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Mom & Pop Culture: Muppet Mania

Every week at 7:30 PM I would be showered, in my PJs, teeth brushed and eagerly waiting for the drumroll as Kermit popped out of the letter "O."


Muppet Show opening

There was something magical about the Muppets that I was drawn to. They were so much more tangible than cartoons. Since they interacted with real people, it was almost feasible that I could actually come across and befriend a Muppet, and as a six-year-old girl, I clung to that hope (Like Piggy clung to Kermie?).

Beyond my fantasy of having Muppet friends, there was something engaging about each one of the fuzzy characters on my TV screen. They had distinct personalities, were funny, and didn't pander to kids to make their jokes.

As I grew up, I never really abandoned them. I watched all the various movies as they came out, and perhaps indulged in some afternoon episodes of Sesame Street while avoiding homework in college.

When I had my son, I got a giddy little thrill thinking of all the Muppet fun we could have together. So it was with great excitement that we went to see the new Muppet movie together as a family last week.

I'll admit—I was nervous. After my tirade about crappy remakes, I worried that they would try to make the Muppets more marketable, and in doing so lose most of their magic. Fears of cheesy plots, "updated" personalities, and possible CGI gnawed at my brain. How could my son appreciate the artistic simplicity of the Muppets if they went and changed them up on me?

But, thankfully, all is well in Muppet land. Jason Segel did us a favor and stayed true to Jim Henson's vision. He offered up a movie that was equal parts nostalgia, sweet, and schmaltzy, and reminded me of why I fell in love with the Muppets in the first place.

Kermit. Kermit The Frog

There are mixed feelings out in the feminist blogosphere about Kermit. Julie Klausner shared an excerpt from her upcoming book that talks about why Kermit is a terrible boyfriend. I can see her point, but I just...can't go there. Maybe it's because I now have a son that I see things differently.

The Kermit I see is sensitive, silly and sweet. He sings with abandon, despite not having an auto-tuned perfect voice. He talks about his feelings, and friends, and rainbows. Jim Henson created Kermit in the Free To Be You and Me-fueled culture of the '70s, when people were itching for different role models for kids—ones that didn't play into the tired gender stereotypes of previous decades. As a mother of a son? I totally appreciate that. Kermit is a relatable character that my son can look up to.

Miss Piggy & Janice. Despite the fact that the Muppets have always been pretty light on female characters, the strength of the few they do have helps to make up for it. Fight it all you want, but Miss Piggy is a feminist. While she does play into some poor stereotypes (being a little boy-focused...or rather frog-focused), the thing most folks remember her for is her fierce, take-no-shit, strong personality.

A poster of Miss Piggy that says "Don't Mess With The Pig!"

While Henson and his crew might not have had a feminist agenda when they created Piggy, you can't ignore the fact that she exhibits a number of feminist sensibilities. The newest movie showcases a few of them. After the Muppets went their separate ways, she finds herself at the head of Vogue Paris' plus size department (which makes total sense considering her connection to fashion), and she's unwilling (at first) to bend to Kermit's plea to return. When she does finally come back, she makes it clear that she's doing it for the Muppets and not for Kermit. Without spoiling things too much, I will say that I did roll my eyes about her feelings at the end, but I do understand the need for a happily ever after.

I also have to give a shout out to Janice.

While not featured heavily, I still gravitated towards this awesome, chill, lead-guitar-playing Muppet. Maybe it was the future awesome, chill, ukulele playing woman I'd become, but something about Janice always made me smile, and I appreciated her as a quiet, subtle counterpoint to the louder, brash, more vocal Miss Piggy.

Janice the MuppetBeyond these characters there was always a sense of fun (but not at the expense of others) that permeated the Muppets, and that shines through in this latest theatrical incarnation. Sure there are some problematic bits (Amy Adams' character could use some work for one), but overall, I left the theater feeling like my son had gotten a pretty authentic Muppet experience.

My son already has a few cherished Fraggle Rock DVDs and enjoys the occasional episode of Sesame Street. I have a feeling that soon, (thanks to the wonder that is the Internet), I'll be reinstating my old weekly tradition of eagerly anticipating the latest episode of The Muppet Show. Only now, there will be two of us in front of the television.

Previously: The Princess Paradox, An Interview with Peggy Orenstein

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Comments

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race issues

I still haven't seen the new muppet movie, but was sad to come across this post talking about the coded racial elements of the film (the bad guys are rapping, darker-toned muppets) on Tumblr via RaceMash. Any thoughts?

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Kjerstin Johnson, editor-in-chief
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Sadly...

The rapping villain is a white human, but that post makes a lot of good points. I have an obvious bias as a Muppet superfan, but I think the Moopets were the most problematic part of the movie. They had very little screen time, but I'm not sure why they were there at all; aside from being Fozzie's coworkers for about a minute, they barely did anything. I read them as a classist parody of poor people at first--shown at a crappy job, looking for a better one, unruly hair and clothes--but certainly they could be read as racial representations too. I also disliked how the female Moopets' androgyny was supposed to be funny. A villainous woman must be masculine, apparently.

The Muppets is a terrific film, undoubtedly the best I've seen this year, but nothing gets a free pass, not even Henson's workshop.

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Deb - I completely agree

Deb - I completely agree about the depiction of the Moopets, especially re: the female (although did you see that they had a male muppet play the Moopet Janice in drag?). If they had only been there as Fozzie's back up band, the joke would have been made (crummy cover band in Reno) but they pushed it a bit far when they brought them in as the villains and definitely played up class issues for sure.

I'll be honest and say that I hadn't even really considered the racist implications, so I appreciate you posting a link to that tumblr, Kjerstin - definitely a well thought out analysis.

The Muppets will always

The Muppets will always remain one of my favorites. They're funny and yet just a little bit melancholy, which has always struck a chord with me. It's not easy being green, but it's who I am and what I want to be. I'll always be looking for the Rainbow Connection, even if I know it may just be for dreamers.

I didn't pick up on the racial overtones while I was watching the new movie, though now that you mention them, I can see them, and I admit to being disappointed by the filmmakers' choices in that regard.

In other news, though, Fox News apparently declared the movie to be liberal brainwashing, teaching our kids about class warfare since the bad guy is a rich businessman.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/12/05/fox-news-the-muppets-are-commun...

Apparently it's impossible for a film to please everyone.

"What's WRONG with being rich?" Oh, my.

I liked Slate's piece about this a lot, too. It's funny to me since, yeah, the villain is a greedy rich man--but how has Fox failed to notice that the work of Jim Henson and his cohorts has always had liberal and/or humanist values? That's one of the reasons I like it so much! Forty years ago, conservatives were boycotting Sesame Street. Maybe it's true that some things never change.

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