Girls on Film is a weekly column that tackles anything and everything pertaining to women and cinema. It can be found here every Thursday night, and be sure to follow the Girls on Film Twitter Feed for additional femme-con.
In 2011, Jason Segel revealed the missing element in Hollywood’s fevered push to mine the past and make money on adults’ long-simmering nostalgia: fandom. His enthusiastic adoration of Jim Henson’s felted creations allowed him to create The Muppets, a family film that understood the fandom and catered to it. The adult moviegoers became gatekeepers. Once satisfied nostalgically, they were eager to open the door to the new generation, their own children. Instead of weird guys in piano hats or special guests unrecognizable to the young, human cohosts consisted of folks like Rashida Jones, Neil Patrick Harris and Rico Rodriguez. It became a gift – a way children could relate to their parents’ past without the barriers of old age.
Unfortunately, though the age barriers were wiped away, the thematic barriers of gender remain loud and clear.
The Muppets is a boys‘ club firmly stuck in the Smurfette Principle that a woman, a morsel, is all that’s needed, that “a group of male buddies will be accented by a lone female, stereotypically defined.” There is one female lead to diversify the roster, the fiery mix of stereotypical femininity and feminism known as Miss Piggy. In Segel’s updated version she remains the only starring female Muppet, even as the writers added a new main player, Walter. Her human counterpart is Amy Adams’ Mary, the woman given modern twists (she’s killer with cars), but no defining story arc outside her love of Gary (Segel). She might love having a “Me Party,” but that’s just her own amusement as the male stars go on their adventure.
An early peek at the sequel, The Muppets … Again!, shows more of the same. Kermit sat down with Entertainment Weekly to offer a brief teaser of the new film. The gang embarks on a global tour, which goes swimmingly until they cross paths with Constantine, “the world’s number-one criminal.” He looks a lot like Kermit, and is played by one of the frog’s “like 3,000 relatives back in the swamp.” The humans on this tour consist of Ricky Gervais, Ty Burrell and Tina Fey as, in the words of Kermit, “a feisty prison guard named Nadya.”
This description comes in the week of Reel Girl’s latest gallery of “Girls Gone Missing from Children’s Movies.” As a parent of three girls, she actively hunts for female role models and protagonists for her children, ones who define their own journeys, and are front and center in their marketing campaigns, not masked to be boy friendly (think Rapunzel turning into Tangled). She also coined the term Minority Feisty:
“If you see an animated film today, it’s likely to include a token strong female character or two who reviewers will call ‘feisty.’ … She’s supposed to make us feel like the movie is contemporary and feminist, unlike those sexist films of yesteryear… we’re no longer supposed to care that almost all of the other characters in the film are male.”
To elaborate on the nature and use of the word is its own can of worms (though this message board encapsulates many of the word’s problematic connotations/elements), but its use by Kermit is telling of the problematic nature of the Muppets’ male-dominated world. A traditionally male-centric community filtered through the eyes of male fans unintentionally kept The Muppets from being able to evolve beyond the Smurfette Principle, though the storylines are absolutely perfect for diversifying the lead cast.
The first film is a tale of male bonding, one that could easily be a tale of siblings. Walter feels loved, but excluded in his human world, until he reunites the Muppets and finds a new home that makes him feel included. As much as he loves and has fun with his brother, he needs to see people like himself; a pretty spot-on parallel to the experience of the female fan, loving the felted friends but also feeling isolated. The second film will focus on Kermit and his criminal male doppelganger, which is particularly disappointing since this is an even better opportunity to introduce new female talent. If Kermit has 3,000 relatives in the swamp, as he says, there must be a sister out there, one who could be an international badass and enter the Muppets fold in a way that might incense Miss Piggy for losing some of the spotlight, without ever being a romantic wrench in their already highly problematic relationship.
It is not inclusive or modern, no matter how new these films are, to have the only ongoing female influence in the film be the domineering, fashion-obsessed woman who demands love from Kermit, and according to the frog, has spent her time between the two movies shopping with his credit card. There might be other lady Muppets like Janice in the mix, but none share the spotlight like Kermit does with Scooter, Animal, Fozzy and the other leading lads, and none that offer a prevalent female alternative for Piggy's distinctive characterization that's now nearing forty years old.
The magic of the Muppets is how they mix contemporary culture, fantasy and smart comedy. I still remember how my own Muppet love rushed back, after years forgotten, when the MuppetsStudio released its “Bohemian Rhapsody” cover in 2009. Each blurb of the song was brilliantly cast, and then topped with the idea that this wasn’t just a cover, but Kermit’s attempt at video conferencing, instantly slipping Kermit’s motley crew into a modern world. I’ve accepted that I will never get the Muppet Opera I desperately wished for (though hey – Janice would be a great way to make both wishes come true), but in a world where women make up half of the population, and an old-school family-friendly troupe is trying to appeal to a new generation, surely the Muppets can add a new female star?
When Feminist Frequency talked about the Smurfette Principle, she noted how it extended the Big Bang Theory with Penny. Since her video, the show has added two more main female characters, and has broken their ratings records twice this season, grabbing an astonishing 19 million viewers in an episode earlier this month. This is the media landscape where Bridesmaids became Judd Apatow’s most successful film, Bella revealed the power of the female wallet, Sandra Bullock became a headlining box office smash, Merida offered a new scope for women in animation, and Katniss’ reception didn’t stick to gendered barriers. All of these make more female Muppets not only a socially inclusive change, but a financially sound one.
During the press for the first film, Jason Segel said Kermit was his favorite character: “when I was a kid he was like Tom Hanks. He’s the everyman, and he’s the moral center of the Muppets and sort of defined who I wanted to be as an actor.” Segel was inspired, and when it came his turn, he made Walter as “the eyes and ears of the audience, of giant Muppet fans out there.”
Except that audience is a little more diverse. The MPAA tells us that women have bought more movie tickets than men, right in line with the overall population. Imagine the potential revenue if the Muppets worked to connect more strongly with that half of their audience, especially those mothers eager to find and support films that give their own daughter’s role models. Heck, Henson’s own legacy is now handled by his daughter, Lisa, who’s CEO of the Jim Henson Company.
Miss Piggy is great and all, but don’t put the wide reach of the female experience on her Smurfin’ shoulders.