world on their TV is changing, and they’re watching it change, and they’re happy.

[1] Not quite. See comments.