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Moping about Muppets: Another humiliation for Disney

The Muppet Show’s widened appeal has become Disney’s Achilles’ heel as the puppet show becomes the latest victim of cancel culture

On the heels of its unpopular decision to dismiss Star Wars actress Gina Carano for disfavoured tweets, Disney has again managed to look ridiculous before a public ever warier of its exhausting wokeness. This time its victim is The Muppet Show, a campy parody of variety programmes featuring Jim Henson’s beloved puppet figures, which were originally introduced on Sesame Street. It aired weekly on old-fashioned network television from 1976 to 1981.

Evolving from Sesame Street, The Muppet Show combined its puppet characters’ antics with witty word play and middle-brow entertainment acts to appeal to adults as well as children. On 19 February all five seasons dropped on the media giant’s wokely curated Disney+ streaming service for new audiences to enjoy while fuelling bouts of Generation X nostalgia for simpler times.

Permanent control over how a society thinks has been a long-standing goal of the totalitarian mindset

The Muppet Show’s widened appeal is now its Achilles’ heel. Before each episode, Disney has inserted a statement ritually confessing: “This program includes negative depictions and/or mistreatment of peoples or cultures. These stereotypes were wrong then and are wrong now. Rather than remove this content, we want to acknowledge its harmful impact, learn from it and spark conversation to create a more inclusive future together.” A separate warning cautions that viewers will be exposed to “tobacco depictions”, perhaps to prevent millennial snowflakes from running out of the room in horror when the aged comedian Milton Berle puffs on a cigar during his guest appearance.

Apart from the wincing misuse of the word “impact” when what I believe the author-commissar meant to write was “effect”, Disney does not identify which “peoples” or “cultures” are depicted negatively or mistreated, or which “stereotypes” are and were “wrong”. Are we supposed to watch all 120 or so episodes of all five seasons and guess? Might the list be too lengthy for an on-screen warning, and, if it is, why not just bury The Muppet Show altogether as an irredeemable artifact of pre-woke civilisation, like so many offensively illustrated bottles of maple syrup or statues of Abraham Lincoln? Further, if Muppet Show stereotypes are “wrong”, are there other stereotypes out there that are “correct”? And if there are, why are they not identified, and who decides which ones are acceptable and which are not?

Disney does not explain why The Muppet Show is so capable of causing such terrific “harm” that we must be warned in advance that puppets are about to perpetrate it. The warning’s invitation to discuss how we might rely on the show’s apparent failings to create a more “inclusive future” recalls the greatest unanswered questions of the woke movement – what would a future that is more “inclusive” look like, and how would it be different from the present? We are never told, here or anywhere else. Could it be that there is no substantive answer, and that our minders merely want the power to shape and condition our thoughts in a perpetual quest for an unobtainable heaven of utopian equality? Permanent control over how a society thinks has been a long-standing goal of the totalitarian mindset, yet no totalitarian has ever readily relinquished it once obtained.

The hateful structures of power in the Muppet universe are all too obvious

From the woke perspective, a randomly selected first-season episode of The Muppet Show offers a cornucopia of aggressions both macro and micro. Our first “wrong” stereotype is the Swedish chef – dumb, inept, incomprehensible, and ultimately violent, carrying on in a nonsense language while flipping his pancakes so high that they stick to the ceiling and have to be brought down by gunfire. What a slur on the noble people of Sweden! It could uncomfortably remind those delicate Scandinavians that they have not fought a war for over two centuries are not particularly well known for their cuisine. And let us not forget their appalling treatment in classic Hollywood, where the playwright and screenwriter Maxwell Anderson dismissed their best and brightest star Ingrid Bergman as a “big, dumb, goddamn Swede!” Words hurt, and The Muppet Show should clearly have been more sensitive to the historical injustice of our society’s rampant anti-Swedish oppression. Let us show solidarity in the face of their continuing humiliation.

In the same episode, we find the great triple threat of yesteryear Rita Moreno speaking with a Puerto Rican accent that was never her own. How traumatising to see this obvious and insulting case of cultural appropriation so indifferently splayed across the screen! And there we have Miss Piggy – that porcine princess of privilege – mocking Moreno’s appropriated accent with exaggerated rolls of the letter “R”. Were the creators really so unaware of how very ostracising and harmful it is to be mocked by a simulated pig? Clearly, they needed to be educated, and those who are left to shape the more “inclusive” future must maintain eternal vigilance against all pig-Latino hate speech.

White and class privilege also rear their ugly heads throughout the series. The otherwise innocuous-looking Scooter, a bespectacled novice who seems so nice and inoffensive in his casually preppy mien, sure does know how to get his way in the theatre in which the show is set. All he has to do is issue implicit threats at Kermit the Frog, who manages the acts, by mentioning his unseen uncle, who owns the theatre and will presumably wield all the inequitable power of finance capital if Scooter’s whims and dictates are ignored. The hateful structures of power in the Muppet universe are all too obvious, even if their fetters are invisible.

And who could ignore Statler and Waldorf, the greatest villains of them all, a pair of old white males in black tie who survey the action from the elevated comfort of their exclusive box? Named for prominent hotels that are perhaps the source of their wealth, their main function is to cast down sarcastic comments upon the poor defenceless performers while they also, to add insult to injury, mock each other for their various disabilities. At the very least, we should have a separate warning to guard us against the ugly and retrograde notion, so blatantly reinforced by The Muppet Show, that the arts only exist for the amusement and approval of rich white men.

As the warning concludes, after viewing these historic crimes against wokeness, we might best report for re-education at Disney’s website, which offers a section called “Stories Matter”. Illustrated with proud persons of colour, it promises to “relentlessly champion the spectrum of voices and perspectives in our world”. The Swedish chef will be marginalised no longer! Here he, and we, can indulge in an atmosphere “committed to stories with inspirational and aspirational themes” instead of idly laughing along in the shadow of outmoded and doomed hegemons like Statler and Waldorf. “Happily ever after doesn’t just happen,” Disney assures us in case anyone who has been conscious at any point over the past year remains unaware, “it takes effort. Effort we are making.” How virtuous of them. But to what end?

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