Bert and Ernie’s romance offers a lesson in tolerance

Opinion: Reporting the Christian bakery sends the message that it is not okay to disagree

Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch as Watson and Holmes: sharing a flat but not a bed

Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch as Watson and Holmes: sharing a flat but not a bed

Sat, Jul 12, 2014, 01:00

Curious thing, the decline of male friendship. In the wildly popular BBC series Sherlock, which stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, the characters have to spend substantial time clarifying that they are not lovers.

It seems increasingly difficult for a modern audience to conceive that two men could share a flat without also sharing a bed.

The creators of the series, Stephen Moffat and Mark Gatiss (the latter is a gay man) have explained that they wanted male friendship to be at the heart of the story. Moffatt believes that Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories contain “the fondest friendship in fiction and a sort of exaggerated, daft portrait of what a male friendship of many years looks like and behaves like”.

In the BBC series, Sherlock happily claims the title of high-functioning sociopath, while John Watson is the essence of dogged, loyal decency and courage. Yet they are good for each other. Sherlock pulls Watson out of depression at the beginning of the series, and as a result of their friendship Sherlock begins to develop traces of empathy.

They are an odd couple, as in Neil Simon’s 1960s play The Odd Couple, which is about two divorced men sharing an apartment. The pathologically tidy and critical Felix and the slovenly but good- natured Oscar drive each other mad, yet manage to maintain an exasperated affection for each other.

‘The Muppet Show’

A popular television series based on the play followed. And The Muppet Show had Ernie and Bert, childlike versions of the odd couple, as one of the puppeteers who played Bert explained.

They were designed to show pre-schoolers that it is possible to be friends with people who are very different to you. But that was before the era of “shipping”, that is, speculating on romantic relationships between fictional characters.

Shipping knows no boundaries. Aside from the obvious straight and gay combinations, the website TV Tropes wryly lists examples of “ships” between people still in grade school; siblings; twins; and inanimate objects.

I suppose we should be thankful that Ernie and Bert are shipped with each other, and not say, with the pigeons. But isn’t it sad that they can’t just be friends?

As Vanessa Vitiello Urquhart, a freelance writer who draws the online comic Tiny Butch Adventures, says in another context in a blog on Slate.com: “Why has friendship become so devalued – and whoever said that true intimacy could only be found in the context of a romantic relationship, anyway?”

Relentless shipping of every relationship makes friendship more difficult, particularly for men.

Sure, there are lots of “bromances” depicted in movies, but far fewer everyday, sustaining friendships.

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