Why The Muppets Are Propaganda

“You know how crazy the right wing is?” my friends said.  “It’s gotten so bad, they think the Muppets are liberal propaganda!”

As evidence, they provided a video (from FOX news, of course) wherein a couple of talking heads discussed the sad, sad state of The Muppets targeting kids with crazy liberal messages.  “It’s amazing how far the left will go to manipulate your kids and give them the anti-corporate message,” they said, noting Tex Richman’s characterization as an evil businessman.  “I just wish the liberals could leave little kids alone.”

But here’s the thing: They’re absolutely right.

The Muppets are propaganda.

They’ve always been propaganda.

It’s just a propaganda you agree with.

The Muppets have always dropped pretty heavy-handed lessons about The Way You Should Live Life: Wealth or fame aren’t important – friends are.  Follow your dreams, kids, no matter what anyone tells you.  (Or, in the case of Fozzie and Gonzo, no matter what arguable talent you may have.)  Freaks are not only okay, but really cool.  Dignity is for the birds – no, seriously, just look at Sam The Eagle.

The Muppets are, to quote the old conservative paradigm, “subversive.”  Because there’s this idea that “propaganda” can’t possibly be entertaining – yet the truth is that the best propaganda is actually wonderfully fun to watch, yet has this underlying core of ideas that slip into your head.  And in between songs, the Muppets are constantly reinforcing their idea of The Way Life Should Be.

And I agree with them!  Holy God, I wish we lived in a more Muppet-like world, one where Gonzo and Rowlf and Professor Bunsen Honeydew – disparate personalities all – could all live side-by-side.  I wish our culture didn’t value wealth as an inherent sign of goodness.

Yet the Muppets are, amidst the explosions, constantly putting ideas into your head.  There are precisely three people in The Muppets who are rich – Gonzo, Miss Piggy, and Tex Richman, and two of them are explicitly made miserable and sour by their businesses, while Miss Piggy is presented at least partially as working to compensate for a lost love.  The Muppets’ poor business practices are, in fact, a point of pride in the movie (as Shortpacked! notably mocked here).  There is no Muppet who has corporate aspirations, aside from arguably Scooter.  They’re all artists and dreamers.

What’s that say about the average businessman?  It’s a quiet message, but it’s there: This suit is what you do not want to be.

None of that is bad.  But it does get bad when you get huffy and go, “Well, that’s not a message!  That’s just the way things should be!”  Which is exactly the same goddamned thing fundamentalist Christian parents say when they flood their kids with Veggie Tales and Davey and Goliath.  They’re not trying to give their kids a message, they’re just showing them how the world works.  Right?

The error here is thinking that your most sensational, inspirational, celebrational, Muppetational way of thinking is “just entertainment” because you agree with the messages it provides.  The Muppets is a liberal show, made by liberal people, and it’s got some damn good liberal messages… And yes, it’s aimed at kids, who are more likely to have some of those messages absorbed into their system.

Does that make the Muppets bad?  Hell no.  Do I think Jim Henson sat down in his Evil Subversion Lab and said, “Let us make a series that will sway kids towards COMMUNISM!” and then cackled evilly?  Hell no.  I think Jim was a guy who had a lot of personal feelings about life that emerged, organically, in his art – which is the way it often works.

But don’t deny that there’s a barb inside this furry fabric, one that hooks kids towards a world where you’re encouraged to look beyond people’s exteriors and to become a little more tolerant and a little less concerned with money.  That’s a wonderful message, as far as I’m concerned.  But it’s still something that is being taught, fairly overtly, and you ignore that truth at your peril.

Because you know what?  Liberal values are important to teach.  And to think of the liberal message as something inherent in the world is to forget that we are not necessarily born loving and kind and sharing – check any of the fights on the playground – and that really, this sort of teaching lessons is a part of responsible parenting.

I’m not saying we should brainwash our kids, but we should monitor what kinds of lessons we do teach them, and analyze what’s being presented in the media.  Because these sorts of behaviors are taught, quietly, through parents and teachers and the shows we allow them to watch, and it’s correct to sift through those voices for what they’re actually saying.  For many parents, what the Muppets want to teach is abhorrent – and while I disagree with them, to deny the Muppets carry a message is incorrect.

It sounds strange, but as a liberal, the Muppets are a voice for what we believe in.  To dismiss that is to forget that these lessons need to be taught.  And they do.  Which is why we need Kermit telling us what’s right in this damn world.

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