I think about the Muppets often, as I am a huge Muppet fan (see: been a ToughPigs writer for 10 years). I also think a whole lot about women and their lived experiences (see: been a woman for 30 years). So naturally I think about the intersection of these two factions somewhat frequently.
As we round out the final week of March, it means we’re nearing the end of Women’s History Month. While we shouldn’t narrow our dialogue on female representation to just one month of the year, I felt as one of the few women who writes for ToughPigs on the regular that this was the time to think about the present day Muppets and their relationship with, well, women.
When it comes down to it, there’s clearly a handful of things the Muppets could be doing to better serve women – both on screen and behind the scenes. (This goes for race, sexuality, gender, etc. as well, but those are conversations all of their own merit.) With us getting everyone’s favorite classic Muppet production (The Muppet Show) as well as a whole new property (Muppets Now) in under a year, it seems like an apt time to look at how the representation of women in the realm of the Muppets could be improved.
Here are three suggestions (just in case any big-wig Disney folks happen to be reading).
1. More female Muppets, please!
Before anyone starts in on “Well Julia! There’s already female Muppets! Duh! We don’t need more! Geez!” I’d like you to stop yelling at your computer for a moment and take a deep breath. Okay, good. Now, think for a minute. Count how many recurring female Muppets of the last six years come to mind. Go on, I’ll wait.
The last time I checked, I can count all the recurring female characters of 2015-2021 on both hands. But male characters? It would take far longer to rattle off all the male recurring Muppets – I’d need more fingers and toes to account for all of them.
Yes, we’ve got Piggy, Janice, and Camilla and have had them for decades. I love those gals (despite the fact that they’re not played by gals, but we’ll get to that in a moment), but having three main women (and Camilla’s really only there for her relationship with Gonzo) compared to the endless number of men is out of place in this day and age.
With the 2015 Muppets and Muppets Now, we’ve really only received two new recurring female characters in the last six years. While I personally felt the “Øk?ÿ Døk?ÿ Køøkïñ” segments were far too repetitive to truly be funny, I thought Beverly Plume was a breath of fresh air. I loved her need for control and her rapport with the guest chefs, on top of trying to maintain calm in the radius of the Swedish Chef. And while technically not a new character, the 2015 sitcom breathed much needed life into Yolanda – it felt like the gift of a new character. Yolanda is sassy, bold, and just an all around good time. My fingers are crossed that they will both be key players in any future Muppet production, and not fall by the wayside like an Annie Sue or a Hilda.
And yes, we’ve seen some other new female characters in the last six years, but do y’all really think we’re gonna see much more of Denise now that Kermit broke it off with her? You think Debbie or Alynda are going to come back as main players? You think Esther’s going to get an entire segment in the second season of Muppets Now about her struggles with Zoom? Don’t get me wrong, I’d love for all of that to happen. I’m just doubtful that it will.
While one could argue that the Muppets have always been a boys club, I’d argue that they have always been about inclusion. They are a ragtag group of misfits who want nothing more than to create art, support one another, and make people happy. I would hope they’d take a note from the likes of Sesame Street and Fraggle Rock and incorporate more female characters into their mix of bizarre felt creations.
The great thing is that there are so many wonderful female characters that have been created over the years. Do you know how easy it’d be to pull out a Miss Mousey or Ma Bear? Or heck, make Skeeter finally a thing! An Annie Sue, Mildred, or Wanda reappearance would be amazing (with dialogue, guys, no more of these background cameo shticks)! Bring back Spamela and actually give her a personality this time! Or there’s Zondra! Margaret! Gladys! Afghan Hound! Vicki! Big Mean Carla!
Or if bringing back, restoring, and recasting Muppets is just too difficult (though from what we’ve seen of Chip and Uncle Deadly, and even Yolanda, it’s really not), maybe just create new female characters for us to enjoy?
And of course, in saying all of this, having a wider array of female characters on screen would mean we’d need to have…
2. More female Muppet performers
I recently binged the ToughPigs podcast “The Muppets: The Sitcom: The Podcast” at my day job (would highly recommend giving it a listen!), and Muppet performer Julianne Buescher appeared as the guest in one episode. On it, Julianne was asked an array of questions about not only her time on the show, but also the goings-on behind the scenes. Often, Julianne would have to admit that she didn’t have any say in certain aspects and wasn’t invited into the large conversations about the show. Those conversations were reserved for the core Muppet performers – all men. It was hard for me to listen to, knowing how much Julianne has contributed over the years and yet still isn’t considered a part of the core cast.
Julianne Buescher got her start on Dinosaurs back in 1991 (the same production Bill Barretta got his start on), and has since performed on Sesame Street, Muppet Classic Theater, Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree, Muppets Tonight, Muppets’ Wizard of Oz, Muppets Most Wanted, and many other Muppet projects. I also noticed that she’s only listed as “Guest Star” on The Muppets (2015) and “Additional Performer” on Muppets Now, which makes absolutely zero sense to me.
And just as disheartening as this amazing female performer not getting her due? She’s the only present day female Muppet performer who even comes to my mind. I’m sure there are other women performing background characters, or maybe even taking on a main character if a Jacobson or Vogel have two of their own characters speaking with one another in a scene, but it flat out sucks that I can’t name a single one of them.
This is nothing new. We’ve only ever had what feels like one or a couple female Muppet performers at a time. We had a rotation of Eren Ozker, Louise Gold, Karen Prell, and Kathy Mullen throughout The Muppet Show, Fran Brill and Camille Bonora on The Jim Henson Hour, Leslie Carrara-Rudolph on Muppets Tonight, and now Julianne Buescher.
There’s also the matter of the three main Muppet ladies – Miss Piggy, Janice, and Camilla – all having one very noticeable thing in common: they’re performed by men. This doesn’t detract from the characters, nor do I think they need to be recast with women performers (though, when the time comes for folks to retire, I think it’s a conversation worth having). If anything, I think the alternative is obvious: when creating new / recasting old male Muppet characters in the future, cast women to play some of them. If it’s cool for a man to play Miss Piggy for going on fifty years, why not consider recasting Gonzo, when the time comes, with a female performer?
I don’t have much more to say on this point because I feel like I’ve said it all. But come on, dudes, it’s 2021, hire more female performers. We know women are just as capable and amazing at carrying a show through their puppeteer skills (see: the amazing roster of female puppeteers over on Sesame Street), so it only seems fair they be given a chance to shine with the Muppets.
And finally, we can’t talk about female representation on the Muppets without talking about…
3. Miss Piggy
I recently wrote a piece called “Miss Piggy vs. Cancel Culture.” It unsurprisingly received some blow back. I read many voices saying I was “too sensitive,” that I “couldn’t take a joke,” that I “don’t get the Muppets.” Of course I knew it was a joke being thrown around in response to the Pepe Le Pew news, that wasn’t why I wrote it. I wanted us to collectively step back and examine Piggy, for the character she started out as and the pig she’s grown to become. I wanted a chance to applaud Disney and the Muppets for doing away (mostly) with her toxic behavior towards Kermit and other men she interacts with.
But that said, that doesn’t mean that the presentation of Miss Piggy doesn’t have a ways to go.
Fat jokes shouldn’t be on anybody’s radar for what is deemed comedic. Even in the most recent Muppet productions, Piggy’s weight is still the butt of jokes. Sure, maybe not as many jokes as in the past, but enough to make us cringe. Women live in a state of constant hyper-awareness of their weight – we’re bombarded on the daily with ads telling us how we need to start dropping pounds. We’re told we’re undesirable if we have an ounce of flab, there’s commentary on how we need to keep our figure if we want to “keep a man”, and we’re somehow simultaneously invisible and on display if we don’t fit into society’s beauty standards.
But overall it comes down to this: fat jokes are just mean. So many people – men, women, and nonbinary – are fat, and making weight be the punchline over and over again means that viewers see themselves as the punchline. Piggy’s weight doesn’t effect anything that has to do with her actual character. Make fun of her vanity, her selfishness, her need for the limelight. Leave the fat jokes in the 70’s for goodness sake.
I’d also love for them to stop pitting Piggy against any other women – felt or flesh – she comes in contact with. We got to see her have a bit better rapport with some women on The Muppets (2015), but she still has a ways to go. Giving Piggy an actual friendship with Deadly has been great, now maybe give her a friendship with a lady or two.
And finally, Piggy’s vanity. Honestly, I don’t mind her vain tendencies, but I’d like to not see the same two or three jokes play out over and over and over and over and OVER again about how desperate she is to be beautiful and hip (see: absolutely every “Lifesty(le)” segment from Muppets Now). The flip side of this is that Piggy’s vanity wouldn’t be as much of an issue if they added more female characters into the mix. No one complains about Lew Zealand being a one note character because he’s constantly surrounded by other Muppet characters, most of whom are also one note. If Piggy was not the sole representation of female Muppets in the group, then her one note-ness around being vain wouldn’t feel so stifling.
The 2015 sitcom added some welcomed growth and vulnerability to the character of Piggy, especially in the second half of the show’s run, as did both The Muppets (2011) and Muppets Most Wanted. Now I’d like to see the crew behind the Muppets take that growth and run with it.
It’s easy to look at this piece I’ve just written and claim, as I know some are going to do, that I know “nothing about the Muppets” or that “I’m not a true fan” because I “complain too much.” I know these responses are coming because I’ve seen them before whenever I write any ounce of criticism of the Muppets and representation.
The thing to keep in mind is that I love the Muppets, with my whole friggin’ heart. I write articles like this because, outside of this being my most beloved franchise, I know the Muppets are capable of doing better in their inclusion.
I’m not asking for Crazy Harry to give up the dynamite. I’m not begging Statler and Waldorf to treat Fozzie any different. I’m totally okay with Gonzo ogling all the chickens his weird little heart desires. Heck, I want to see Eric keep playing Piggy and find new, interesting ways of portraying her character.
I’m simply asking, as a woman, to see more feminine representation. More BIPOC women. More fat women. More trans women. More queer women. More women with disabilities. More women.
It’s 2021. That shouldn’t be too much to ask.
Click here to throw some love to Julianne Buescher on the ToughPigs forum!
by Julia Gaskill