Let me begin by saying: I love the Muppets.
When I’m feeling sick, I watch old clips on YouTube or curl up with a bowl of soup and the Muppet Movie on DVD. One of my favorite childhood toys was a stuffed Kermit the Frog that was so beloved, his green fuzz started to wear off in well-loved patches. I have framed, signed watercolors of Muppet characters hanging in my office; Beaker is on the back of my cell phone case. For a brief second, I cried in the theatre during the opening scene of the Jason Segel reboot. There is such a — a purity to those characters, a rare form of inclusiveness. Age, race, gender, whatever: doesn’t matter. They’re for everybody. The Muppets are joy. The Muppets are love.
So I was fascinated to read Miss Piggy’s op-ed in Time Magazine yesterday. (You read that right: Miss Piggy, with a little help from the Jim Henson Corporation, penned a piece articulating her gratitude for receiving the Sackler Center First Award from the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum, an award co-presented by Gloria Steinem, designed to honor extraordinary women who are “first in their fields.”)
It’s adorable. It’s funny, it’s clever, it’s written quite clearly in Piggy’s voice, spanning her days from the 4H farm and mud pit to her current status as Hollywood darling and international star. And what’s more, it’s hitting at some important aspects of feminism, sprinkled with just enough winking insider references to karate chops:
I believe that any woman who refuses to accept society’s preconceived notions of who or what they can be is a feminist. I believe any woman who is willing to struggle, strive — and if necessary learn karate — to make their mark in the world is a feminist. And, yes, I believe that any woman, who cares about her appearance, her star billing and most especially her percentage of the gross, is a feminist.
Boom. Yes. Preach it, sister.
Here’s the thing about the Muppets. I grew up identifying mostly with Kermit. He’s the straight-man, constantly trying to lead the way, enormously optimistic, refusing to accept that there’s no problem that can’t be solved by a little bit of love and storytelling and laughter. He’s the long-suffering stage manager, trying his hardest to herd a bunch of crazies together, and while he might occasionally lose his temper, it’s instantly forgiven: he only wants what is best for the group, and he’s willing to sacrifice so much for the benefit of others. There is an incredible simplicity to his sentimentality that would be cloying in less skillful hands but is, in fact, beautiful. He is among very good company beside the lovers and the dreamers, as he sings in The Rainbow Connection, a song that can instantly make me feel both teary-eyed and hopeful, beautiful and sad. He’s an amazing blend of practicality and sensitivity and leadership. If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you’ll get why I like Kermit so much.
But I vividly remember, as a kid, feeling that I should probably like Miss Piggy more. Telling adults that Miss Piggy was my favorite, because that’s what I was supposed to say. After all, Piggy was a girl, and I was a girl. Piggy liked to play dress-up, and I liked to play dress-up. Piggy didn’t suffer fools, and neither did I. Piggy wanted to be a performer, and so did I.
But Piggy could also be — well, let’s face it. A bully. She’s single-minded in her pursuit of Kermit, who seems to waver between halfhearted admiration and downright annoyance by her very presence. She smothers him in unwanted kisses and hugs, and then, after her advances are rejected, sends him flying with a single karate chop. She’s jealous and insecure, and often acts out, seeking attention. She’s constantly trying to upstage the human guest stars, stealing their thunder, seeking out the spotlight for herself. To be honest, she always irritated me. Stop hogging all the attention (pun sort of intended).
But as Piggy herself says in that op-ed: there’s nothing wrong with her behavior, nothing in her character that means she can’t be a feminist. And there’s not! (Well, minus the unwanted kissing of another person aspect; I’m awfully glad that’s disappeared over the years). You can be a feminist and care about your appearance, and want to get married, and pursue your goals with drive and with passion. That is all completely true! A+! Well done! How wonderful to be able to have this discussion at all: that there’s a portrayal of a PUPPET PIG in our pop culture lexicon that is complex and well-written enough that we can have an intelligent critical discussion of her character flaws.
The problem, of course — because there’s always a problem, isn’t there? — is that she’s pretty much all we have.
Male muppets abound in this universe. Kermit. Fozzie. Gonzo. Rowlf. Scooter. Beaker. Bunsen Honeydew. The Swedish Chef. Animal. Dr. Teeth. Floyd Pepper. Zoot. Lips. Sam the Eagle. Statler. Waldorf. Rizzo. Beauregard. Lew Zealand. Robin. Sweetums. Pepe the Prawn. Hundreds of others. Hundreds.
There are three ladies, at least with definable characteristics that I can easily name. Janice: the head-rolling, vaguely stoned member of the Electric Mayhem. Camilla, a chicken who is Gonzo’s girlfriend. And Piggy.
That’s it. Those are the three. That is IT.
I have a hypothesis about all of this, and it’s explained really well by Raphael Bob-Waksberg, creator of the animated Netflix series Bojack Horseman. (Some of you are undoubtedly thinking at this very moment, “Did she really go on a long tirade about the Muppets just to point out that the creator of a show about a depressed, animated horse once said a cool thing on Tumblr?” Yes. Yes, she did).
This post is amazing, and it’s amazing because it articulates what so many of us instinctively know to be true, and yet almost never, on a conscious level, realize is happening. He describes the process of creating the show’s minor background characters, and his gut-level discomfort at making those character female: not because he hates women, not because he’s not a feminist, not for any overt, finger-pointing reasons whatsoever. He’s uncomfortable making the background characters women because it complicates the joke.
The norm is male. Making a character female complicates the joke.
When we laugh at Fozzie Bear, we are laughing because his enthusiasm is so high and his talent so very, very low. We laugh because his terrible jokes will always bomb. We laugh because he is so full of optimism, despite all evidence to the contrary, that this time it’s gonna be better.
If Fozzie was a girl — dare I say — the jokes wouldn’t work as well. Because it would turn into a statement about whether or not women are funny. Because we’d wonder if there was some important meaning behind creating a female character that is also a terrible comedian. Because it’s adding a “second thing” about that character that we can’t totally process: understanding the joke of “terrible comic” is digestible in a way that “terrible lady comic” simply isn’t yet.
All of the characters who are beloved in this universe are loved precisely because they are oddballs and misfits, who are irritating and imperfect. And they’re all allowed to be that way. There are entire songs and movies dedicated to the idea that it’s okay not to fit in, that being yourself is important, and that together, you can accomplish anything.
Which is true. And beautiful. I just wish it could be said in such a way that little girls could hear it sung by other girl muppets as well.
But, of course: reality bites. In a hypothetical world, imagine that you swapped the genders of prominent Muppets, and introduced them as new characters today. Now imagine the outrage that would inevitably follow. A Female Sam the Eagle? It would be offensive to women, to create a lady eagle who is humorless and sour, patriotic to a fault, dour and dismissive and cold. A Lady Bunsen Honeydew – what, are you saying that all women are bad at science and blow things up, abusing their hapless assistants in the process? God forbid we create old-lady versions of Statler and Waldorf: as if we needed ANOTHER portrayal of women as constant critics and nags!
I can only imagine the kind of critical response Piggy would receive. A pig, for god’s sake. An animal associated with rolling in mud and gluttonous fattiness. Bacon. Oink, oink. That’s what you’re calling women. That’s fat-shaming. That’s saying terrible things about body image and women’s self-worth. And to boot: a pig that is self-absorbed, vain, materialistic. What the hell is wrong with you people?
So I get that what I’m about to ask here is tricky. If you’re reading this right now and you work for Henson Studios: you have my sympathies, because you are in a terrible position. You’ll be creating new content with the Muppets — they’ve announced a return of the Muppet Show, more movies will follow. So I’m aware that no matter what you do, there will be an instant backlash. The moment you write a female character with any kind of quirk, anything that is less than instantly forgivable — you’re facing the keyboard-clacking ire of a thousand feminists, myself perhaps even among them, demanding to know why you, a curator of media and children’s entertainment, have created such a negative portrayal of women.
That sucks. I’m sorry. And it’s also necessary. I need you to create those characters anyway.
If Miss Piggy is a feminist, then she believes in the equality of men and women. Alright, Henson Company. Then it’s time to see that equality represented on television and on screen. Time to share the spotlight, Pig. It’s absolutely time for more female muppets, more lady weirdos, more freaky puppets with hilarious flaws who just happen to be ladies.
Yeah, the jokes might be complicated for awhile. It might take our brains a bit to translate, to wonder why the joke is complicated, if it’s trying to make a statement about women or just entertain us. But if gender can be invisible in “lousy comedian” or “hapless stage manager” or “elderly heckler” or “insane drummer,” it can and should be equally irrelevant when female characters are created to inhabit those roles.
Feminism is for everybody. Including Piggy. Including puppets. Including you.