Framing fandom in The Muppets


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.

Walter, the most recent addition to the Muppet family, a picture of fannish consumption

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.

Mary (Amy Adams) looking a little out of place

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.

Walter visualized as a wedge, fandom framed as a barrier to growing up

And again, the Muppets literally come between the heteronormative coupling of Gary and Mary

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.

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10 Responses

  1. First, let me say that I am very impressed with both the above wedding photo and your husband’s glorious mustache. Must have been a fun wedding!

    Like you, I am a diehard Muppets fan. I remembering begging my Mom to let me take a later bath so that I could watch THE MUPPET SHOW. A few years ago I purchased 2 DVD sets of the show for my 5 year old daughter, who has also become a huge fan. I took her to see THE MUPPETS last week with my daughter and mother-in-law, and it was pretty amazing to sit there, 3 generations of Muppets fans, enjoying this film. It was also interesting to see how all of three generations of fans were taking in different aspects of the film–my daughter was just happy to have “more Muppets,” while my mother-in-law and I enjoyed the way the movie was tapping into our nostalgia for older Muppets films, as well as the TV show. Also, I realized that I was the only one out of the 3 of us to know who all of the cameos were (i.e., my MIL thought Selena Gomez was from MODERN FAMILY).

    Like you, I did find myself thinking a lot about fandom as I watched the film. The film itself was like a giant commercial for the reboot of the Muppets franchise, and my own fannish nostalgia is what motivated me to bring my 5yo to this 100 minute commercial. But, at the same time, I was happy to sit through the film because I want the Muppets to have their comeback!!!

    I also found Amy Adams’ character to be a bit one-dimensional and stereotyped. Rather than ask her boyfriend to marry her, she pines for his proposal for 10 years–what? However, as in all Muppets texts, the human characters are the least important and least fleshed out characters. I was satisfied with Miss Piggy’s character–she found a high-powered career post-Muppets (who knew VOGUE had a “full figured” editor). I saw her return to Kermit at the end of the film as having less to do with giving up her career for a man and more to do with returning to what she loves most–being a part of the Muppets.

    I really did not intend to write this much–I blame the Muppets.

  2. suzannescott says:

    I feel the same way, it may be an 100 minute commercial, but it is a wittily self-reflexive commercial for a product I believe in. I think your comments here on the generational nature of this particular moment in Muppets fandom are really fascinating. I was wondering, as I looked around the theater filled with parents (many of whom seemed more invested than their kids), if each generation was experiencing the film on entirely different registers.

    The cameo-as-litmus-test is also interesting. One of my favorite moments in the film is the mutual lack of recognition between Rico Rodriguez (who plays Manny on ABC’s Modern Family, in a nice moment of Disney synergy), and Kermit (who, by this same logic, shouldn’t know Selena Gomez by name, but is another cameo with conglomerate ties to Disney). There are a number of moments in which Kermit is presented as being generationally “out of touch,” that being one of the more pointed examples. The abundance of cameos drawn from contemporary, family friendly sitcoms says a lot about the presumed multi-generational audience for the film. Personally, I about fell out of my chair when Dave Grohl appeared on screen (I won’t spoil the context for those who haven’t seen it, it is freaking incredible), which generationally dates me as a viewer.

    And finally, I agree with you about Piggy. Mostly, I felt the attempt to align the two most prominent female characters here failed, and a large part of that is due to your points above re: the human characters in Muppet films being somewhat secondary, and Piggy ultimately being better drawn.

    • Yes! The David Grohl cameo was my favorite! Of course, neither my daughter nor my MIL knew who that was. I had to sit in my chair and laugh to myself. And I had no idea Mickey Rooney was still alive.

      I think every generation is experiencing this film differently–the parents who watched their kids enjoy the Muppets (and who enjoyed them themselves) back in the late 70s now enjoy watching their grandchildren enjoy them; Gen X, whether they have kids or not, is filled with nostalgia for their childhoods; and kids (whether they have had prior Muppet exposure or not) will just enjoy the movie because, hey, it’s the Muppets!

  3. Erik says:

    I don’t think Mary’s problem with Gary is his Muppet fandom. Gary is never really portrayed in the movie as a huge Muppet fan in the way that Walter is. Mary’s problem is Gary’s relationship with Walter. She sings “It’s never me and him, it’s always me and him and him.”

  4. suzannescott says:

    Thanks for the comment, it’s a good point. I agree with you, on a textual level that the rift is more about Gary privileging his relationship with Walter. Subtextually, where this gets a bit muddled (at least for me) is the fact that Walter is a Muppet, his relationship with Gary is defined almost exclusively through their mutual fandom of The Muppets (we don’t see them relating about much else), and Walter’s presence on the anniversary trip is equally motivated by the fact that the Muppet Studios are in Los Angeles as it does by Gary not wanting to exclude him. So, at least for me, the film might be simply about needing to loosen our familial bonds in order to form new families (e.g. Mary and Gary, Walter with his new Muppet family), but it’s hard for me not to also see it as a veiled critique of the (in this case, homosocial) bonds of fandom.

  5. hubbit says:

    I actually came out of the theater complaining about the heteronormative gender binary reinforcement. You’re absolutely spot on.

  6. A very thoughtful post. Thank you for writing it.

    A couple related articles/essays/posts/stories: epershand, me, Holli Mintzer.

  7. suzannescott says:

    Thanks for the links, these are great, and “Muppet diasporas” is my new favorite phrase!

  8. Very interesting point you make, that the film assumes fans are consumers aspiring to be professionals. But I did not interpret Walter’s situation as “aspiring fan”.

    Walter is a puppet who doesn’t fit into the human world, so surely he wants to join “his people”? Same story as Gonzo in _Muppets in Space_. Of course, this rests on a problematic assumption that people are xenophobic, and uni-cultural societies are more workable than multi-cultural. [I am Canadian, living in Toronto, which might influence my interpretation!]

  9. suzannescott says:

    You make a good point, Alana, that this narrative of finding one’s place with their “own kind” has been trotted out in previous Muppet films (though now you’ve made me consider that there’s a far more disturbing ethnocentric message that the film is conveying regarding). And, likewise, the fact that I do most of my academic work on fandom undoubtedly influenced my own interpretation!

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