Up Next: The Stepford Wives (1975)

The next film we will discuss in class is The Stepford Wives (1975). If you don’t have a copy, or can’t find one, the Froggy Flix blog has a link to a copy.

Remember, you should try to develop some ideas towards a “reading” of this film.

I’ve decided I would like you to keep a film diary. Every time we watch a film for class (starting from The Stepford Wives) I would like for you to make an entry in your film diary. This will include films I ask you to watch outside of class, and films you watch for essay assignments as well. Indeed, it’s a good idea to keep a diary for every film you watch (and in every language) — the more you engage in critical readings of film and TV, the faster you will master the work we’re doing in this class.

Since we didn’t have time, I didn’t have a chance to “put together” the different pieces of your various readings of The Muppet Movie. The short version is this:

If you consider the following different pieces of readings from different groups, it looks interesting:

  • People in one group felt that the film had a very oddly familiar feel to it. They unconsciously referred to the muppets as “kids” and noted that many of the adults in the film were “mean” to the kids Muppets, while the Muppets themselves were very “nice” to each other… like a family. Another member of this group noted that the internal logic of the movie felt strange, asking, “Why are they suddenly singing?”
  • People in another group noted the glamorization of Hollywood and of celebrity — one popular definition of “success” in American culture. They focused on the idea of “opportunity” but noted that while adults kept pushing the Muppets towards “success,” Kermit’s original goal was to make people happy.
  • When I dropped by, another group was discussing sexism (and possibly racism) in the film. After all, there are very few female characters, and those that are included (Miss Piggy especially) seem to be both stereotypically feminine, but also the cause of trouble and problems for the group — problems that the male Muppets must solve. This was something they did not notice (or object to) so much during the film, but afterward it bothered them.

Here’s how I would put all these observations together into a reading:

The Muppet Movie: A Reading (by Gord Sellar)

If we want to understand The Muppet Movie, all that we need to do is one simple thing: consider the intended audience of the film. This is not only the secret to understanding The Muppet Movie, but also the explanation of why so many adults fail to grasp the film on first watching.

As an adult, what we see is cute Muppets, designed to appeal to kids, singing and dancing their way through an adventure towards success while overcoming funny, cute obstacles that aren’t truly scary except within the world of the film itself. Adults, looking at Doc Hopper, see nothing but an annoying, mean old man whom they know will lose in the end. Adults, looking at the Muppets themselves, see dolls being used in a game of make-believe.

But if we look at The Muppet Movie through a child’s eyes, things take on a different appearance. The Muppets are not just dolls, and aren’t merely childlike: they are children. The experience of the world that Muppets have mirrors the experience of children: adults telling them what to do, what not to do, and treating them with disrespect. A world that does not understand the child’s natural instinct to play, to suddenly burst into song, and to connect with friends in a way so intense and powerful it is rarely seen among adults.

And, most importantly, the Muppets are all parentless children, but at the same time children who interact with adults almost constantly. That is to say, the film makes an uncompromising statement to children:

They (adults) are one group, and you (kids) are another group. Your parents may love you, but they are adults, and therefore they are fundamentally different from you, fundamentally blind to how you see the world, and fundamentally they don’t even realize just how disrespectful they often are toward you.

Which means that this film hides a subversive message by not hiding it at all. The subversive message is this:

Adults will try to change you, sometimes (or even often) in ways that they think are good for you, but which are in fact not good for you at all. They will try to make you into small versions of themselves. They will try to push you in directions you do not want to go, try to force you to do things you don’t want to do. Sometimes you will fail to resist them. Sometimes you will succeed. But always, you must have your wits about you. Many adults are as childish as any child, but adults have have all the power in this world, amd as a group even the nicest among them don’t understand children, or respect them properly.

The film not only presents this subversive message, but also includes a number of survival strategies for children living in modern America (and, arguably, in any modern society):

  • If there is something you truly want to do, that makes you feel wonderful, do it. (Kermit and his friends never hesitate to sing from the beginning of the story.)
  • If adults try to force you to do things that offend you morally, or try to harm you, run away. (As Kermit does when Doc Hopper tries to use him to advertise for a restaurant where people will eat frog legs — obviously a horrifying thing for Kermit.)
  • Adults don’t realize just how wrong they are about things sometimes — and they often will not admit it in front of you even when they do realize. (Doc Hopper obviously ought to realize that his offer to Kermit is both horrible and unacceptable… the fact that he does not shows how blind and self-deluded adults can be towards the wellbeing of children, as well as how selfishness can warp their relationship with others. Indeed, Doc Hopper is incredibly childish; only his age and wealth are offered as justifications for his behavior.)
  • There is safety in numbers — so find the other kids around you and band together. (Kermit teams up with Fozzie Bear this way, but indeed the whole film consists of a constantly expanding group of childlike Muppets not just joining forces but, more importantly, working together to achieve their goals.)
  • Blood isn’t necessary to make a family. (In the world where this story is told, the Muppets are the least respected people — just as children are in our own world. One coping mechanism the Muppets adopt is to form deep, powerful bonds with their peers. This significantly reflects the kind of experience children in a nuclear family would have had in the 1970s, when this film was released: with increasing numbers of families being dual-income — with mother and father both working — children tended increasingly to rely on peer groups for support, love, and help.)
  • Remember that the definition of success in our world isn’t necessarily what you want to achieve. Play the game, but remember your own goals and dreams. (Kermit and his friends do end up making a movie, but regardless of what adults seem to think, the point of the movie is not money — it is fun, adventure, and happiness.)

If there is a single lesson that is most central to The Muppet Movie, it’s this: Don’t let the world change you. Maybe The Muppet Movie is too naive about children’s potential and creative energies; it’s also possible that the film is too negative about the world of adults, and their goals, beliefs, and worldview. Or maybe that’s just the narrative logic of the film — which, after all, was made by adults. (Of course, adults who make movies about child-sized Muppets teaching kids secret lessons on how to stay human while growing up are arguably people who have resisted “growing up” in the way that most adults understand it… and wonderfully so.)

At the end of the film, when the Muppets sing together that the listener “… don’t stop dreaming…” it’s important to understand that, in terms of the narrative logic of the film, children have dreams, and that the inevitability of growing up is, sadly — and mistakenly — equated in American society (and other societies) with putting those “childish” dreams away. The magical inversion of the film — depicting the Muppets as both childlike and healthy, happy, and “normal”, and meanwhile depicting adults as heartless, exploitative, pushy, lacking in respect and honor — is one that adults can appreciate only to the degree that they have managed to keep alive their own “inner child.” Thus the message of the film is pertinent to adults as well as to children — but it takes more work for an adult to grasp it, because the film is, fundamentally and ergonomically, designed for the mind and the eyes of a child to understand.

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