WHISTLING IN THE DARK
NOVEMBER 2003

A Way to Say I Love You

I think it's safe to say that our conceptions of how men and women will be in the world are influenced by the role-models we are exposed to as children. Frightening a thought as it is, I have no doubt that I was profoundly influenced in my perception of masculinity by the various strong male figures of the pop cultural universe in the late '70s and '80s. And let's all take a moment to deal with how frightening that is...

By the same token I don't doubt that my image of what women ought to be like was cobbled together partly from the significant female characters of that period as well. It is to one of them I turn my thoughts now.

I wish to pay tribute to a maligned and misunderstood icon of my youth. A character who appeared in the '70s and had a significant impact on my own perceptions of femininity, for better or worse. She looms large in my mind partly because of the context that she appeared in, but also as a character in her own right.

She was loud and strong, determined and uncompromising - beating Madonna to that high-camp post-feminist post-drag-queen-co-optation ironic-iconic female stardom by a decade or more. But unlike Madonna, she was also free about her insecurities, her foibles, her loves and her failures. It was, in fact, this very vulnerability that left me so impressed by her. Because let's make no bones about it - she was defeated - often - set back in frankly humiliating ways. But not only did she possess an inherent and indefatigable glamour and attraction, she was absolutely unsinkable - no set-back, no insult, no rejection could tarnish her sense of herself, her admiration for the people she loved or her conviction that she had potential and that it must be lived up to. She knew that one way or another she should, she must be a star.

Not all of these are positive qualities, I grant you - and she was possessed of the kind of titanic ego that drove people away from the likes of Churchill, the diva-like temper that made Welles so hard to work with. But petulant, vexing and even, sometimes, violent as she could be, she was capable of prodigies - a singer, a dancer, an actress of range (from cheap hackneyed mellow-dramas to classics of English literature and cinema), a fashionista, and an accomplished athlete; her passion and unsinkable optimism were, in the end, impossible to resist. She was also, of course, a pig.

No I'm serious.

See the thing is, we were watching the Muppets the other night and Piggy was signing "Never on Sunday" and I was groovin' on Frank Oz' mellow song stylings and thinking what a great character she was - how strong and conceptually flexible (she really has done everything from Marilyn Monroe-esque movie star to lower middle-class Victorian housefrau) she was and how her character was the kind of woman I found tremendously attractive - passionate and mercurial, talented and driven, deeply flawed but nonetheless able to rise above those flaws to achieve greatness (in accordance with whatever frame the Muppets were occupying in that narrative). I said something like this to my girlfried - saying something muddled about how I found her attractive and thought that she had influenced my sense of what was attractive in women and she said something like 'so the women you're attracted to look like pigs?'

It was then that it suddenly dawned on me that probably not everyone had assimilated Piggy in the same way I had - that a lot of people just saw a pig with a blonde wig on.

The funny thing is, I think that's the original intention. Long before the Muppets had made vaudeville furries a staple of North American culture, I imagine the Henson puppet designers coming up with concepts for characters. There would have to be a movie star who would, as all movie stars do, have blonde hair and blue eyes. But, to make it funny, she would be, well, a pig. If you've been conditioned to those kind of icons it really is pretty funny. Furthermore the idea of caricaturing humans as animals to dramatize their inner life is an ancient motif in western culture. I imagine they probably laughed their asses off.

But at this point I should say that I come from an intellectual tradition that does not think authors actually are the final arbiters of the meanings of the texts they create. I don't think just because Tolkien says the Lord of the Rings isn't about World War II, that it isn'tů and actually that's a very good example because Tolkien essentially acknowledges that simply saying 'that's not what I meant' is not enough: he goes on to explain in some detail why he doesn't think it works as a metaphor for WWII and makes a convincing argument I think. The author can, and does, have intentions for a piece of art, but that doesn't mean that the art will work that way out of the context of the artist's imagination. If artists really had control of how people would react to their work, don't you think Bobby McFerrin (a serious jazz artist in 'real life') would have saved himself the trouble and the death threats and remastered Don't Worry Be Happy into something less accessible?

The point being, I know Piggy was intended as a cheap dig against egotistical, gold-digging starlets. But that's not what I see or saw.

First of all, the world changed - the late '70s was the beginning of the set of inversions in our cultural perceptions of women and feminism that led to the situation in the late '90s when, for example:

  • Madonna's calculating chamleonism is a credible feminist icon
  • Drag Queens are now able to treat a second wave pop-feminist rallying song as a virtual anthem of the Drag Queen nation ("I will survive")...
  • By the same token, one of the most popular 'girlpower' (lite post-second wave pop feminism) anthems of the decade was written by a drag queen ("Man I Feel Like a Woman" - written by RuPaul, AFAIK).

While I want to resist the idea that pop culture visions of female empowerment all sold out, I do think it's safe to say that one can now be a feminist icon without being Joan of Arc - and in fact revisionist treatments of Joan of Arc all make her out to be way crazier than Piggy anyway... The point being, it's no longer ridiculous to talk about a vain movie star as an empowered woman. Nor is it entirely ridiculous, thank you RuPaul and Teena Brandon, to talk about a woman being played by a man in those terms either...

But it's not just the cultural context the made Piggy more than the sum of a blonde wig, blue eyes and honking big foam nose...

There is an idea that I have heard in a lot of different cultural theory about the way that a medium 'educates' or 'trains' the consumer - there is a learning experience one has to go through before one can really get the most out of many media. Before you can get the most out of movies you have to first learn to suspend disbelief when you see someone who was a tobacco company executive last week, commanding a 19th century frigate this week. You have to learn that what you are watching is not a factual recording of someone having an alien creature explode out of their chest unexpectedly, but rather a spring mechanism and a bunch of sheep guts on an actor who's telling you a story.

As a child, I think, we pick these things up easier. I imagine that most of us 'know how to watch' movies and TV now - but might very well be baffled by Japanese theatrical traditions ("why do they keep yelling? Hey isn't that a ninja - ninja's are cool - hey, how come he's just moving scenery - isn't he going to kick some ass!?").

So the point is, as a child, I picked up the skill of watching the Muppets early. One of the skills of watching the Muppets is selective suspension of disbelief about the alien nature of the Muppet characters. You learn to register the sight gag of two movie star types being pigs (Linc and Piggy) or the Frank Sinatra rip-off literally having a Monkey side-kick (Johnny and Sal) or the shrimp with pretensions of Machismo (Pepe!) or Gonzo (just Gonzo - look at him, he's a sight gag unto himself). But once the sight gag is registered, you have to get beyond the funny appearances if you're going to engage with the characters, and if you don't engage with the characters what's the point? Just watch go South Park or something.

So the point is, Miss Piggy is a pig - yes it's funny ('ehhh oink oink yerself" she yells chasing a misbehaving extra off stage) but it's also something that, especially as a small child, you assimilate quickly. Is she, cause she's a pig, ugly? No - of course not - I won't say that I am literally attracted to her (though I'm sure there are some who are) but the Muppet is not particularly less attractive than any of the more human Muppets - it's not like I'm attracted to the Muppet of Janice either... But within the suspension of Muppetic disbelief, I understand that part of the conceit is that she is attractive. She has the cultural markings of attraction (the hair and the eyes - and let me say that this is not a blanket endorsement of blonde hair and blue eyes but rather anyone who watches Hollywood movies must know that if you were playing 'costume charades' and wanted to show 'starlet' a blonde wig and blue eyes would be a good start - they're a short hand) and also many people in the show react to her that way...

... though certainly not all - and this is, I think the real gift of Henson - what makes Henson's work art not just entertainment. Jim Henson had an incredible gift for subversion - here is a man who designed a vaudeville theatre with built in hecklers - did the variety shows they were parodying have hecklers? He built a cast of theatre types with a built in censor (Sam) who was then subverted in his subversions. The basic idea of Piggy is so subverted to begin with - she's a starlet, but she's a pig - granted as I said above. Now that's a pretty obvious one BUT I think Henson quickly sensed the character's potential - note that she's one of the one's who was redesigned second season (her and Fozzie) and since then she's become a core character. So they continued to pile on the contradictions - she's in love with Kermit, but not so much that she will suffer humiliation by him without making her displeasure known on it; he's not in love with her, except that they're constantly together like some kind of darker thin man couple. What makes Henson's world(s) so fascinating is their endlessly recursive contradictions - he made puppets of animals that sang and danced for kids - and then blew them up and had them eat each other...

So the point is: to me Ms. Piggy does not just signify a woman who thinks she's beautiful but is really just a pig. She is beautiful in the frame of her world, but she is also loud, brash, strong and vulnerable; na´ve and worldy; clumsy and elegant; mean and devoted; flaky and loyal, self-serving and totally in love; skilled and helpless; the butt of cheap humour and anchor performer in a variety of genres. And most of all utterly and completely unsinkable in her dedication to pursing the life she wants and loves. How could any character be more attractive than that?


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