Merrick Garland is going through his confirmation for the Attorney General position. We’ve reached a milestone of 500,000 Americans dead due to COVID-19 and the vaccine distribution has been ramped up dramatically over the last five weeks. The Mars Perseverance rover has touched down and is beaming sound back to Earth. Amidst this, the Trump-era Republicans are focused on The Muppet Show, a television series which last broadcast almost exactly forty years ago.
For perspective, this would be akin to a political party, in the midst of the Reagan era cold war, freaking out about The Shadow radio show. Not The Honeymooners or I Love Lucy – both of those were only thirty years old at the time, far too contemporary and modern for accurate comparison.
There is a strong case to be made that people can pay attention to multiple issues simultaneously, but that statement is deceptive. While people can focus on a variety of issues, we have our limits; as some priorities become ascendant others are set aside. Something like The Muppet Show should not reasonably be a matter for political discourse at the moment.
It’s a cultural touchstone for people, though. Even those who were not of an age to grow up with The Muppet Show tend to fondly remember another Jim Henson work – most likely Sesame Street but possibly Fraggle Rock, Muppet movies, or Muppets Tonight. Because of that, the Muppets have always been an easy target for political outrage.
The latest controversy comes from Disney+’s decision to put a content warning before the show warning of negative depiction of other cultures. This has been used to generate histrionics about the show being “cancelled”.
There are two distinct ways to address this. First, recognition that the show was already cancelled, back in 1981. That’s what it means when a show goes off the air. Second, recognition that the current definition of “cancel” related to media figures is not applicable here: Disney+ is not removing the show or calling for a ban (it’s Disney; they don’t even consistently ban Song of the South, not while it can make them money) but simply throwing a warning about changing cultural attitudes.
Again, it’s a forty year old show. Of course attitudes have changed. Entire countries have come and gone over that time span. Commonly used terms in the 1970s, even those which were considered enlightened, have taken on negative ramifications and been discarded. A warning is appropriate. It’s not even new; “Sesame Street Old School”, a 2000s era set of DVDs of 1970s and 1980s Sesame Street shows, was rated PG because of the shifting views over content.
It’s not the first time Henson’s Muppets have stoked controversy. The complaints have been around for most of my lifetime. In the 1970s, there were criticisms that the Muppets were being included on Saturday Night Live and might encourage children to watch the show, despite being an entirely different cast of characters. There were concerns about Bert and Ernie, who were initially designed as a father and son pair, promoting single parent households; the duo were quickly shifted to roommates, making some of their earliest clips seem comparatively bizarre, with things like Bert checking in on Ernie before his bedtime. Roosevelt Franklin was pulled in the mid-1970s due to concerns of negative portrayals of black characters, and in response the Muppets pulled other “human” characters in favor of creating new monsters and animals… Prarie Dawn in particular, the blonde girl used in many early sketches, was quietly retired.
The trend continued. In the 1980s people were upset that Fraggle Rock was an HBO show and thus excluding poor children from watching it. Yoda, being a Muppet, was predicted to “ruin” the Star Wars franchise when the character design was leaked before The Empire Strikes Back’s release. Because Bert and Ernie were no longer father and son, gay activists decided they had to be a couple and demanded they be “out”. There was concern about swapping Kermit as the main host during Muppets Tonight. About an Israeli version of Sesame Street incorporating an Arab-speaking character, as if that meant we were going to have a Sesame Street jihad. About an HIV-positive character being introduced in the South African version, which might presage Grover coming down with AIDS. About funding being pulled from PBS which was somehow going to mean “the Republicans are trying to kill Big Bird” despite federal funding for the cash cow show being unnecessary.
Sometimes the show even sought controversy in an effort to stay relevant. The prime-time ABC The Muppets show featured Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie and the rest engaging in human-Muppet romantic relationships, backbiting, conniving, offensive language, gun violence, undergoing “spiritual discovery” and effectively treading much of the same casually offensive ground that Greg the Bunny and Meet the Feebles had explored more than a decade earlier.
One thing that never changed, no matter who was trying to make people upset? It was just a television show. More important things were going on. The Muppet outrage of the day was just an attempted distraction, something off of which people thought they could score some easy political points by appealing to childhood memories while diverting attention from other issues.
To push this line at a time when there was a recent coup attempt and half a million Americans have died from a mishandled disease is shameful. Something is juvenile and stuck in the past, and in this case it’s not The Muppet Show.