Magazine covers—if I may risk journo-splaining here—are meant to be provocative. That is, they’re meant to provoke you to pick up the magazine while browsing at, say, Hudson News. Once you do so, it’s all over. Perhaps you check the table of contents, perhaps not—but chances are, you’re already sold. (A quick Google search turned up zero studies, but I would bet that most people who pick up a magazine at a newsstand end up buying it.)
In this equation, everybody wins. The magazine has convinced you to pay the inflated cover price, and you’ve been provoked when you need it most: while suffering from the boredom inherent to being shuttled, whether by train or plane, from one place to another. Covers serve a not dissimilar function online: to provoke people to talk about the magazine and visit its website, which generates ad impressions, which translates into a certain number of new subscribers.
Evaluated on these merits, the cover of the latest issue of The New Yorker, out this coming Monday, might be the most successful of any cover this year. Submitted by artist Jack Hunter to a Tumblr a year ago, it features “Sesame Street” characters Bert and Ernie—long rumored to be gay, and more recently proclaimed by the show’s producers to have no sexual orientation—cuddling on the couch, looking at the most recent portrait of the Supreme Court justices on TV. Many people loved it.
Slate’s June Thomas wrote the dissenting opinion. She called the cover “a terrible way to commemorate a major civil-rights victory for gay and lesbian couples” for the reasons stated above: that producers have said the puppets “do not exist beneath the waist” (because, you know, they’re puppets). And because the producers have insisted that Bert and Ernie are just friends, apparently it is insulting of The New Yorker to imply otherwise:
You see, straight America, there’s a difference between same-sex friends and gay lovers. Does America contain households in which lovers pass themselves off as best pals? No doubt. And as prejudice against gays and lesbians fades, more of these ambiguously gay couples will declare themselves. But that doesn’t mean that every pair of cohabiting friends is madly making out on a nightly basis.
Sure, the cover implies that Bert and Ernie are more than friends, but it’s quite a leap to then accuse the magazine of perpetuating a myth—whose existence I was not aware of until today—that gay people can’t live together without hooking up. It’s a fair enough point, though, and would have made for an appropriate conclusion. But then Thomas added, “Bert and Ernie clearly love each other. But does Ernie suck Bert’s cock? I don't think so.”
I was not the only one startled by this line, which, for its crudeness, is at least as provocative as the cover itself. It's also a self-evident observation. As Thomas had already established, the puppets do not exist beneath the waist. The answer to her question is not “I don’t think so,” but rather, “That’s impossible.” After all, if Ernie were to attempt such an act on Bert, he would end up fellating the crook of the puppet-master’s elbow.
It has been a wonderful week for gay rights in America, with much more work ahead. Let us not fly into a blind rage (like Flavorwire’s Tyler Coates, who apparently is unaware that The New Yorker does not put photographs on its covers) all over a celebratory and inevitably harmless magazine cover featuring a pair of friendly characters in a children’s show—two puppets that cannot possibly sustain all of the symbolism heaped on them today, let alone set us straight (as it were) on the exact nature of their relationship.
Ryan Kearney is a story editor at The New Republic.