A Disney+ disclaimer creates a cultural uproar
Like so many people of a certain age, I grew up watching The Muppet Show. The songs and sketches hummed in my brain, goofy background noise for years. After my son was born, and during the years when he was basically under my cultural control, I bought a collection of Muppet Show episodes on DVD and shared the delights with him. And when I watched the recent Disney+ Muppets reboot, I thought, this is OK, but it’s sure not the old Muppet Show.
Then, last week, more than 100 episodes of The Muppet Show appeared on Disney+. This would take my Muppet Show memories to a new level, and help escort me down the long slope to senescence. I chose the Steve Martin episode first. My wife likes Steve Martin, so I knew she’d watch that with me. So I was surprised when, before the episode, I saw this disclaimer:
The Muppet Show, the mandatory disclaimer said, features “negative depictions and/or mistreatment of people or cultures.” These stereotypes, it added, “were wrong then and are wrong now.” But Disney has decided to include them anyway to spark conversation and lead us toward a more “inclusive future together.”
What? Could it be? Was my beloved Muppet Show racist? I needed to watch some episodes and find out.
The answer is definitely: Yes. At the same time: Where else are you going to see Debbie Harry sing ‘Call Me’ with an all-puppet band?
Marvin Suggs and his amazing dancing stereotype machine
The racism on the Muppet Show takes a very specific form. Jim Henson was a progressive supporter of civil rights. So the Muppet Show doesn’t, as far as I could see, contain any racism against Black people. Maybe there’s some sketch with Bob Hope and the dancing Blackface chickens that I missed, but nothing stuck out. The Muppets had many prominent Black guest hosts, including Dizzy Gillespie, Lena Horne, Harry Belafonte, Diana Ross, and Ben Vereen.
The one exception to that rule comes in the Johnny Cash episode. Unlike other Muppet guest hosts, who bandy about backstage sharing their dressing-room concerns with Kermit, Cash spends his time sitting in a barn setting, singing “Dirty Old Egg-Sucking Dog” and “Orange Blossom Special” directly in front of a Confederate flag. That might have flown in 1978, but now our culture considers the Confederate flag basically the American Nazi flag. It’s cringey, but it’s also Johnny Cash singing with the Muppets. So what are you going to do?
If you’re Hispanic, there might be more material to find offensive. The occasional sombrero-wearing mariachi player pops up, muttering the odd ay yi yi. The show’s very first episode features Rita Moreno doing a ridiculous Puerto Rican “street” accent while Miss Piggy mocks her. But it also features Moreno dancing with, and then kicking the crap out of, a stereotypical French Muppet wearing a beret and a twirly mustache.
The Muppet Show’s real crime is trafficking in broad ethnic categories that no longer even remotely apply. The proper tea-and-crumpet Londoner, the effete, wine-swilling Frenchman, the bork bork bork Swedish chef had their days. But other than the chef, who’s so absurd that he’s basically become his own category of person, the categories don’t apply anymore. And some of them are way more offensive than others.
I surfed through old episodes of The Muppet Show, watching the Muppets sing with Julie Andrews and Debbie Harry. There was an offhanded reference here, a greedy Arab puppet there. And then came the Spike Milligan episode. This British comedian and creator of The Goon Show, one of the most annoying people in entertainment history, presided over some sort of Muppet “Festival of Nations”, a broad parade of ethnic stereotypes that might have given people in a 1905 vaudeville hall pause. The opening number, a tribute to the “Land of the Rising Sun”, features Fozzie Bear singing “Oklahoma” while a group of slant-eyed puppets wearing Chinese peasant-style hats attempt to sing “Yokahama”.
Then, in the climax to the show, Milligan shows up in a rendition of “It’s A Small World” wearing a Fu Manchu costume and buck teeth. The groovy Hawaiian puppets in the image below are the least of the number’s problems. There’s a “primitive” Muppet with a bone in his nose. Watch this number and tell me: Is ‘The Muppet Show’ racist?
It’s like a kind of torture
The Disney+ disclaimer caused Fox News to express its own outrage that “cancel culture” had come to the Muppets, which caused the left-wing media to say that Fox News was itself racist because it refused to admit that The Muppet Show was racist. In other words, the ongoing culture war had come to Pigs In Space.
As someone for whom The Muppet Show is a defining document, I can admit that The Muppet Show is racist. If you are of Chinese descent, it’s particularly racist. But so what? Is there any thinking person alive who can watch the Peter Sellers “gypsy violin” song and not think “that’s racist?” Are people so uncritical that they will just take that 50-year-old musical number as gospel?
There’s also the fact that, other than maybe the Chinese, no culture gets stereotyped harder in The Muppet Show than white ethnic culture. Nearly every episode contains at least one song featuring jug-playing, foot-stomping, gun-toting hillbillies. Half of The Muppet Show is toothless old white Muppets strumming on the old banjo. Those stereotypes are also incorrect, and potentially offensive. But, like in the rest of the Muppet Show, the music is usually good.
We are very sensitive right now, like an exposed tooth nerve touching an ice cube. So do we really need a disclaimer? Can’t we think for ourselves? And there’s also something quite ironic about the fact that Disney is spending a lot of time, effort, and publicity to deliver us trigger warnings about anti-Chinese racism, while also doing everything it can to suck up to the Chinese government and help them downplay the ongoing genocide of the Uighur people. I didn’t see a disclaimer about that before the Crystal Gayle episode of ‘The Muppet Show.’
The old Muppet Show is not ‘A Muppet Christmas Carol’ or other late, bland Jim Henson material. It’s basically a stoner puppet comedy from the 1970s. Until John Denver entered the picture, it wasn’t really for kids at all. So when it comes to racism, or anything else, maybe it’s time that Disney stopped treating us like children.