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Jim Henson Called It, I Swear He Did…

The Muppets have been on my mind, ever since Mrs. Jiwaku started working on a painting which is, essentially, a mash-up of the Coen Brothers’ film Barton Fink with Jim Henson’s Muppet characters.

And you’ll probably be wondering what The Muppets have to do with bigotry, though I swear, if you stick with it, it’ll make sense. (And no, I’m not talking about the recent Muppet movie and racial coding of characters. I’m talking about Jim Henson as a political subversive, something I talked about in my classes, but am pretty sure I haven’t posted about here before.)

People like to bandy about comments on the last acceptable bigotry… the one group it’s still “okay” (i.e. socially acceptable) to be bigoted against, I mean.

Some would argue that the group who suffers the last sanctioned form of hatred homosexuals (or transsexuals and bisexuals), or Muslims, or Mexican immigrants (in America, that is). Mixed-race people–from backgrounds where they get it from members of the groups both of their parents come from–often say the bigotry they get is worse, since it’s invisible to most people (including members of racial minorities) and because they often get it from members of both sides of their heritage. Political extremists love to cry out that they are oppressed for their beliefs–especially those on the right–and folks in the most obscure religious groups imaginable also complain, somewhat regularly, that they don’t get no respect.

Not that everything’s a big contest about who has it worst, though North American culture does seem to have a hard-on for giving the microphone to people who seem to want to make the claim.

But if we’re looking for an “acceptable” bigotry, one that’s invisible and not generally recognized as bigotry by anyone, I’d say it’s bigotry against young people. Chauvinism against kids is the most universal chauvinism I know, and it crosses all barriers: racial, religious, sexual orientation, political, cultural, class, geographic… you name it.

Don’t believe me?

Okay, cool. But do this: take a week, a single week, and pay really close attention to what people around you say about kids. Not just what they say, but what beliefs and attitudes serve as the foundation for what they say. Look at the situations in which kids interact with adults, and ask yourself what would happen if it the kids were instead adults who visibly a minority in some way–racial, sexual, religious, whatever.

The security guard who shouts at the teenagers as he corrals them and leads them out of the shopping mall, just because they are “loitering” there. Hell, the shopping malls (and apartment buildings, and…) that install high-pitched noise-generators only younger people can hear, to prevent them “loitering.”

You know what we adults calling “loitering” when we doing it? We call it going to the mall. We call it hanging out, spending time with friends in a public place. “Loitering” is a particularly negatively-tinged verb that describes the activity of undesirables, by definition. (That’s why we never describe rich people as loitering, and why it’s politically incorrect to describe adult members of racial minorities as “loitering” the way they used to in the old day. The disdain and the “undesirability” of the person is implicit in the word choice.)

And language is an indicator. We would never call someone “blackish” or “womanish” as an insult today, but “childish” has an unquestionably negative connotation… even though plenty of adults behave that way, and routinely get called “childish” for it. It’s a bit like calling someone womanish for talking too much, a common meme in the Middle Ages and other periods too: it ignores or dismisses the fact that plenty of men talk too much as well, and that the causal factor is not the gender of the person doing the talking.

In other words, our attitude toward children is colored by a sense that a lot of the tendencies we attribute to children, and dismiss as “childish” in adults, are bad ones.

Now, think of how adults talk to kids most of the time. The absolute arrogance of saying, “You don’t understand now, but someday you will…” not just when the kid betrays a spot of naïveté, but as the primary response to any kind of disagreement. You disagree with me? You just don’t know better, don’t understand, but someday you will. And until then, shut up. 

Polite adults, when talking politics, avoid saying this to other adults for fear of being called an asshole, because it is an asshole move, one that is incredibly disrespectful. Yes, some adults do indeed do it to other adults, but we (rightly) get infuriated when anyone pulls that crap with us — when they dismiss our opinion or perspective for being younger, or of a different race, or of a different regional background. It’s so much of an asshole move that we have a word for it, and have done for over a thousand years, in Latin: it’s called argumentum ad hominem. And while it’s understood by any educated person to be profoundly bad form —

Person A: “Sexism in small communities is a problem, it simply is. We can look at the statistics, at the testimony of women…”

Person B: “Yeah, you’re just a big-city smartass. You can’t know, you’ll just never understand…”

Person A: “Uh… let’s not talk about me, let’s talk about the statistics, the testimony, the tons of evidence I’m bringing to the table…”

Person B: “Meh, you don’t get it. But someday you will… you’ll understand someday, when you’re older and live in a small town yourself.”

It’s also profoundly stupid to argue this way. Person B in the above looks ignorant, parochial, and rude.

But guess what: that’s how adults routinely talk to young people. Routinely.

If a young person is wrong–if her or his evidence is weak, or argument is out of order–then it should be trivial to engage the argument in a way that demonstrates this. Yet I still, constantly, hear, “You’re young, what do you know? You’ll understand someday.” This is the default mode of interacting with kids for a lot of adults, and we rarely criticize it when we hear it, the way we criticize other bigotries expressed in the same way.

This isn’t to say young people know everything. There is a grain of truth to the idea that kids, having less experience in the world, may have some blind spots, or things to learn–like self-control, for example, though I have yet to see a cogent explanation of how imposing more rules on the behavior of young people than on the behavior of inmates in prisons or Marines on active duty is supposed to teach them self-control. Still, it’s true, young people can learn from older people, given the opportunity and the right older people.

But the opportunity to learn from older people does not, in any way, resemble being told that your thoughts are invalidated by a lack of experience, and that one will be able to have valid thoughts when one gets older. Any adult who wishes to engage with a young person in a way that allows the younger person to learn from the elder’s experience, and knowledge, and so on, would explain logically and thoughtfully how his or her experience contradicts some fundamental assumption of the youngster.

The reason this does not happen, most of the time, is that the adult has no better defense of his or her beliefs and ideas about the world than the younger person. Authority–the authority of age–is the refuge of the incompetent. For, after all, as much as we know experience can mean the accumulation of wisdom, we adults know that it’s neither a straightforward nor a universal process. We all know adults who don’t get wiser, who don’t seem fundamentally more capable in the world with each passing year. In fact, we realize, as we interact with even more people, that many, many adults seem to think they’re doing well primarily because they aren’t lying face-down in the mud. And this, they think, justifies talking down to young people.

After all, it’s socially acceptable.

(And while I think the arguments later in the Robert Epstein’s book are perhaps not 100% rock-solid–I haven’t got my copy of the book yet in the post, as the Vietnamese customs office is sitting on that box–this article can give you some idea of what he argues.) While I think some of Epstein’s suggested solutions are worth discussing, I don’t want to overemphasize his work in this post, because he’s not the only evidence I have, and not the only reason I believe the above. In a lot of ways, I was led to this position by critics of education (like John Taylor Gatto, whose wonderful book Dumbing Us Down I highly recommend) and by my own experience and observations–not just of kids, but of adults.

A great example was in the news recently, wherein a teacher in Batavia, Illinois got in hot water for advising his students to think in terms of their Constitutional and human rights regarding a school board survey on their private behavior… teaching them, in other words, that they ought to think about (and consider themselves as having) a right to privacy and the freedom not to tell private and person information to authorities, which adults in the same society absolutely take for granted. (If your employer started asking you about your sex life or drug-taking or drinking habits, you might answer… or you might recognize it as invasive and illegal violation of your privacy, and sue; or you might quit. School kids? They’re not even supposed to consider their rights or privacy: just answer the questions. And any adult who urges them to stop and think first, gets reprimanded.

Because we don’t think about children as people in the same was we think of everyone else as people. That’s the essence of bigotry.

Most profoundly, the experience that disturbed me and led to me see this as straight-up bigotry, was seeing young adults in Korean universities, who were just crossing over the line between “child” and “adult” in ways that were remarkable, and sometimes disturbing to watch. People who had, only a year earlier, resentfully accepted beatings from adults whom they disrespected, and even hated, turned around in an instant and explained that adults beating kids was the only way to maintain classroom discipline, and respect… and was an expression of compassion and caring. When asked why university professors shouldn’t hit their students when they (very often) failed to do their homework, or (less often) behaved disrespectfully in class, their only justification was that adults can’t hit adults… just kids. That’s just an example, one among many.

One of the examples that sticks out in my memory is tackling The Muppet Movie (along with Jim Henson’s muppets more generally, in terms of The Muppet Show and Sesame Street). This was in a popular culture class, and I was emphasizing what I see as a kind of shift in kids’ entertainment in the 1970s. There’s nothing particularly new about the subversion and the adoption of a kids’ point of view in Henson, of course–go read some Beatrix Potter if you don’t know why I say that–but there was something about how radically, and how forcefully, Henson did it on the screen.

There is a politics of power embedded in Henson’s work that involves not just adopting the kids’ point of view, kids’ values and inclination and the tendencies underlying their kind of engagement with the world, that celebrates it as countercultural, as radical and crucial to social health, that expresses it–enacted by furry, weird, nonhuman muppet shapes–ultimately as better, healthier, and finally as a kind of utopian ideal… one that adults, sadly, are poorer for having forgotten, or, in other cases, are dehumanized by it.

Talking through this with my students, it sort of snowballed. All it took was one question: do the Muppets remind you of anyone in the “real world”? Predictably (and I suppose understandably) my students started with physicality: the Muppets are cute, small, and colorful. This led them to the idea that the Muppets were racial minorities, which was interesting but not what I was driving at…

(Though, interestingly, Mrs. Jiwaku the other day remarked to me that while the Muppets strike her as very American, they did not strike her as particularly white American.  (That’s an interesting thing, especially in the multiracial cast of human beings on the Sesame Street I grew up with… there was a black man the same name as me, for one thing, which fascinated me for a moment when I was little.)

But anyway, after a little more discussion–contrasting their motivations and behaviours with those of the adults in the story, I asked, “Do the Muppets meet any kids in this film?” Because, you know, for kids’ shows, all these Muppet projects have a lot of adult people, and basically no human children.

Then it clicked: the Muppets are children. They’re straight-up children living in an adult’s world. If you don’t remember the original Muppet movie, here’s the logline from

Kermit and his new found friends trek across America to find success in Hollywood, but a frog-legs merchant is after Kermit.

Why is the frog-legs merchant after Kermit? Because he can sing–beautifully, as demonstrated in the first scene, when we hear “Rainbow Connection,” a wonderful song that says all you need to know about Jim Henson’s overall project–and the merchant, one Doc Hopper, believes Kermit would make a great spokesman for his chain of frog’s legs restaurants. The horror of that proposal is comedic, in the film, of course: but what is growing up for most of us, but the consumption by society of one’s childhood–that is, the freedom to play, to imagine, to engage in wild goose chases, and actually try to do things because we don’t “know better”–leaving in its place a duty to endure drudgery and focus on the “practicalities”… or, at least, that was how it was for the vast majority of the middle class in North America in the 1970s, as it is for the vast majority of young Koreans today.

The Muppets have a crazy dream–they’re going to California, to make a movie… not to get rich, but because Kermit thinks it’s a nice idea to make people happy. And no, that’s not counter-intuitive given that it’s a message in a movie: if you read a little about how Henson managed to get The Muppet Show in the air, you’ll realize that to some degree, it’s a really similar story to the struggle faced by Kermit and his Muppet friends in the film. Henson doesn’t seem to have been primarily motivated by a desire to be rich, or famous–his face rarely appeared in his work–but by the stories he wanted to tell, and the messages he wanted to communicate… to adults, yes, but to young people too.

My students mostly grasped the messages “hidden” (as some of them put it) in The Muppet Movie.  An analysis of the final song in the film made it pretty clear, if nothing else:

It starts when we’re kids, a show-off in school;
Makin’ faces at friends, you’re a clown and a fool.
Doin’ prat-falls and bird-calls and bad imitations;
Ignoring your homework, now that’s dedication.
You work to the mirror, you’re getting standing ovations.
You’re burning with hope, you’re building up steam.
What was once juvenilish is grown-up and stylish,
You’re close to your dream.
Then somebody out there loves you,
Stands up and hollers for more;
You found a home at the Magic Store.

(groovy interlude)

The Rainbow Connection (reprise)

Why are there so many songs about rainbows?
That’s part of what rainbows do.
Rainbows are memories, sweet dream reminders
What is it you’d like to do?
All of us watching, and wishing we’d find it;
I’ve noticed, you’re watching too.
Someday you’ll find it, the rainbow connection,
The lovers, the dreamers, and you.

(another groovy interlude)

Life’s like a movie, write your own ending
Keep believing, keep pretending
We’ve done just what we set out to do.
Thanks to the lovers, the dreamers, and you.

Some of my most clever students argued that the ending–Orson Welles giving Kermit “the standard rich & famous contract”–was a bit of a sell-out, though they didn’t provide an alternative. (I imagine that The Muppet Show is the alternative–the independent weekly variety show–but the crucial thing is that, in the scenes that follow that, the Muppets make their film on their own terms; no adults are on set bossing them around, rewriting their scripts. If the film’s journey across America is allegory, then it must be an allegory for the dangerous, brutal experience of growing up in a world where many of the things that are central to being childlike are construed as pejorative: play, imagination, dreaming, fun, glee.

And the Muppets arrive in California successfully, not without a struggle. I was horrified to hear a large number of students in one class make a strange argument about the target audience for the final verse sung in the film:

Life’s like a movie, write your own ending
Keep believing, keep pretending
We’ve done just what we set out to do.
Thanks to the lovers, the dreamers, and you.

It was, they insisted, aimed at adults. Why? Because children don’t need it… they still know how to dream, while adults have universally lost that ability. They didn’t realize that those lines constitute a kind of survival guide for growing up, a methodology that children could learn, internalize, and live by in order to keep their creativity and, arguably, an important component of their humanity assailed by the expectations of worn-down adults with a value-system warped by their society (in ways childrens’ values aren’t yet warped).

In other word, the song is a kind of subversive, samizdat handbook of radical artistic utopianism, of a countercultural humanism, with notes for practical application to one’s life, written without condescension, but in fluid and natural kidspeak. A work of genius.

And my students? When I argued this to them, their answer was simple:

“Kids are too dumb to catch any of that. They’re just dumb.” My jaw dropped.

“Say that about any other group of people on Earth,” I countered, “and you’ll get called a bigot. Kids are the least respected people on this planet.”

“Because they’re dumb,” a few brave souls ventured. Brave souls… well, the most thoughtful students paused, and you could see the gears working behind their eyes. “Oh my God, I am a bigot.”

Not everyone listened. Not everyone will. And that’s what made Henson such a genius: not just because he realized that children were the objects of bigotry and that their struggle was inherently political (no matter that nobody else would recognize that), but also because the subversive politics that informs so much of his work takes that very bigotry into account.

Henson’s work isn’t perfect, of course: the female Muppets are less numerous, and follow more stereotypical roles to some degree, than the males, at least in the first (1979) film; I’m not sure the Muppet Movie would pass the Bechdel Test, but if it did, it would be only barely (and several other Muppet movies don’t pass it). One could argue that while the Muppets aren’t “white” there’s little attempt to represent characters who are culturally other than mainstream (default: white) among the Muppets, and so it’s an uninformed sort of racial whitewashing. (Which is distinct from the more overt racial coding apparently on display in one more recent Muppet film, though I’ve not seen it.)

Henson’s work was obviously not perfect, but on the question kids, and the politics of growing up, and in his recognition more than four decades ago of the widespread bigotry and derision faced by children, and his engagement? He was visionary.

(Note: I don’t know how involved Henson was in the screenwriting, story development, and so on, but I feel like it’s a fair bet he was involved to some degree; the contiguity of the messages in this film and in other parts of his oeuvre suggests that to me. But I welcome correction from anyone who knows more than me, say, someone who’s read a biography of the man or something. Me, I figure I’ll wait till this fall, when a new, big, fat bio comes out.)

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