Fictional Characters' Private Lives

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I was looking at the Wikipedia section on Sesame Street, and I came across this:

Urban legend has it that Bert and Ernie are engaged in a homosexual relationship, as they are apparently adult human males portrayed sharing a bedroom (though with separate beds). The producers vehemently deny this, however, insisting that the characters are "merely lifeless, hand-operated puppets."

I had to laugh. This urban legend has always struck me as strange, as if straight men can't be good friends and live in the same apartment. The thing that's strangest of all about it is the fact that they're fictional characters whose only actions are what is portrayed in the fiction. Nothing in the fiction potrays anything sexual, so we shouldn't assume there's even a fact about what the fiction contains regarding their sex lives or lack thereof. Most writers will acknowledge this. According to one theory of the metaphysics of fiction, until it was acknowledged that Mulder and Scully had indeed slept with each other in the seventh season, it was actually indeterminate whether they had done so. There was no fact about whether they had. The writers in the eighth season finally retroactively made it be the case that they had. In my view it was true all along, but it was made true by something that hadn't happened yet, something the writers would later do. I still think anything that writers won't later do makes it indeterminate, and even things that they haven't done yet but will do are indeterminate as far as we know.

So there are two reasons not to assume they're gay. One is that it may not even be determinate within the fiction, so you might simply be saying something false if you assert one way or the other (or at least not true if falsity and untruth can come apart with this sort of indeterminacy). The second reason is that it's assuming something about straight men that just isn't true. Men live with other men all the time without having any sexual interaction with them, and sometimes they even sleep in the same room in different beds. In many places in the world, they might even sleep in the same bed.

Of course, I shouldn't even bring up Darren's Samwise and Bill the Pony comment, but I can't help mentioning it. What's interesting about the search that provoked that comment is that it dealt with fan fiction, which is a completely different phenomenon. Most of the time fan fiction develops the fictional world's indeterminacies and makes them determinate, sometimes leading to things the authors would never have wanted their characters to do. Sometimes it even contradicts canon in a clear way, which makes me want to think of fan fiction universes as separate fictions entirely. Of course, sometimes canon contradicts canon within a fiction, which raises interesting questions about what happens to truth in a fiction world in such cases. I'm not familiar enough with the literature on the metaphysics of fiction after just one graduate seminar on it (back in the spring of 1998) to say much more, but I thought these were questions worth thinking through a little more carefully given how often people say things like this.

15 Comments

scully and mulder slept together?

Are Bert and Ernie supposed to be "adult human males"? The Sesame Street puppets throw around the word "monster" a lot and sometimes I think they even refer to humanoid puppets as that. I know that the extra hairy ones are monsters...but are others? It's fuzzy because Kermit is definitely a frog...and yet, he sings with other "real" frogs (I guess he evolved?)

There are some theories of truth in fiction according to which Bert and Ernie didn't have sex, but I'm not sure that those are the best theories available. Don't those theories also tell us that:

(1) 'Sherlock did not have a tatoo of a heart with the name 'Watson' written on it' is not true.

On Lewis' version, we go to the worlds nearest the ones that fit the story and use facts about relative closeness of worlds to determine the truth value of assertions made by us about the fictions. There are no worlds remotely close to the world as described by Holmes in which Holmes has such a tatoo so (1) comes out false on Lewis' view but true on the view I think you are describing [Since the embedded sentence lacks a truth-value, (1) turns out false thanks to the '... is true'].

Anyway, the crucial question is whether the worlds nearest the ones described by the creators of sesame street are ones in which Bert and Ernie are more than just good friends. That picture on the mantle (see above) looks suspiciously unlike any picture I've ever had on the mantle when I had male roommates and on most scales, I'm pretty damn metro...

I think I'm less inclined to think it's got to do with near possible worlds and more inclined to base in it authorial intent. There's some reason to think the creators of Scooby Doo intended Shaggy to be a pothead, given that each character was a stereotype of one of the five colleges in the general Amherst, MA area, and one of the stereotypes was the pothead. There's little reason to think Henson and company saw Ernie and Bert as a gay couple. I would expect that when they created them they would more likely have seen them as brothers than a gay couple.

Jeremy,

I was being tongue in cheek, apart from the bit about why I prefer Lewis' approach to alternatives.

There are, however, interesting issues having to do with authorial intent but I worry about the truth value gaps that seem to arise on those views of truth in fiction.


On my account, there aren't as many truth value gaps as you would expect in fictions that will be further developed in the future. I'm not too bothered by truth value gaps in fictions, anyway. They're fictions! I do admit that it's strange to think of a character's middle name being indeterminate simply because the fiction hasn't provided one yet, but a lot of authors do think about their own work this way, as if certain elements of the fiction aren't settled at all until someone settles it by writing it into the story. I'm a little uncomfortable with the truth value gaps myself, but I don't think we should operate fictions in terms of possibe worlds, simply because so many fictions aren't possible (not just because they portray impossibilities, but also because they contradict themselves so often). You'll need to be using impossible words an awful lot, and no one has a good account of how those are supposed to work.

On the other hand, some authors take the view that those things are determined, it's just that the authors haven't discovered the answers yet. Stephen King, for instance. They hope to discover the answers by writing about the characters and seeing what they do.

I'll have to think about how I feel about my own writing before I give my position on this.

Jeremy,

Given the murkiness of truth in fiction, I would have thought the murkiness of impossible worlds made it a good fit. (Is there an emoticon for tongue in cheek?)

I'm quite sympathetic to the view that fictions are created by their authors but worry about the way in which time gets involved. Counterfactuals such as 'If Doyle had died sooner, Sherlock wouldn't have been _______' [insert some description of Sherlock from a later novel written after the time Doyle could have but didn't die]. It seems preferable to the discovery view in some important respects. No one but Doyle could have written those novels but anyone could have 'discovered them' and made them publicly available by being the first to put them down in some text. If works are discoverable objects, they are likely abstracta but then you get the problem that Dostoyevsky's 'Poor Folk' contains a reference to Gogol and thus could have existed only after Gogol's birth but presumably this isn't true of any (ordinary?) abstract object. The trick, I think, is to combine the insights of Lewis' view with the view that works are objects created by the artists typically identified as their creators. Are you working on the ontology of art by any chance?

No, I'm almost a novice at this stuff. My current work is on the ontology of race. I was hoping Jonathan would step in and offer an expert's thoughts, but you seem to know enough more about these issues than I do to give a good sense of the territory.

Jeremy,

I've had a very idiosyncratic education. Because of Nebraska's size, often you'd end up taking very, very specialized higher level seminars before you ever had any general introduction to the topic (took 3 courses on thought content before takinga general phil mind course my 4th or 5th year of grad school). Years before I was able to take any general survey course in metaphysics, I took a seminar on the ontology of art works from a fresh UCLA grad. At the time, I probably had never even read a David Lewis article but there we were arguing about whether musical works were abstract or not. It was fun but terribly terribly confusing at the time.

I guess the issue you raise is philosophical. In the fictional, those who control the ideas regarding the characters could make it so if they wished but as you say it is indeterminant without it being explicitly stated or implied.

As I understand it, friendship was something that was taken to be of somewhat philosophical interest in anceint Greece. I think Aristotle wrote of friendship.

http://radicalacademy.com/studentrefphil6f.htm

I think we have lost this value. It is more like something that happens to people but not something that is idealized. If people are too friendly, it is assumed their motives are less than friendship. And that makes for a lonesome landscape for every type of relationship to have implications of a sexual nature.

Ooh, a truth in fiction post! Sorry it took me a while to catch up to it... I don't have enough time for blogging lately...

I think that there are some serious problems for a view that takes the author's intent as fundamentally important for determining truth in fiction. We can come up with cases where the author intends that p is true in the fiction, but p is definitely not true in the ficiton. To take a case that came up some time ago on FBC, suppose that JKR actually intended the Harry Potter novels to be about a mollusk, not a wizard. But because she's a really bad writer, she wrote novels about a wizard instead, pretty much by accident. I don't think that discovering this about JKR would or should change our assessments of fictional truths.

Now how to assess whether it's true in the fiction that Bert & Ernie are gay according to other systems? I'm pretty familiar with three: Lewis (who has two variants), Walton, and Currie. On Lewis's first view, they're gay in the fiction if and only if they're gay in all of the nearest possible worlds where the events we see actually occur. I don't know enough about gay culture (or Seseme Street) to know how this turns out. On Lewis's second version, they're gay if they're gay in all of the possible worlds nearest to the set of worlds defined by beliefs common between author and intended audience. The intended audience, I take it, are children. It's unlikely that the shared transparent beliefs include beliefs about sexuality, so on that view, their sexual orientation is probably indeterminate.

On Walton's view, what's true in the fiction depends on what propositions established conventions make it appropriate for us to imagine. This by itself isn't enough to answer the question -- we need to ellucidate those conventions. It's at least unlikely on this view that it's to be imagined that they're gay. It'd take an argument to the contrary to establish otherwise.

On Currie's view, they're gay if and only if it'd be reasonable to infer that a person who presented the story as known fact believed that they were gay. This will end up being pretty similar to Lewis's second formulation, and will depend on lots of facts that I don't know. But odds are good, it'll end up indeterminite.

I should add something I noticed more recently. Ernie and Bert are apparently pre-school children at some point in the show's history. My parents gave the kids some Sesame Street DVDs for Christmas, and one of them has a sketch on it with Ernie discussing with Bert how long it would be before he could diagnose Bert as a doctor. He listed all the years of schooling he still had to go through, and it started with kindergarten. I don't know when this particular sketch took place, but I don't get the sense that Ernie and Bert mature faster than Bart Simpson does, which means they're probably still supposed to be kids. Maybe that's not true, because the humans in the show age, but their life situation hasn't changed. Also, the "Ernie and Bert are gay" urban legend started long enough ago that I don't think it could have been true when it started, even if somehow it became ambiguous later (though the sleeping in separate beds things raises an eyebrow about the hypothesis that they are gay and also partners with each other).

But I think what we should say is that they are too young to be gay, unless we adopt some genetic determinist thesis according to which every psychological feature relevant to becoming gay is purely genetic and completely independent of environmental input, a highly implausible claim. It seems to me that someone becomes gay, even if there's some biological likelihood of certain people being more inclined to become gay than others. It doesn't seem right to me to say that an infant or toddler is gay. I don't see how a kindergartener is really gay either. That at least makes it highly questionable to say that Ernie and Bert are gay if they're intended to be that young.

When someone arrived at this blog searching for information on Scooby Doo and the connection with the five colleges in the Amherst, MA area, I thought it might be a good idea to point out that that is a myth. Snopes.com refutes it here. The characters on that show have nothing at all to do with stereotypes from the five colleges.

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