In 1954 Fredric Wertham, a child psychologist, released Seduction of the Innocent. The research in the book has been debunked as junk science, but at the time it rose to popularity it reshaped comic books and the comic book industry. Notable, in chapter seven, Wertham said that “psychologically homosexual” comics could create sexual confusion in children , and then he suggested that Batman and Robin were gay.
Batman and Robin were not intended as a gay couple, but the outing of their characters in the Seduction of the Innocent had a lasting cultural effect. It increased censorship in comic books through the creation of the comic code, educated parents on the possibility of intended gay coding in children’s media, and it impacted the way society viewed the two characters identities.
Unintended double readings demonstrate how society critiques the media it consumes, and how a viewer’s perception the media they watch can effect the media itself. There have been numerous parodies of Batman and Robin that joke about the ambiguity of their relationship (perhaps most famously in The Ambiguously Gay Duo, but in many other shows also, like The Tick (2001) and Venture Bros.).
The unintended double reading of the characters as gay couple reshaped the characters themselves. First through the addition of female love interests for the characters in an attempt to show how very straight they both were, but also in more subtle ways. As Andrew Wheeler writes in his article, The Gayness of Batman: A Brief History:
“The concept of Batman may be open to endless reinvention, but any effort to make him less gay only adds layers upon layers to his gayness. Make him light and you emphasize his campness; make him dark and you emphasize his repression; give him a girlfriend or a female sidekick and you reaffirm his bachelorhood.
He is both camp and butch; repressed and sexualized; erotically fetishistic and homoerotically anti-feminine. Batman is not gay. The writers will line up to tell you that. But when there were no explicitly gay characters to identify with 70 years ago, the bachelor hero with the boy sidekick stepped in to the vacuum, and gay readers were not the only ones who saw it, and now his gayness is indelible. “
Writers for Batman now know that this reading exists, and it can subtly shape their own perception of the characters and the choices they make in depicting the character, regardless of how straight the characters are intended to be. The controversy and gay reading is now such a through part of the characters history, DC themselves have acknowledged it through winking humor.
In Superman #130 Superman and Louis Lane wear Batman and Robin costumes for a Halloween Party, and then proceed to make out in front of their colleagues while dressed as the dynamic duo. In the animated film Batman and Harley Quinn (2017) Harley reflects on what exactly Batman and Nightwings relationship is, and mentions having had to write a paper in college on a book that is clearly intended to reference Seduction of the Innocent.
In a roundabout way the public outing of Batman and Robin in the 50s legitimized the possibility of gay readings in ambiguous characters. The ambiguous relationship between Batman and Superman spawned the canon gay characters of The Midnighter and Apollo. As LGBTQ+ characters have continued to find mainstream success the lines of unintended double readings can blur.
Marvel’s mutants Rictor and Shatterstar shared a similarly ambiguous friendship to Batman and Robin until 2009 when they were outed as a couple (in X-Factor vol. 3). Retroactively making canon a subtext that up to that point had been treated as an unintended double reading.
How unintended double reading of a characters orientation can affect a character isn’t just isolated to comic books. Particularly, when the outing is public and on large scale. Take for example the beloved muppet roomates of Sesami Street.
Bert and Ernie were not intended as gay characters when they were created. Rumors circled the two characters, but the first time they were loudly publicly “outed” was in 1994 when preacher Joseph Chambers used anti-sodomy laws to try and ban the two characters:
“They’re two grown men sharing a house and a bedroom… they share clothes. They eat and cook together. They vacation together and have effeminate characteristics-” he goes on with his list of examples, finishing by saying, “If this isn’t meant to represent a homosexual union, I can’t imagine what it’s supposed to represent.”
(…according to official statements, the were meant to represent friends)
While Joseph Chambers aggressively attacked the Muppets for their blatant disregard for heterosexuality, his statement was embraced (often with a sense of humor) by the LGBTQ+ (and straight but supportive) community.
Despite the Children’s Television Workshop’s official statement to the contrary the two Muppets had already become icons, the possibility of a gay reading was now a part of their identity. And it had a ripple effect.
There is a reason QueerPioneer created a parody using the characters when they relaunched their site:
Family Guy poked fun at the gay-reading of the characters (set within a gritty crime drama):
Avenue Q, the adult targeting musical that parodies Sesame Street has the puppets Rod and Nicky as stand-ins for Bert and Ernie. Rod is aggressively closeted and not-so-secretly in love with his straight roommate Nicky.
In 2002 the independent short Ernest and Bertram creates a black comedy by taking a scene from the Children’s Hour and reenacting it, often line for line, but with Bert and Ernie as the leads. After it first played, Sesame Workshops lawyers blocked further showings of the short. It’s well worth a watch though, and is fascinating in a historical context. The Children’s Hour dealt with the topic of (the at the time unspeakable) lesbian love, and was released at the tail end of the Hays Codes.
Ernest and Bertram is a mix of dark sentiment. On one hand it seems to critique children’s show censorship, where gay love is just as taboo a topic as it was in movies from 50 years ago – but on the other hand it revels in its own irreverent irony (this episode was brought to you by the letters Y and the number 1…)
Seventeen years after Joseph Chambers questioned the muppets’s orientation, Bert and Ernie’s were back in the news. This time the controversy came not from those who feared LGBTQ+ representation in children’s media, but from those who supported more inclusive storytelling. It involved an online petition where supporters signed that they wanted to see the Muppets marry (and if not, then they wanted to see the introduction of an out character).
The official statement at the time of the petition was the same as it had always been: that the two are not gay. But nearly two decades since the first time their relationship was called into question, the studio was now in the know. There is a reason that several official products marketed to nostalgic grown up fans winked at the (completely unintended) double reading of the two.
The first outing of Bert and Ernie was an unintended double reading of the characters that attacked them for an imagined idea of their sexuality… but for viewers who want more diverse representation in media targeting families and children, the question becomes: Why couldn’t Bert and Ernie be a couple?
Bert and Ernie may just be two in a long line of unintended double readings, but I would argue that whether or not a character is intended to have a gay-reading when society embraces this (even in jest) it opens the closet doors just a little wider.