Max's Blog

How Pop Culture Leads and Misleads

Tag: Muppets

Miss Piggy Turned Me Gay

Muppet-Film "The Muppet Movie"

I’m sorry to disappoint you but Bert and Ernie are not gay. They’re not. When Jim Henson and Frank Oz created them for Sesame Street they were intended as a tribute to the grand tradition of mix-matched comic duos—Laurel and Hardy, Abbot and Costello, Felix and Oscar of ‘The Odd Couple’. The fact that in the decades since people have come to view them as a gay couple says more about the normalization of homosexuality and the decline of the comic duo than anything intended by the Children’s Television Workshop.

“They’re puppets,” explained Steve Whitmore, who’s performed Ernie since Henson’s death. “They don’t exist below the waist.” But denials have only added fuel to the fire. With a smirk, gay men enjoy ‘outing’ these symbols of childhood with the same relish they used to reserve for ‘outing’ Hollywood actors. With a continued dearth of same-sex role models in popular culture Bert and Ernie have been enlisted as gay marriage symbols, appearing on placards, buttons, and t-shirts. Men dressed in Bert and Ernie costumes have even been married at gay pride parades. When it came to celebrating the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Defense of Marriage Act last June The New Yorker chose not an image of a flesh and blood couple but an illustration of the two Muppets cuddling.

It’s not just allies who suspect same-sex shenanigans at 123 Sesame Street.

“Bert and Ernie are two grown men sharing a house and a bedroom,” claimed the Reverend Joseph Chambers on his radio show. “They share clothes, eat and cook together and have blatantly effeminate characteristics… If this isn’t meant to represent a homosexual union, I can’t imagine what it’s supposed to represent.”

The Reverend clearly knows nothing of the show or, for that matter, fashion. Ernie has only ever worn horizontal stripes. Bert, being the more practical one, wears vertical, along with a very 1970’s turtleneck. As for being effeminate, Ernie is a disorganized mess while no stylish gay men would allow the caterpillar that stretches across Bert’s forehead to go un-tweezed.

Bert and Ernie sleep in separate beds, are rarely physical with each other, and never say lovey-dovey things. In fact, they seem ready to murder each other most of the time. (“Sounds like a lot of couples I know,” I can hear you saying.)

But everyone has it wrong. Bert and Ernie are meant to teach children they can be friends with people different from themselves. There’s nothing ‘gay’ about them, save for Ernie’s love of bubble baths. If Reverend Chambers is really worried about kids being introduced to queer culture he needs to move past Bert and Ernie. He should condemn an entirely different show and an entirely different Muppet.

It was Miss Piggy who turned me gay.

Despite the celebrity cameos and pop culture spoofs, ‘Sesame Street’ was always meant for children, but Jim Henson was weary of being seen as a kids’ entertainer. It took years for him to get it on the air but ‘The Muppet Show’, which ran from 1976 to 1981, was meant to correct this misconception. Henson sought to prove a show with puppets could have universal appeal.

Like Walt Disney and the creators of the Warner Brothers’ cartoons before them, Henson and his Muppet Workshop forgot to create female characters. (When a girl was needed on ‘Sam and Friends’, Henson’s first TV show, he’d throw a blonde wig on Kermit. If only Reverend Chambers had seen that!) There was the odd exception, such as a purple Muppet named Mildred who, with a perm and cat’s eye glasses, resembled a Fraggle librarian. But at the beginning ‘The Muppet Show’ was an overwhelmingly male affair with male characters performed by male puppeteers. Like a true star Miss Piggy would have to invent herself.

The Muppet performers had used a homely lady-pig puppet in a few TV specials but she lacked a name and distinctive personality. Before the first season of ‘The Muppet Show’ Muppet designer Bonnie Erickson replaced the puppet’s beady black eyes with large blue ones and dressed her in a silk dress with lilac gloves. A permanently attached handkerchief was used to conceal the puppet’s arm rod. Paying tribute to Peggy Lee, Erickson named the puppet Miss Piggy Lee, but the ‘Lee’ was swiftly dropped to avoid offending the singer.

Initially Miss Piggy lacked a distinctive voice. Frank Oz and Richard Hunt shared the responsibility of performing her, with the latter giving her a flouncy British accent and a stuffy, Margaret Dumont-ish character. But as Oz gradually took over, Miss Piggy’s personality asserted itself.

During one rehearsal, Henson and Oz were working on a scene in which Piggy slapped Kermit. Oz thought a karate chop was funnier, paired with a dramatic “hiii-yah!”

“Suddenly, that hit crystallized her character for me,” Oz told the New York Times. “The coyness hiding the aggression; the conflict of that love with her desire for a career; her hunger for a glamour image; her tremendous out-and-out ego…” As they say, a star was born.

Befitting a diva who stepped out of the chorus, Miss Piggy soon took over. With practically no other females to compete with (other than the androgynous guitarist Janice, originally designed as a big-lipped tribute to Mick Jagger) Piggy would grow in stature to become the only woman the Muppets needed. Her costumes multiplied. Her production numbers became more elaborate. She peppered her speech with ridiculous bastardizations of French, a habit perhaps inspired by the legendary Hollywood agent Sue Mengers. Miss Piggy thought nothing of throwing herself at male guest stars, or stealing scenes from great beauties like Raquel Welch.

Pigs, despite their documented intelligence, are thought of as dirty, rotund, and as far away from showbiz glamour as possible. But as a little kid I never took Miss Piggy as a joke. I accepted her beauty and elegance sincerely. For me, she was the star she believed herself to be. This was perfect training for my eventual love of drag queens, who also don sequined gowns, feather boas, and demand you take their star personae seriously.

Miss Piggy taught me that femininity and glamour are constructs. They are costumes anyone can wear providing you have the right attitude. I was a slightly effeminate little boy who collected ‘My Little Ponies’ and owned a pair of Jelly sandals. Miss Piggy showed it was okay to be girly, that there was even power in being feminine.

Of course, simmering just below her fuzzy peach surface, Miss Piggy had a well of anger and aggression that busted out in karate chops, punches, and kicks. When she got mad, Frank Oz lowered her voice from its regular high-pitched coo to a low, gruff, streetwise snarl. Being a lady is all well and good, but when the going gets tough, the pig gets rough. A lilac glove can sometimes conceal a fist.

Miss Piggy is a pushy, bullying, manipulative, insecure, egoist. There’s more Diana Ross in her than Peggy Lee. She should be unlikeable.

But she has one trait that humanizes her. She loves Kermit. He’s her Achilles Hoof. Her love for him is pure, passionate, and pathetic. She humiliates herself over and over just to get his attention. As Frank Oz said, quoted in Brian Jay Johnson’s new biography of Jim Henson, “She wants that little green body so badly.” And Kermit, for the most part, brushes her off and ignores her. Loving someone incapable of reciprocating is a tragedy every queer person who’s fallen for a heterosexual can understand.

Miss Piggy eventually snagged Kermit via a surprise wedding at the end of ‘The Muppets Take Manhattan’ (1984). The ceremony was performed by an actual New York city minister and in the years since puppets and performers alike have enjoyed teasing fans about whether the characters are ‘actually married’ or not. Either way, the union of frog and pig and the nullification of their romantic tension brought a symbolic close to the Muppets’ Golden Age.

I love Miss Piggy, but I realize her characteristics as I’ve listed them aren’t exactly those of a role model. With her diva behavior and camp aesthetic, Miss Piggy is a throwback to the closeted gay world before the Stonewall Riots, when queer men worshipped Mae West and a sharp, sardonic tongue was their only weapon. By the time ‘The Muppet Show’ was at its height, gay men had already moved on to body-building and Donna Summer. Perhaps this is why Pride Parades feature Bert and Ernie and not Miss Piggy. Miss Piggy, with her exaggerated femininity, barely concealed aggression, and pining love of a ‘straight’ man, reminds gays of their past. Bert and Ernie as a committed couple is a more useful symbol for gay activists still fighting for same-sex marriage, even if it is a projection of fans. Puppeteers aren’t the only ones who can pull the strings.

Advertisements

C is for Cleavage

 

Katy Perry, of the neon costumes and bubbly voice, makes total sense as a guest star on Sesame Street.  (Unlike her Dadaesque rival Lady Gaga, who wore a dress made from massacred Kermit the Frog dolls which I’m pretty sure the United Nations recognized as a Crime against Puppetry.)

In the clip, Perry wants to play dress-up with Elmo but, being the diva that he is, he waffles and runs away. She then launches into a version of her song ‘Hot N Cold’: “You—Want to play—So I wore—Dress-up clothes…”   

Suddenly, Katy Perry’s carnival clothing style makes perfect sense: this whole time she’s been trying to play dress-up with Muppets! And when your play date is covered in fluorescent fur naturally, you know you got to bring it.

Anyways, the scene was posted on youtube and some parents voiced concern about Katy’s cleavage, particularly in the running sequence. Despite the fact that she’s wearing a sheer top, and that without a bit of skin she would be unrecognizable as Katy Perry, the producers went all “Yes–and then No” and shelved the number.

How disappointing to Katy, Elmo and all the little gay toddlers out there! Perry’s boyfriend comedian and sex maniac Russell Brand (a reporter recently suggested the two be nicknamed ‘Krusty’) already tweeted “Today’s episode will not be brought to you by the numbers 34 and the letter D.”

I heard an intriguing thought about it on MTV Canada, of all places, when the host asked if a less-busty woman would have been criticized for the same outfit. “Was Katy Perry dropped because of her body type?”

They’re just boobs, people. They’re not a big deal, but Americans have a habit of freaking out over them. Remember Janet Jackson’s Nipple-gate? In France, topless ads are in supermarkets and porno sold openly at newsstands. I’ve heard that First Lady Carla Bruni attends charity banquets stark naked.

And most children have already seen boobies. At least, their moms’.

That’s all I have to say about this, but I felt I had to note the story. The overlapping of Katy Perry, ideas about sexuality, and the Muppets is right where I want to be.

Roomies

More than the ‘freshmen fifteen’, snogging in the library and the rumpled walk of shame after a night of debauchery, the undergraduate experience is defined by roommates. For the majority of students, living away from home for the first time overlaps with sharing close quarters with a random person, and can lead to the most remarkable, experimental living conditions. Suddenly, you realize that your roommate has never vacuumed ever in his entire life: not only does he not do it, he never even thinks of it. You wonder if he believes that machine with the long hose in the common room is some sort of abandoned conceptual art piece. At the same time, he quietly fumes at you for always having your friends in the room, sitting on your bed, loudly discussing the plot intricacies of whatever high school TV soap is currently in favour, while he tries to finish his paper on Voltaire which should have been handed in last week.

Movies, books and TV shows about college life always touch on the summer-winter conflicts of mismatched roomies. On Undeclared, Judd Apatow’s short-lived series which was a training ground for his crew of lovable slackers, Jay Baruchel was sexiled from his room in the middle of the night by his hot roommate. He meets an entire colony of pyjama-clad sexiles camped out in the lounge who play team-building exercises and create their own subculture. Tom Wolfe in I am Charlotte Simmons describes the exact same experience. In Felicity, the over-ernest heroine had a gothy roommate who dumped her stuff in the middle of the night, and wasn’t seen again until, in a painfully awkward scene, she walks in on Felicity discussing how weird she is to her friends. Mismatched roommates remain a source of inspiration for characters long-out of university: Jack Lemon and Walter Matthau in The Odd Couple, Chandler and Joey on Friends, even Ernie and Bert. (Who are just roommates, guys! Although I’m still unclear on whether they are supposed to be kids, like Big Bird and Grover, or Muppet humanoid adults. Thoughts?)

But odd couple roomies may go the way of pagers and land-lines thanks to a new social-networking app called Roommate Finder. As described by Zosia Bielski in The Globe and Mail, UofT’s housing website now allows students to create profiles (complete with cute personalized avatars), list their likes and dislikes, and cross-reference them to find a suitable match. After only a month, UofT’s Roommate Finder has six hundred users, and York, Mount Royal and University of Calgary have all adopted the similar program StarRez.

“It’s like a dating service,” a housing rep at Calgary said. “It’ll tell you that this person is 90 per cent compatible with you and then you can look at their profile.”

But on the downside, it’s like a dating service. As anyone who has every plentyoffish-ed knows, how a date comes across online can contrast starkly with the real person sitting across from you. And in this case, rather than simply suffer through an awkward coffee date, you’re looking at nine months of listening to their keyboard clacking.

But there’s a more central problem with Roommate Finder: sometimes you might not know what you want. Part of the incredible adventure of university life is being thrown together with people from different backgrounds and interests than your own. It can turn out terribly, but it can also fundamentally change who you are. Bielski acknowledges this in brackets: “And who knows, random, seemingly impossible matches by administrators might just yield students a friend for life.”

The girl profiled in Bielski’s piece had two major requirements, that she was okay with her being loud and that she also liked Glee. Now I’m all for bonding over late night DVD watching, but having a TV show in common does not mean your personalities will compliment. If I sought roomies based on two of my favourite shows I can envision finding people very different from myself: The West Wing might snare me a dweeby policy-wonk, while Sex and the City might attract an orange-tanned, peroxide blonde with a status purse swinging from her arm. (I realize while I type this that, if I followed my initial argument, I may very well end up being the best of friends with the dweeb or Elle Woods, because you never know with people, but the fact remains that a mutual TV show does not a friendship make.)

Speaking of Sex and the City, we had a roommate pair at Guelph who illustrates my point nicely. One was a tall, classic-rock loving artist from Toronto, the other a petite English student from a small town. The former decorated her walls with Rollingstone covers, the later with holographic illustrations of fairies. When she joined her roommate and I watching Sex and the City, she had never seen it before, but knew instinctively she was a Charlotte (the traditional one). In the scene in which Samantha (the non-traditional one) claims that she’s dating a guy “with the funkiest-tasting spunk in the world”, she was so shocked, she considered getting up and leaving the room. But when the character Charlotte responded on the show by getting up and leaving the restaurant, she was too embarrassed to do the same thing, so she stayed. She ended up loving the show, had a good relationship with her roommate, and she and I, the farm-girl and the queer atheist, are still friends.

There was a similar situation with a young woman who came out as lesbian shortly after moving in, and her roommate from Virginia. The girl from Virginia showed up in a pick-up truck and to pass the time on move-in day actually whittled. The lesbian told me later that she was thinking ‘Oh good God…!’ But they also turned out to have a good relationship. I’ll remember them for their refrain for dealing with issues directly before they became passive-aggressive nightmares. They would say something like, “Dear Roomie, I love you a lot, you are an amazing person and I cherish you in my life, but if you leave your clothes on the floor (or whatever) one more time I’m going to SCREAM.” As far as I know, it worked.

Part of university is meeting different people, testing yourself and expanding who you thought you were. I worry that, by scoping out six hundred people’s profiles to see who also likes Arcade Fire and The Wire, students will become as fickle with roommates as singles are with dating. It’s funny that social networking which was born of university life (facebook, before your aunt Lorraine joined, was for embarrassing drunken pictures, and it was founded by former college roommates), may deny the next generation of undergrads one of the defining experiences of young adulthood.

Duplicable Me

I finally went to see Despicable Me last night, arriving just late enough to miss most of the trailer for Disney’s Rapunzel movie (now titled Tangled) which I have become interested in mostly due to the involvement of Miss Kristin Chenoweth and, as a member of the Little Mermaid-generation, a nostalgically emotional investment in the return of Disney’s princess movies.

Despicable Me is a witty, visually splendid escape from the worries of your day. We were chuckling out loud from the very beginning at a surprisingly-politically incorrect intro in which a group of American tourists (fat, t-shirted and camera ready, their bus blaring ‘Sweet Home, Alabama’ into the Egyptian desert) discover one of the great pyramids has been stolen, replaced with a deflating tarp. An over-caffeinated news report about the extent other countries are taking to protect their landmarks follows: the Wall of China is shown surrounded by tanks, which all aim and fire at a passing dove.

The plot concerns the rivalry between high-tech super-villains (who hold countries to ransom but, importantly never appear to kill anyone). Gru, voiced by Steve Carell, is a vaguely-Russian mastermind who works with apparent immunity from his neighbourhood, figuring out grand things to steal with the inventions built by his army of little, yellow, pip-squeak minions. He adopts three little girls from an orphanage who sell cookies in order to break into the lair of his rival Vector (an over-the-top nerd stereotype voiced by Jason Segel). Of course, the girls, through their cuteness and sass, begin to soften Gru’s rough edges and we all know where the story’s going.

The movie is a continuation of the subgenre of computer-animated super hero/villain films, with its high-tech inventions and family values evoking The Incredibles most directly. But Despicable Me borrows a number of motifs from a range of cartoons, television and film of the last fifty years. 

First, there’s the look of Gru himself: with his oval head, deep-set eyes and total absence of neck, he’s a dead-ringer for The Addams Family Uncle Fester, both Christopher Llyod’s movie version and the original New Yorker drawings of Charles Addams. Gomez and Morticia would also feel at home at his house, a hilariously renovated gothic version of the suburban townhouses that surround it.  When the three little girls are picked up by Gru and cautiously step into their child-unfriendly new home, I was reminded of the identical scene in the almost-forgotten Jim Carrey vehicle Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. I couldn’t even find a picture of the little girls online to illustrate this point, which shows you how much they were pushed out of the previews in favour of the more action-packed shenanigans of the two super-villains.

Both in animation and tone, the film resembles Warner Brother’s cartoons, especially those frustrating crusades of Wile E. Coyote. One half expects to see the name ‘Acme’ on Gru’s rickety tools of destruction. Gru’s machines, all metal and bolts and occasionally-exploding, are clearly IBM to his rival Vector’s Mac, whose look is all sleek white plastic. This was the same visual dichotomy of the star-crossed robots Walle and Eve in their post-apocalyptic romance.

Finally, the concept of having an army of cute little workers hidden under one’s house is indebted to Willy Wonka and his Oompa Loompas (while I complained that the appearance of the minions, who are essentially yellow ovals, should have been developed more realistically, I am certainly glad that they don’t look like little people in orange make-up!), but they kept reminding me of the industrious Doozers from Fraggle Rock, continuingly rebuilding their crystal towers which the Fraggles ate casually and compulsively.

All of which is fine. Most movies draw on a myriad of inspirations and, by putting them together, create something new. Nothing despicable about that.

 

Can Jason Segel Save The Muppets?

The GQ magazine that I’ve previously posted about (whose cover with Taylor Lautner cover I rather embarrassingly lusted over) has an interview with Jason Segel of I Love You, Man or Forgetting Sarah Marshall or How I Met Your Mother or Freaks and Geeks-fame. Although perhaps 90% of viewers remember Sarah Marshall for the infamous penis scene, there’s a small cadre who were more impressed by the Dracula puppet show finale. We are Muppet fans, an often difficult dedication over the two decades since Jim Henson’s passing. We have sat through some terrible films and TV shows, and Jason Segel, as a Muppet fan himself, knows our pain. Indeed, he’s our last best hope for reclaiming Kermit and company’s former glory.

In the interview, he recounts a sad scene at the Henson Company, who designed the puppets for the Sarah Marshall vampire show. Segel asked if he could see a Kermit or a Miss Piggy. After a pause, the Henson people admitted “We don’t have Kermits or Piggys. We sold everything to Disney.” Later, when he had a meeting at with Walt’s company during which a bunch of executives pitched him projects, he interrupted and said “Thank you, this is all very flattering, but listen. You guys own the Muppets and you’re just kind of sitting on ‘em. I really love the Muppets, and I think I know how to bring the franchise back.” After some laughter, and his pledge that he wasn’t going to make it ironic or Judd Apatow-esque, Disney relented. Jason Segel is getting to make his Muppet Movie.

Whether he’s able to succeed at taking on where The Muppets Take Manhattan left off will rest on how he balances the trinity of humour, music and heart. Humour for Segel will presumably not be a problem. I have faith that his funniness is not solely of the R-rated, penis-exposing variety. Music has proven an obstacle for post-1990 Muppet vehicles, partly because the scores of the original three movies were so legendary. But they’ve signed on James Bobin, co-creator of Flight of the Conchords, to direct, which is an inspired choice.

Then there’s the question of heart. It’s difficult to strike the right tone and not go schmaltzy. Surprisingly, the original Muppet Show TV show, which made Miss Piggy, Fozzie and Gonzo household names, had very little emotion in it; the show was largely made up of terrible Vaudeville one-liners, covers of classic and contemporary songs during which things would explode, and 1970’s guest stars attempting to achieve rapport with a green felt frog. All the heart came from the films; in The Muppet Movie, Gonzo’s melancholy song in the desert followed by Kermit’s outburst at the gang claiming he didn’t promise them anything; in The Great Muppet Caper, Kermit’s disillusion with Miss Piggy after she lied about being the designer Lady Holiday (Diana Rigg in a drag queen role); and, of course, The Muppets take Manhattan, whose ‘Saying Goodbye’ song and final wedding scene bring a tear to every Muppet-fan’s eye.

Segel had to reference the ‘Saying Goodbye’ song often during pitch meetings. “I kept getting notes from, like, the Muppet brass saying, ‘Muppets are never sad. Muppets never break up.’ And I had to be like, ‘No—they do. And that’s the best part.’”

Suddenly, the last few years of mediocrity are explained: Disney had no idea what they had bought! They thought they had acquired a pantheon of cheery, furry characters to stand alongside mindless Mickey and gang.

 (Mickey Mouse, it must be said, finally and loudly, is the single most uninteresting character in Western culture. His sole characteristic is having satellite-dish shaped ears, which turn his head into three perfect circles, becoming the ideal copyrighted logo, which is all Disney needs of him. Okay, I’m done.)

They completely misunderstood the characters. While the Muppets are zany, neuroses were always just below the fake fur. They’re all a bunch of losers. Fozzie is just a lost little boy, who has mistaken Kermit for his father and uses (bad) jokes to get attention. Ditto with Gonzo, only he likes daredevil stunts (I won’t get into his poultry-philia here).

And how to summarize Miss Piggy? Frank Oz didn’t like doing female characters and I think his being uncomfortable accounts for Piggy’s continual tension between the feminine and the masculine. She tries, desperately, to be glamorous and elegant, but she inevitably fails and when she does, she screams, and threatens, and karate-chops. Camp has been described as the failure of femininity, and Miss Piggy could be the textbook example.

Like all them, she wants Kermit’s love and approval and when it becomes too much for his nonexistent green shoulders he berates them. The fact that Kermit can be earnest and well-meaning but still get frustrated makes him very real.

But these are just my feelings about the Muppets. I’m sure Jason Segel has his own and they come from the same committed place. The Muppet Wikia site, which has literally everything you could ever want to know about the Muppets (and I know that people use that word incorrectly, but it’s an incredibly exhaustive resource) outlined two potential plots for the new movie. The first is classic Muppet and is about getting the whole gang out of retirement to save the Muppet theatre from an evil rich oil man. The second, a meta film called The Cheapest Muppet Movie Ever, is based on an idea Henson himself  worked on before his death. In it, the Muppets have to make a film with a budget that keeps getting slashed, while the production values of the film you’re watching get visibly cheaper and cheaper.

The plots ultimately don’t matter much. The Muppet movies of the 1970’s and 1980’s revived the standard stories of classic musicals (“Let’s go to Hollywood/Broadway and become famous and make people happy!”), hopeful plots for a cynical time. What will matter is whether Segel can find a way to expose another organ, his heart, through Jim Henson’s complex creatures.