As I’ve gushingly written before, I loved the new muppet movie. But in my initial review I was remiss in not mentioning that there was one glaringly troubling aspect of the film that nagged me when I first saw it and has bothered me more each time I’ve watched the film since. The problem is the filmmakers’ dubious choice to employ signifiers of urban, and specifically black, culture as markers of villainy.
A tumblr called The Millenium Kids has done a fine job decoding the implicit messaging:
Underpinning this entire drama is the juxtaposition of the clean, safe, neighborly Smalltown with the dirty, violent and hostile urban city. To say that this dichotomy has historically been predicated on the nostalgia for all-white rural homogeneity is not exactly a quantum leap. The sentimentality that surrounds fifties-style community is often expressed through a fear of the urban, which transposes quite naturally into (and is often meant as nothing but a coded expression of) a fear of non-white minorities.
Before the accusation comes that we are reading too much into this, the depiction of ‘The Moopets,’ and the positioning of them as greedy, violent villains says otherwise. The Moopets are entirely composed of Muppets that were darker-toned to begin with or are conspicuously darkened versions of light-toned ones. In the case of dress, clearly the Moopet versions of Fozzie, Miss Piggy and Janice are so overtly racialized as ‘thugs’ as to make the point clear.
Last, but certainly not least, comes the fact that these characters align themselves with Chris Cooper, the primary antagonistic in the film, who, in his one musical number, delivers a parody rap called ‘Let’s Talk About Me.’
In this, the racial coding finally becomes crystal clear: the villains rap, the heroes sing. But, even beyond that, we have the extra racism that is inherent in what these days passes as hip-hop parody.
I also would add that there was something at least mildly transphobic about Miss Poogy’s characterization too.
It’s a great disservice to The Muppet Show‘s legacy to cast the muppets lopsidedly as symbolic only of all that is musically and comedically vanilla. Definitive of the original show’s spirit was its gleefully anarchic comedic subversion and joyous musical ecumenicalism. As I mentioned in my previous review, the muppets were always deeply ironic and meta. Their defining schtick was that they were total weirdos engaged in unrestrained, mayhem inducing, creative self-expression, loaded with tons of lovable irreverence and acting out. There are also passionate, uncompromising, insecure artists among them (like Gonzo, especially in his original incarnation). The joy of the muppets was watching ugly monsters with funny voices unabashedly sing and dance and play instruments and put on skits and in the process turn old comedic and musical standards alike into absurdities and quirky musical and visual revelations.
It is, frankly, weird when rewatching the original muppet show (as I’ve been doing of late) to imagine that there would be any musical genre the muppets wouldn’t embrace with abandon and wholly incorporate into their own unique idiom. It’s hard to imagine they would not have found their own way to celebrate rap music with any less sincerity or humor or integrity than they encompassed every other genre they encountered in their heyday. Why rap would only fit into their world as the music of villainous threat is wholly unclear. Is the message of the new muppet movie really that the muppets are unhip and unadaptable?
Is the overwhelming nostalgia of the film not only a charming storytelling angle for the target audience of adults who loved them as kids, but also the embodiment of a (false) belief that the muppets thrived in the past because the times and their routines were unremittingly wholesome in some almost reactionary and reality-denying way? Because such a thesis rather incredibly underestimates the progressive, experimentalist, subversive overdrive that was ’70s culture in general and its Muppet Show in particular. The Muppet Show translated the whole spectrum of several decades’ worth of adult entertainment culture into a vibrant language that was accessible and appropriate for all ages. That was way cooler a thing to do than sanitize or demonize contemporary trends and offer retrograde pollyanna fantasies as an ideal.
I do have one other qualm that didn’t hit me when I first saw the film but has irked me a bit in subsequent viewings. There’s a strong theme in key songs in the film that the only source of happiness in life is having other people around. The idea that nothing is enjoyable alone is an annoying denial of the experience of introverts and happily single people. I am, myself, both an extrovert and an introvert and a (usually) happily single person myself. Contrary to the songs, it is possible to find alone time more fulfilling than pathetic and there are other ways to “have everything that you need” besides having someone right there next to you to sing along.