A friend of mine posted on social media that she’d introduced her little girl to Jim Henson’s Muppets. Happy memories flooded my heart with joy. I know the thrill from both perspectives – that of the mother introducing her daughter to old friends, and that of the little girl reveling in the world of the Muppets’ vaudeville-style show. Because I am a “first generation” Sesame Street child, Henson’s creations have had a huge influence on me. For one thing, Henson taught me how to read before I set foot in Kindergarten. It’s quite possible that I was drawn to Karate because of Miss Piggy.
At the very least, Miss Piggy reinforced what was already there. Most two year olds, and I was no exception, cannot focus on anything for an hour. But I did once. My parents recently told me I was absolutely enthralled and delighted by a karate demonstration when I was two years old. Four or five years later I was always curious about the dojo across the street from the ice skating rink. What the heck did they do in there – chop boards and pummel one another all day long? Did they yell “hiiiiiiya” like Miss Piggy?
Miss Piggy was very much a product of her time. As a little girl, I saw her strength, both mental and physical. This was refreshing – by the time I was five years old I was heartily tired of heroines who were passive, weak, brainless, and easily frightened. Miss Piggy didn’t take any crap from anyone. For comic effect, Henson made Miss Piggy into a total and complete diva. I found her funny, and still laugh at her. But when I look at Miss Piggy through the filter of what’s going on in the world today, I realize maybe she isn’t quite the heroine I made her out to be when I was a child.
Jim Henson was always very much in tune with what was going on in society. He had a knack of distilling popular culture and social issues into something both children and adults could appreciate and laugh at. Children do have a sense of what’s going on in the world around them. And now that I’m an adult, I find “The Muppet Show” to be ten times funnier because I understand what was going on in the world during the 1970’s. Miss Piggy was a representation of what women of the time were striving to be. She was strong, independent, ambitious, and she was not about to mope around waiting for her love interest to take the initiative in the relationship. Nevertheless, “The Muppet Show” was a comedy variety show, and the humor of that time shaped Miss Piggy.
What we laughed at in the 1970’s is now widely considered to be inappropriate. Physical humor is becoming passé. Beating up one’s boyfriend is domestic violence. Many believe it’s no longer appropriate to laugh at someone who goes about sabotaging a rival’s work and bullying them. Aggressive flirting is often considered sexual harassment. To be honest, we’ve always known these things are wrong. What made us laugh is that Miss Piggy was completely over-the-top. Us women have always known divas are not the best role models. Laughing at Miss Piggy’s antics, though, was like releasing a pressure valve. Us girls and women felt the tension between what society said we were supposed to be and what we wanted to be. We laughed with glee because Miss Piggy got away with this stuff, whereas we constantly had to fight battles on so many fronts.
One of those fronts was the depiction of women as capable warriors in movies and TV shows. No doubt Henson watched Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris flicks, but I don’t think that’s why he gave Miss Piggy her signature karate chop. I strongly suspect Henson kept tabs on his prime time competition. “The Bionic Woman” and “Charlie’s Angels” were vying for viewers’ attention the same year that Miss Piggy made her debut. Adding karate to Miss Piggy’s character was Henson’s way of bringing in a whimsical element of physical humor that was in step with the times.
Miss Piggy’s karate was never meant to be taken seriously. Sometimes she does practice good bushido (the way of the warrior). We cheer her on when she sends the bad guys packing. But most of the time, she uses her karate inappropriately. Kermit, her boyfriend, is her favorite target. Miss Piggy hauling off and hitting people at whim has shaped many people’s perception of karate, whether they are aware of it or not. Every time us karateka hear, “don’t piss him/her off,” that’s Miss Piggy lurking in that person’s subconscious mind. I’m sure Henson didn’t intend for that to develop. Nor did he foresee a day when we’d have to explain butado (the way of the pig) to our children.
My friend’s little girl is growing up in a world that is totally and completely different than when I was her age. A lot of people no longer laugh at domestic abuse, bullying, acts of sabotage, sexual harassment, and random acts of violence. Probably a lot of younger parents, accordingly, don’t let their small children watch the Muppets. I can understand waiting until the child is old enough to understand fantasy versus real world. But what I don’t understand is forbidding the child from watching The Muppets altogether because of Miss Piggy’s butado. As their children mature, good parents will discuss age-appropriate topics that come up while watching Miss Piggy execute her famous karate chop.
My friend said her little girl was drawn to the way Miss Piggy fought off the bad guys in “The Muppet Movie.” Brava, little one. Keep talking to your mama about what you see Miss Piggy doing. If your mama needs me to help explain something to you, I’m here. When you are mature enough to handle a bit of hard work and sweat, and if you’re still interested in being a fighter, I should be a fully fledged sensei (instructor) by then. I’ll be there for you and I’ll teach you the difference between butado and bushido. Until then, keep laughing and keep learning those life lessons of joy and wonder that have always been at the core of Jim Henson’s work.