Bert and the Infidels

How a puppet joined the jihad.


The train station was probably built in the 1940s. Situated between the Elbe and Vltava rivers, somewhere near the border with Poland, the small Czech hub had two sets of tracks and a deserted general store. It was the only stop on an eight-hour train ride from Prague into Krakow. The mode of transport was antiquated communist coaches. There was no dining car, and I wanted a snack. Deciding to sample some regional pastry, I imagined quaint serving dishes and cuts of fresh cake.

Instead, I found Aerosmith and boxes of Snickers. The song "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing" screeched through a radio, just like it had at the Duomo in Italy. I would hear it again in Berlin and Amsterdam. It even topped the charts in sleepy Bohemian hollows that sold Snickers and Coca-Cola. If I learned one thing about the modern world, it's that you can't escape Steven Tyler.

Which is why it didn't surprise me when a picture of the Sesame Street character Bert showed up on Bangladeshi anti-American posters following the attacks of September 11th. It's about 4,300 miles from Prague to Dhaka. But as long as there are televisions and Internet hookups, popular culture will travel the most unexpected roads.

Reportedly, Bangladeshi protesters unwittingly downloaded the image of Bert and Osama bin Laden from one of a number of "Bert Is Evil" Web sites. These sites humorously suggest that the famously taciturn puppet is behind much evil in the world, doctoring photographs to show Bert alongside the likes of Adolf Hitler, Charles Manson, and Jeffrey Dahmer.

With journalists anxious to report something lighter, pundits were quick to peg ill-tempered Bert as "bin Laden's felt-skinned henchman" and suggest that the puppet had finally abandoned his longtime companion Ernie and joined the Al Qaeda network.

Still, there's a lesson that goes beyond the obvious laughter. It's one about how popular culture gets used, transformed, and circulated by its consumers, with little or no regard for its producers' intentions or interests. Sometimes the result is a chuckle. Other times it's a revolution.

Dino Ignacio created the first Bert Is Evil site in 1996, from his parents' home in a suburb of Manila. He says he did it simply to poke fun at an icon he loved as a child. Of course, this didn't stop the Children's Television Workshop, the makers of Sesame Street, from condemning Ignacio for sullying Bert's good name. But what was Sesame Street doing in the middle of the Philippines to begin with?

"I'm the product of American imperialism," Ignacio quips from his home in San Francisco. He moved here in 1998 to complete a degree in computer animation. "Pretty much, your culture is my culture," he says, adding that his interest in Bert stemmed from a childhood fear of Bert's single, oversized eyebrow. Though Ignacio didn't create the Bert and bin Laden image, in a very real way Bangladeshi fundamentalists transformed his good-natured exercise in culture-jamming into something far more serious.

Like Snickers, Aerosmith, and Coca-Cola, products such as Bert—and even his "evil," unauthorized parodies—transcend not just international borders but also intended meanings. Consider a widely reprinted story filed last year by Daniel McGrory. McGrory explained how Larry Hagman—who played J.R. Ewing, the sybaritic villain of the old soap Dallas—had become a national icon in post-communist Romania.

It turns out that Nicolae Ceausescu strictly limited what Romanians were allowed to watch on TV, with most shows depicting the greater glories of the dictator. The one exception, McGrory explains, was Dallas, which Ceausescu aired "to show the evils of capitalism." The plan backfired, as one Romanian entrepreneur explained: "We saw all that glamour, the cars, the beautiful women, and the huge houses and asked ourselves 'Why can't we have that?' So the people took Ceausescu out and shot him." Hagman himself explained that he had been "feted like a head of state" on a recent trip to Romania. "Folk were telling me that I helped their revolution," he said. "One government minister told me that more people cared about who shot me than who shot Ceausescu."

Whether Filipino artists, Romanian rebels, or Islamic fundamentalists, people will use what's at hand to send a message. Bert meets bin Laden. J.R. topples Ceausescu. Weird, random—and in their own way—wild and wonderful happenings.