America and Britain’s favorite puppet friends are back now on DisneyPlus, but at what cost?
Well, nothing, really. Except for some fans who can’t handle a brief warning.
“The Muppets” announced the release of its original show on Feb. 19 over Twitter through two different tweets. The first tweet announced the release formally through an attached announcement, while the second tweet did what the comedy troupe does best: well-served punchlines and gimmicks of good fun. The second tweet parodied other shows on the platform by altering the show’s’ titles and promotional posters. “The Mandalorian” became “The Frogdalorian” with an all-familiar Kermit flaunting center stage and “WandaVision” was now “CamillaGanzo.”
But while the boisterous bunch was back for online viewing with almost 120 episodes, certain edits to some episodes left many Disney fans with a bad taste in their mouth. Though all five seasons were released, two episodes were not released at all.
An episode with musical guest Brooke Shields was forfeited due to inescapable copyright music claims. Another episode starring Chris Langham never had the chance to grace the air. Langham was convicted with charges on child pornography 14 years earlier.
This, however, was not what left some fans sour.
At the beginning of 18 episodes, a discretion message lasts approximately 12 seconds. Though the wording per episode varies slightly, the message remains clear. It warns that the episode may include portrayals of certain ethnic groups viewers may find upsetting.
Take the disclaimer that appears before an episode with actor Joel Grey.
“This program includes negative depictions and/or mistreatment of people or cultures,” it reads. “These stereotypes were wrong then and are wrong now. Rather than remove this content, we want to acknowledge its harmful impact.”
Everyone had something to say, even politicians.
Republican House Representative Jim Jordan contested the inclusion of such warnings.
“Watch out Kermit,” Jordan said. “The Muppets aren’t woke enough for today’s Left.”
Watch out Kermit. The Muppets aren’t woke enough for today’s Left. https://t.co/QwEo3ehMiQ
— Rep. Jim Jordan (@Jim_Jordan) February 22, 2021
Jordan might have had contempt for the platform, but other users gave it right back to Jordan.
Republicans: complain about pulling episodes with objectionable content.
Also Republicans: complain about keeping episodes with objectionable content with proper qualifying information.
Maybe Republicans just like to complain. Would explain their legislative futility.
— ArrestedPresidency (@Arrested_45th) February 22, 2021
Putting a disclaimer on a 40 year old show isn’t being woke, it is being a smart company…
— Noble Prize in Sarcasm (@rewegreatyet) February 22, 2021
Actually, the Muppets are perfectly “woke.” They recognize the potential offenses some segments may have, and they tell people about them so people can heed the warnings.
It’s very unlike a coach ignoring warnings of sexual abuse going on at a university, ain’t that right, Jim?
— Jack (but not THAT Jack) (@jacktomalis) February 22, 2021
But placing a content warning on a children’s television show isn’t simply a topic to discuss over party lines. It’s simply a good executive business decision. And if there’s anything my journalism professors have taught me, it’s if you plan to offend an audience member, you best do it on purpose rather than on accident.
Disney executives knew what they were doing when they placed content warnings over these episodes. If as many as 0.1% of audience members feel alienated by certain thematic messages showcased in the show, there goes those viewers – and their subscriptions.
So what exactly is shown in these 18 episodes?
A majority of the 18 episodes with warnings had puppets representing ethnic or racial groups in a derogatory or stereotypical way. Others featured the guests themselves portraying these groups unfairly. And one episode features a hate symbol.
Below are five warning-labeled episodes.
Confederate Flag Use
One season five episode featured country music artist Johnny Cash.
The episode features a spectacular gun fight between a raging group of cowboys similar to popular shows of the time like “The Young Riders” and “Outlaws.”
But what makes Episode 521 so problematic is what lies in the background.
As Cash performs “Ghost Riders in the Sky” along with his single “Dirty Old Egg Sucking Dog,” a confederate flag waves behind him.
Depiction of Romani Women
Romani, or Roma, people belong to an ethnic group of individuals who migrated to Europe from northern India between the 14th and 16th centuries. They faced numerous years of persecution and execution.
They also faced mockery in pop culture, often depicted as stealers, deviants and of the lower class. “The Muppets Show” was no stranger to feeding into negative stereotypes against Roma people.
Episode 219 features Peter Sellers referring to the travelers by a derogatory term. Along with the lyrics of his performance, Sellers himself matches the rhetoric with the garb and accent.
Episode 416 pushes the trope of Romani people as demented and abrasive. Host Jonathan Winters is convinced that certain puppets cast a curse on the show, which grossly misrepresented the religious aspect of Romani culture.
Depiction of Japanese Culture
Episode 505 paces through a tribute to the 1920s and a drum and kazoo band fronted by octopi. The episode turns weary as Kermit and James Coburn fumble for a “Salute to Japan.”
And then comes The Tokyo Tai-Chi, Karate and Chowder Society, a band of three geisha puppets. Geishas are female entertainers known for their long kimonos and oshiroi makeup.
Simply put, no culture can be diluted to just gong-playing, meditation and geisha women.
Depiction of Arabian and Indigenous People
Likely the worst of the offenders aside from Johnny Cash’s episode is Episode 410 starring Kenny Rogers.
The insults come at you from a mile away, right in the cold open. Rogers is told his dressing room is sold to “Arabs” for mineral rights. That means oil drilling.
The comment was based on the stereotype that people from the Middle East profit off of the oil industry and develop a plethora of wealth.
In yet another cultural trope, the muppets portraying Middle Eastern people arrived on camels, not cars.
And if that sketch didn’t check all the problematic boxes, a witch doctor is also prominent in this episode. The caricature – fit with dreadlocks, tribal neckwear and a wooden idol – is a stereotypical portrayal of healers in some Indigenous and African societies.
Episode 518: In all of the episodes mentioned, the host themselves never participated in the mockery. Except for this one.
British actor Marty Feldman dressed as a genie, while Kermit played Aladdin in this dedication to “Arabian Nights.”
Episode 317: The episode with Spike Milligan again features a Japanese-themed number, more Arabian muppets and muppets dressed as Alaskan Inuit people. The Inuit muppets were called the derogatory term “Eskimos.”
Episode 216: A number specific to the United Kingdom release bore quite the divisive lyrics. The song, titled “Mad Dogs and Englishmen,” featured an ensemble of muppets Rowlf the Dog, Baskerville and Afghan Hound. The song was originally performed by Noel Coward.
The lyrics include, “The natives grieve when the white men leave their huts. Because they’re obviously, definitely nuts!”
Even if I had no formal opinion on whether the images were offensive to me, I have no right to say whether they are or aren’t offensive because I’m not among any of those groups being portrayed in the show. But a majority-white cast and crew mimicking members of any group, no matter their ethnicity, should make anyone uncomfortable. If stereotypes have the slightest possibility to reinforce confirmation bias in any bigoted audience member or to even teach such biases, viewers should be warned.
The warnings are not meant to belittle the viewer, they’re simply reminders of how impactful and influential television and traditional entertainment can be.
A puppet from the 70s putting on a headdress or a hijab and voiced by a white cast member is just as revolting as a white adult dressing up as Pocahontas or a Black celebrity for Halloween today.
It’s not cute. It’s not trendy. It’s not funny. And unfortunately, many of us have not learned our lesson.
So no, the Muppets aren’t cancelled. And any time multimedia conglomerates can nudge parents in the right direction to teach their children, they should. It just might give the next generation a chance to become more tolerant and respectful adults.
Joshua LeBerte is a sophomore studying news media. His column, “Josh’s View,” covers national pop culture items and runs regularly.