The Racial Coding In The Latest Muppet Movie

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.

Read more.

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.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Ajmimms alfredmimms

    Does art imitate life or life imitate art?

  • http://freethoughtblogs.com/almostdiamonds/ Stephanie Zvan

    Hear, hear! The Muppets really were so wonderfully subversive once upon a time, directly as a reflection of Jim Henson. If we lose that, we’ve lost too much.

    Making that change out of a sense of nostalgia is ridiculous as well. The Muppets were some of the first “people” to tell me that, no, childhood wasn’t all that. It was okay if it was scary and frustrating and sometimes lonely, because it was that way for everybody. Or at least the cool, fuzzy people.

  • Nomad

    You say a lot of how the Muppets went from some form of comedic anarchy to a too-orderly program. I agree.

    I think part of the problem is today’s parents. When I was little, albeit, that was not that long ago, I saw the Muppets as the uniquely crazy release of years of stress on the writers and directors of the show.

    They were in it for the fun of it, they didn’t do it for viewers. They didn’t try to be child friendly, they just were. The Muppets saw everything as a masterpiece, to ruin and recreate in their own image. They offended people with their spoofs and counterculture, and the people enjoyed it.

    Now, with helicopter parenting (big example of what I mean here:http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/headlines/2012/04/rotten-eggs-parents-blamed-for-canceled-easter-hunts/) everyone has to watch out, and make sure that the least amount of people are offended, or else they get a litigation. Now, with these parents, everything their child sees is sacred, and should be treated as such.

    I believe that the entire reason our TV and radio is so dull now is because of parents who care far, far too much about their child’s lives. It’s the bubble wrap generation at work!

    • sisu

      I believe that the entire reason our TV and radio is so dull now is because of parents who care far, far too much about their child’s lives.

      I know, right? We needmore parents who are actively disinterested in their kids and don’t bother to pay attention to their media consumption.

    • Nomad

      First off, I apologize that this isn’t entirely on topic of the Blog post.

      It’s good that that point was taken out of context.

      I never said that parents should actively have a disinterest in their children. I simple stated that their current interest goes beyond acceptable, and they should change that. Sure, paying attention to what your child sees in media is important, and maturity of programs should be monitored, but it is done to such an extent that there is no winning situation for the media.

      The news casters are quick to blame anything but faulty and overactive parenting for societal woes, but look at the generation that’s growing up now.

      Half of the shows from the 1990′s aren’t around anymore, the rest are relegated to a single channel, because they didn’t appeal to the parents.

      Children are starting school at 3 years of age, which is a bad thing, and it has proven in studies to delay higher level learning and creating more high school and college drop outs. Some of these preschools also teach multiple languages to their students. Imagine a 3 year old, who can’t even speak their native language, learning another one, or two.

      My own aunt has a physical therapist come to her home every week to help her babies with their motor skills and walking. These babies just turned 1. One year old. Their brains cant properly control their muscles, let alone muscles that aren’t even fully formed yet.

      Children who are good at sports are raised on a pedestal, which holds them up through high school. In college, they are just average, and fall harder than children who weren’t held up to these standards.

      There are electronic tracking devices for children now. Sure it’s for safety, but it shouldn’t be necessary. Any parent who has a decent amount of control over their child wouldn’t need this type of device.

      And then there’s this http://www.indigochild.com/. It completely shifts the blame from parents who spoil their children, to the children being some form of super humans.

      To summarize, parents should not spoil their children, and most do in this generation. They try to control every factor of their child’s lives, (Toddlers in Tiara’s is a great example.)

      Here’s a few other good snippets, full of scientific references, and compiled into a comedic delivery.
      http://www.cracked.com/article/195_7-things-good-parents-do-that-screw-up-kids-life/
      http://www.cracked.com/article_19762_7-random-things-you-wont-believe-are-shortening-your-life.html

    • sisu

      Look jackass, 63% of American adults have children. Any group that large is NOT going to be a monolith, okay? There are helicopter parents and parents who give their kids freedom. There are parents of “indigo children” and there are parents who live in reality. And I personally find it really fucking insulting that you are making all kinds of uninformed assumptions about my parenting or anyone else’s based on what you read on cracked.com.

      Also? MOST of 90′s TV is not on TV any more. Not just kid’s shows. Sheesh.

    • Nomad

      I never questioned your parenting. Based on your defensiveness and skillful use of ad hominem, other readers could make some assumptions.

      I made no uninformed assumptions about parenting. I have done the research, the articles I linked have quite a few good sources that are worth checking out. Your response shows that you have not read half of my reply, so I’ll keep this one short.

      Don’t take it so personal, relax, take a chill pill, life’s good, put the lime in the coconut, and try meditating.

      [There are parents of “indigo children” and there are parents who live in reality.]

      This made me chuckle. At least you get that much.

    • Dalillama

      Some of these preschools also teach multiple languages to their students. Imagine a 3 year old, who can’t even speak their native language, learning another one, or two.

      Worked great for my sister, who now speaks 4+. It’s also the standard in many places, where multiple languages are regularly in use in a childs’ surroundings. In fact, that’s the best time to start multiple languages if you want someone who will be fully fluent in more than one as an adult; the earlier you get started the better able you are to learn them.

  • http://1minionsopinion.wordpress.com 1minion

    I never twigged to any of that stuff when I watched it. Next time I’ll pay closer attention. I won’t say you’re reading too much into it; I’ve read a lot of the papers people published in the area of Buffy studies.

    Entertainment might reflect our culture, but often it’s in a fun-house mirror kind of way, suddenly bringing to the forefront something otherwise “ordinary” but now warped and disturbing.

  • Dark Jaguar

    I read an article about a scientific study that demonstrated that kids can learn 2 languages at exactly the same rate they would normally pick up 1. Unfortunately I can’t find the link at the moment. Kids simply are superior language learners than adults. I think a step further could be taken to teach them some programming languages at that time, but then again that sort of language may still be beyond them. I don’t know.

    I will say I’m not so sure that interpretation of the movie is right. I think they were just having a comedy moment of Fozzy at the end of his rope gathering a bunch of “wrong side of the tracks” sorts, not really “ghetto”. A number of them looked like they were pulled straight out of a truck stop somewhere. Is it offensive? Sure, but rather than racist I think it was more about “seedy” people, and sadly such people exist. It’s why I never go to any restaurant with more than 20 motorcycles outside it. I’ll probably knock them all over and find out they aren’t as bad as I thought and get a free ride to Vegas to stop the wedding in time. Um, not sure where I went just there.

    The thing about “rap music” is that the 90′s kinda ruined ever using it in a kid’s movie again. The 90′s attempted to use “rap” in every single kid’s product to try and seem “hip” and “cool” and above all disingenuously manipulative. For those of us that spent our teen years growing up in that mess, “rapping” characters in a movie came across not as “too black” but simply embarrassing. Think about Smokey the Bear “rapping” about forest fires. We ended up so disgusted by spectacles of backwards hats on adults trying to look cool that any attempt to do it now just gets laughed off. Kids today still see that now and again. The “boss” rapping about how evil he is was NOT an attack on black culture, it was a parody of how silly and over the top that sort of thing was in the 90′s. It was made all the more obvious by how completely out of the blue and how silly the song was.

    There are a number of older writers online who do all seem to have not realized that “hipping up” a message just alienates the generation you’re trying to appeal to. There’s a message there in general about reaching kids. Just be honest and frank about it. Don’t couch yourself in respect by authority or age, but don’t pretend to be “down with” the things kids like, because firstly, not ALL kids like it (I never was a big fan of the rap genre), and secondly, it comes off as shallow because everyone notices every last detail you get either wrong or cartoonishly exaggerated.

  • Anat

    Some of these preschools also teach multiple languages to their students. Imagine a 3 year old, who can’t even speak their native language, learning another one, or two.

    It is actually better for neurological development to raise children multi-lingual from the start. Children raised bilingual have better executive function than those raised monolingually. See for example Bilingual infants have better mental control.

  • Amphigorey

    Thank you for posting this. The fact that the Moopets were coded as black really bothered me, and it stood out in an otherwise enjoyable, fun movie.

    I don’t think the moviemakers were consciously racist; it’s just another example of how easy it is to fall into racist (or sexist or ableist) behavior if you don’t examine it at all.

  • nomadic

    http://www.earlychildhoodnews.com/earlychildhood/article_view.aspx?ArticleID=38

    That study was done in 2008, by a professor of psychology. It is proven to be bad to start at a young age. Starting around 7 years of age seems to be better for bilingual learning. 3 years of age is 4 years short, which, as I stated, is bad.


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