It is safe to say I am a Muppet fan. Case in point, I had the honor of being the first to get married at the Jim Henson Company (which, it should be noted, was originally Charlie Chaplin’s studio, so I’m going to guess we were also the first couple to play Rock Band in Chaplin’s screening room).
My bedtime used to be determined by The Muppet Show. One of my last weekends living in New York before I graduated from NYU was spent sitting in a theater watching The Muppets Take Manhattan. I may or may not have cried about leaving the city and the gang of friends I’d made. I even repurposed my longstanding fixation with The Dark Crystal into a terrible term paper in grad school. I vaguely remember it having something to do with religion, or Reaganism. Mostly, it was an excuse to re-watch the movie and debate Skeksis’ ritual disrobing practices. The Muppets are a media property that has accompanied every stage of my life, culminating in the warm nostalgic glow of The Muppets this weekend that I’m still basking in.
Needless to say, I was excited when I first heard that Jason Segel was rebooting the franchise. Most, including myself, took comfort in the fact that the franchise was in the hands of an unabashed fan. I’ve recently been exploring the “fanboy auteur” as an emerging authorial archetype in my own work, and Segel is a perfect example of how a fanboy auteur’s liminal identity can be effectively deployed to reach out to existing fan bases and mitigate the claims of commercial opportunism these reboots usually provoke. There’s a great paper to be written about how Segel has paratextually mobilized his identity as a Muppet fan from the announcement of the project through its promotion. If my own response is any indication, Segel’s sincerity and affect was key promotional tool, because he so perfectly echoes the ethos of The Muppets.
I saw The Muppets last night, at the very theater that serves as the Muppet Theater in the film (meta alert!), the Disney owned and operated El Capitan. The fact that the Muppets themselves are now also Disney owned and operated is something that the film brushes up against repeatedly, all the while assuring the audience that the Muppets won’t be sullied by their new corporate context, particularly with a fan at the helm. When the Muppets solicit money, we’re assured they’re doing so to (somewhat paradoxically) save themselves from being forced to “sell out.”
All of this said, what was far more interesting to me was the way that the film frames fandom. SPOILERS follow, so please refrain from reading until you see the film, which is delightful and deserves to be appreciated. If you’ve already seen the film, read on for some initial thoughts on what it means to construct the newest “Muppet” as a Muppet fan.
Up front, I loved the film, and any of the criticisms below take nothing away from the experience. Many reviewers have noted that the film is centrally a celebration of the power of fandom, from Segel’s guiding hand on the project to the narrative arc detailing Walter’s journey from fan to an official member of the Muppet troupe. As with most of the media texts that purport to celebrate fandom, or feature fans as protagonists, The Muppets‘ vision of fannish participation revolves completely around consumption (as seen through the opening montage, which ends with a shot of Walter’s room packed with merchandise and memorabelia). Likewise, the film presents fannish participation as ideally culminating in professional status.
The film constructs parallel journeys for brother Gary (played by Segel) and Walter, both Muppet fanboys who take divergent paths. Indulging in the longstanding practice of infantilizing fans, Gary’s arc is to “grow up” (e.g. make his heteronormative courtship of Mary “official” with a wedding proposal), and Walter’s is to leverage his fannish play into a bonafide career. Fan labor here is literal, and provided without question or desire for compensation (Gary and Walter help the Muppets restore their theater), and a “good” fan is one who reverently supports their idols, and presents a watch featuring Kermit’s face as evidence of their devotion.
A major plot point of the film revolves around Walter’s attempt to come up with an original act for a telethon revival of The Muppet Show, and it struck me as I was watching that it was odd that Walter was having such a creative crisis. As a diehard, lifelong Muppet fan, hadn’t he ever played make-believe that he was on the show? Hadn’t he ever written an original Pigs in Space sketch, or made the Great Gonzo’s cape out of a towel? It becomes painfully clear that the film’s vision of fannish engagement doesn’t include textual expansion and play. Walter isn’t a producer of fan texts, he is a purchaser of fan products, and the idea of making the shift from consumer to producer paralyzes him. The fact that making the shift from consumer to (petty) producer is one of the defining facets of fan participation, and that Walter’s transition is immediately rewarded with a removal from the “amateur” realm of fan production by becoming an official member of the Muppet troupe, is a bit disappointing. Professionals create, fans consume, and there’s little gray area in between. This is perhaps the most openly nostalgic element of the film, that it exists in an analogue world in which the divisions between producers and consumers are still distinct, rather than collapsing, within convergence culture.
And then there’s Mary. Mary, the proverbial third wheel on Gary and Walter’s fannish quest to revive their favorite franchise. Mary, who just wants to get married. The film briefly attempts to align her with Miss Piggy through the duet “Me Party,” as Piggy has also always been something of an odd pig out within the Muppet family. For Piggy, the song is a Kermit kiss-off, an embrace of her own independence and success. For Mary, it’s a halfhearted effort to break free of her maternal role in the film, one that fails before the song even ends. She is there to make Gary grow up, to stop being a Muppet (which seems to be code for “fanboy” when it comes to Gary) and become the Man she desires. I wonder how the film would have changed if Muppet fandom was something that drew Gary and Mary together, rather than drove a wedge between them.
Here, as in so many texts that have come before it, fanboys are adorable (if a bit immature), and fangirls are nowhere to be seen. Mary has to “ride out” Gary’s fandom as a phase, and ultimately gets her ring. Piggy, too, gives up her job as the editor of French Vogue to return to Kermit. It’s all very sweet, if a bit disappointing.
Fandom remains something to be outgrown (even as the film nostalgically nods to the show’s original fan base, who presumably have brought their children to the theater to pass on their fannish affect for the Muppets) or repurposed into a career. The film might be a love letter to Muppet fans, and Segel may represent a new generation of fanboy auteurs who are able to reboot properties from a place that isn’t wholly profit-driven, but The Muppets ultimately falls short of celebrating fan community and creativity.
I’d be curious to hear what others think about this. The film is exceedingly clever in how it preemptively diffuses critiques that might be levied at it, but in this case I wonder if this narrative of the fan who “makes good” (one that, not coincidentally, mirrors Segel’s own narrative) ultimately says more about a desired fandom than an actual one.Tags: fanboy auteur, fandom, gender, professionalization