“Being a feminist and a film critic (or indeed a feminist and anyone who interrogates almost anything in contemporary culture) involves a curious process of mental ball-hopping that many of you may be familiar with. Essentially, when I see a film I have two choices. I can stop being a feminist for the duration of the film, and accept that I’m just going to enter a world in which feminism has no meaning or relevance. This involves deliberately marginalising myself, and my fellow 52% of the population, and leaving aside my own very deeply-held political and moral views. It also involves pretending that feminism is actually a marginal politics, a casual set of fringe positions taken Just To Be Awkward, When It Suits You rather than what it is, among other things: a daily practice, a structure of political principle, and most importantly of all, a rigorous stripping-away of culturally-determined assumptions about what it means to be a woman, or indeed a man.”
Sometimes It’s Hard To Be A….Feminist Film Critic
This week I saw the new Muppets movie, ambitiously titled The Muppets, and unusually, it was the only film I saw all week, which might account for the unaccustomed outbreak of deep thought on the matter.
It’s great fun, it really is, and I quite genuinely MNAH MNAH’d my way down the street afterwards, in an almost sotto voce way that made upstanding citizens cross the road, bless ‘em. Kermit and the gang are persuaded out of reclusive retirement/Vogue editing/playing with a tribute band in Reno by their biggest fan (Muppet Walter, who grows up in a ‘human’ family) in order to save the Muppet studio from being destroyed by rapacious oil baron Tex Richman, and it’s probably worth seeing just for the sight of Chris Cooper rapping, let alone all the other many highlights – Animal at an anger management clinic, a barbershop quartet cover version of one of the greatest rock songs ever written (no spoilers), and the general ‘let’s put the show on right here!’ enthusiasm that infuses the whole thing.
The music is by Christophe Beck who gave us Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s Once More With Feeling, itself a landmark in the attempted rehabilitation of the musical, and it has his stamp all over it – the songs are witty and knowing, but not tainted by the excessive irony that bedevils many a twentieth-century ‘reboot’. The film has also benefited from a huge amount of publicity generated by an amusingly half-witted Fox News attack on it as socialist propaganda, and as such has inadvertently found itself regarded as ‘relevant’ in a way that can only have helped push box office sales upwards.
Sure, a question mark still hangs over whether the Muppets themselves belong to a more innocent age, and the structure of it all means that a lot of time is spent waiting for the next big gag to land, but overall it’s a witty and enjoyable nostalgia-fest. But that’s not why I’m writing. Nope, I’m writing because my experience watching The Muppets also makes for a perfect illustration of what it’s like to be a Feminist And A Film Critic. I should also point out that this mini article is brought to you mainly courtesy of a guilty conscience, because I reviewed The Muppets for a radio show last night and did I raise any of the points I’m about to mention now? Did I hell. Because that would have made me That Asshole At The Cinema, and sometimes I just can’t take it any more. Deep breath.
Being a feminist and a film critic (or indeed a feminist and anyone who interrogates almost anything in contemporary culture) involves a curious process of mental ball-hopping that many of you may be familiar with. Essentially, when I see a film I have two choices. I can stop being a feminist for the duration of the film, and accept that I’m just going to enter a world in which feminism has no meaning or relevance (AKA, what I did up there in the first few paragraphs). This involves deliberately marginalising myself, and my fellow 52% of the population, and leaving aside my own very deeply-held political and moral views. It also involves pretending that feminism is actually a marginal politics, a casual set of fringe positions taken Just To Be Awkward, When It Suits You rather than what it is, among other things: a daily practice, a structure of political principle, and most importantly of all, a rigorous stripping-away of culturally-determined assumptions about what it means to be a woman, or indeed a man.
But, let’s be clear about this: it means I will enjoy the film as it was constructed for me, to be enjoyed, and sometimes just as important for my mental health, it means that nobody will call me a humourless bitch (or more than usually so). The alternative is that I can actually be myself, which is to say be a feminist, and say what I see. This involves me saying “Yes BUT…” every ten seconds during a film, and is exhausting, thankless, occasionally interesting, but mostly alienating to others. Next deep breath.
Here’s what happens when I précis The Muppets from a slightly different perspective, and it’s not pretty (or indeed funny): “winsome schoolteacher Mary (Amy Adams) has been dating Gary (Jason Segel), who is a carer for his brother Walter, for ten years, and is desperate to get married. She hopes that a long-awaited vacation to Los Angeles will finally convince him to pop the question – but can Gary learn to let Walter be independent, and focus on his own future? Meanwhile, will Vogue editor Miss Piggy sacrifice her career for the sake of her frog ex-husband and his theatre troupe?” Sooooooo, let’s have a look at these characters a little more closely.
Everyone knows that the Muppets are the stars of the show here, and the humans exist only to move the plot along and assist where needed; they’re narrative helper monkeys, rather than self-contained characters of their own. However, their function as ideological placeholders remains complex regardless. In fact, Mary, at a plot level, is carefully (cynically, I could argue) given the task of saving the day with her (implied-masculine) technical skills; we first see her explaining car mechanics to her pupils, and this spills over at the end where she restores electricity to the Muppet Theatre after Tex Richman has cut it off.
But from a semiotic and ideological perspective, from her floral dirndl to her Doris Day hair, she is 1950s idealised compliancy personified. Marrying Gary is presented, via her solo performance at the beginning of the film, as her only goal in life, the absolute apex of her ambition. When he ‘abandons’ her later to assist Walter in restoring the fortunes of the theatre, an extraordinary song and dance sequence gives us Mary bemoaning the tragic failure of Gary to step up to his responsibilities as exemplified by…her having to eat dinner on her own at a diner. I know, right?
To take a psychoanalytic perspective, of course, implies that our heroes (Walter and Gary but NOT Mary) must achieve selfhood via the process of individuation illustrated in their respective story arcs. Walter must abandon the safety of childhood, under Gary’s constant care, and his uncomplicated adoration of the Muppets from afar, in order to enter into his own power as an individual. Gary must enter into adulthood through Walter’s liberation, freeing himself from his self-imposed adolescence so that he can form the primal heteronormative pair, symbolic of his maturity. But what about Mary? How did we get to 2012 with a public discourse about the representation of women so stunted that the one-note Mary’s utter lack of selfhood or individuative process as a character doesn’t raise an eyebrow?
I know, I know, I’m taking it all too seriously. But this is the point; either I can enjoy the film, adopting not just the ‘male gaze’ but ‘the gaze which suggests female absence and/or character mishandling is utterly normal and acceptable’ or I can be a feminist. No wonder sometimes I have to: because every film review I ever do would start with “It’s fine as long as you don’t think about the female characters”. Every. One. Bechdel Test every film you’ve seen in the last six months if you don’t believe me. http://bechdeltest.com And bear in mind that the Bechdel Test sets out what one would consider the bare minimum as regards female representation.
And of course talking of character development can seem ludicrous – if you’re me, enjoyably so – when we’re talking of foam puppets – but here we are, nonetheless. In fact, films for children are often particularly interesting to look at from a feminist perspective, because their characters are frequently stripped down to bare bones in order to deliberately avoid problems of interpretation and complexity. The “Disney Princess” question is a huge one, and not one I’ll go into here, but where does Miss Piggy fit in? In ‘her’ own way, Miss Piggy is a feminist icon; but as a drag queen version of the simultaneously hyper-feminized and overtly-masculinized woman. I mean pig. I mean woman. See, this is difficult? It’s also fascinating!
Miss Piggy is a tough, vain, powerful, physically strong, determined, commanding presence. She is also a puppet of a pig, playing a woman, controlled vocally and physically by a man. In this sense, she is ‘allowed’ to do things real women are socially penalised for. She is, essentially, allowed to be a popular icon of femininity who states that the important thing to her is that her needs are met, rather than subsuming her own needs to those of a dominant male, because she explicitly isn’t a woman.
She is also a vulnerable creature, as expressed in her deep love for the frog of her life, her Kermie, and a flawed one, as illustrated by her many moments of supremely pig-headed (it had to be done) stubbornness. She occupies a complex position in the archives of 1970s feminism in particular, having accrued a sort of mythology around her that few other female TV characters have ever achieved. Alien’s Ellen Ripley and Buffy Summers may be greater and more developed icons, but before them there was Piggy, hiyyyyyy-yah-ing her way through the stars, and generations of us girl-children carried a comforting little something of her persona with us as we started to negotiate our way through the gender maze.
So how does The Muppets repay her? To its credit, it tones down the pig-on-frog implied gender violence that was such a major feature of the 1970s and 1980s iteration. This is partly because broad slapstick is simply a less fashionable comedic mode than it used to be, but also because, well, domestic abuse just isn’t funny. Of course, from a feminist perspective, the humour in Piggy’s beatings of Kermit came from the reversal of power it implied; a power that in real life, as a woman, Piggy would not have had.
Instead, the 2012 version gives us Miss Piggy, French Vogue Plus-Size Editor. It’s worth boggling for a moment at the prospect of anything plus-size making its way into Vogue, a publication that relies on a remarkably specific vision of womanhood, painfully emaciated and wildly rich; a proportion of women so statistically insignificant that it serves as a fascinating marker of how the concerns of the powerful few are distilled, and then amplified, into the culturally-reinforced neuroses of the many.
Here then, we have a marvellous ideological bait-and-switch whereby Vogue gets to pretend that it would – oh, if only things were different! – have an eye to acknowledging female diversity, and the film gets to pretend that it wholeheartedly stands behind feminism. Because lookit, folks, the pig has a Big Job. Which of course she does….right up until the point at which she gives the job up, for love of her Kermie. Sigh. Of course. Even though Kermit has been moping around like a little green Howard Hughes and doing nothing for the past decade, the useless arse. Yet again, not only does ‘true wuv’ beat all, it also involves Piggy giving up her life and career for a man. This is our happy ending.
And you know what, I think it’s great that the Muppet Theatre gets back on its feet again and isn’t demolished for the sake of an oil well, that Fozzie doesn’t have to spend his time being sneered at by the (frankly scary) Moopets in a dive in Reno, that Gonzo no longer has to be a toilet magnate, and that Walter finds his own way, and all the rest of it. But why does it have to be at the expense of Piggy, whose fabulous, glamorous, prime virtue was that she was a pig of few compromises?
Is The Muppets a feminist film? It certainly isn’t. Is it an anti-feminist film? Possibly, but no more so than any other film. Does this invalidate my enjoyment of it? No. I enjoy an awful lot of things that aren’t specifically feminist, not because I am a misogynistic self-hater but because hell, I want to interrogate our cultural practices and ask the unasked questions and, yes absolutely I want to change the world; but I also want to squeeze a bit of craic out of it while doing so.
I went to see The Muppets and I loved it and I had a great time and MNAH MNAH’d out of the cinema, and still, and still…..and still all I got was this frustrating feminist perspective. It’s a difficult thing sometimes, being a feminist. Once you see not just how the world works, but how all of our cultural artefacts either tacitly or explicitly reinforce the subordination of women, you just can’t un-see it, though sometimes you wish you could. And that is also why I will just have to continue being That Asshole At The Cinema.
(with thanks to Sheamus Sweeney for seeing it with me, and to Will Brooker for asking me if I found it hard to be a feminist and a film critic)