Every year I have the tradition of watching Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas as I decorate my house’s Christmas tree. For whatever reason, this special is the one for me that truly kicks off the holiday season. It’s a warm, sentimental ease into my personal yuletide.
But every year when I watch this special, I always come back to a certain plot point: the Riverbottom boys.
This group of five rude dudes are pitted as the antagonists of the film, right from the start. They’re mean and don’t care who knows it! Get out of their way, or you’ll regret it! They’re so tough and snarky! They’re bad at driving their car, and inexplicably have snowmobiles at one point!
But something has always stuck with me as I hang candy canes on my Christmas tree. I’m expected to feel negatively about these guys, and yet I can never bring myself to feel that way.
One of my resolutions for next year is to try practicing radical empathy, and hey, who better to practice it on than the Riverbottom gang? So, let’s do it. Let’s discuss why I feel the need to defend these five guys who go out of their way to be pretty gosh darn mean.
(BUT FIRST, before we dive in, I want to acknowledge that it is not cool to steal scarves off of frog narrators or make a huge mess in someone else’s place of business or spit water in someone’s unsuspecting face. None of that is cool! Do not do that! Ever!)
So, let’s talk about first impressions of this gang. There are five members in total: Stanley Weasel, Fred Lizard, Howard Snake, Catfish, and, their gravel voiced leader, Chuck Stoat. From the jump, we’re explicitly told that these are bad dudes. We’re not supposed to like them. Heck, they steal Kermit’s scarf in under a minute of being on screen. These are clearly the villains of the story. We also see Catfish spit water in a grocer’s face, they break some traffic laws, Stanley calls Kermit ugly to his face, and they make a huge mess in the town’s instrument store (though I will point out that Fred Lizard does pick up the sign he knocks over, which is nice). I mean, just look at the opening line of their song: “We take what we want, we do anything that we wish.” What’s more, the audience is rooting for either Emmet or Alice to win the talent contest, and these jerks win it instead. These dudes are not painted in a good light, I think we can all agree.
But let me just say, it’s worth noting that plenty of other characters in this special aren’t exactly expelling good behavior. Emmet and his mother fat shame their Grandma Otter through the whole opening number. Both Alice and Emmet speak fondly of Pa and acknowledge playfully that he was a Snake Oil salesman, i.e. a con artist who probably tried to swindle innocent folks out of their money. While many would argue that Emmet putting the hole in the washtub is a selfless act to get a nice gift for his Ma, when you think about it it’s impulsive and could ultimately put their family way deeper into poverty – same goes for Alice’s actions. Not to mention Emmet’s friends, who heap the pressure on him to put his family at financial risk in wrecking their only washtub. Then there’s the snooty Gretchen Fox, who looks down on pretty much everyone and, let’s be real, sucks. Alice’s friend Hetty Muskrat goads her into signing up for the talent contest, and then immediately tries to insinuate Alice wont win after she’s already sold Emmet’s tool chest for dress fabric. And let’s not forget Yancy Woodchuck, who commits the ultimate sin of doing a bad rendition of “Bar-B-Que”. Everyone in this special is guilty of something!
But okay, enough about the other characters. Let’s get way too analytical about a children’s special from the 70’s!
The gang is addressed as “boys” by Alice and “kids” by Mayor Fox, so presumably these guys are around Emmet’s age. They’d be teens, at most. And typically, when we see teens act out in media, it’s because there are problems in their lives that they are not yet equipped to address. In watching this special each year, I can’t help but feel like these boys have been neglected by society in some way. We don’t know much about their home lives because they’re never brought up. Seeing as so many folks in this special come from poverty, I wouldn’t be surprised if this crew did as well. While a lack of means and a possible bad upbringing isn’t an excuse for acting out and committing crimes (I would bet anything they stole those snowmobiles, y’all), it at least can explain a person’s motives to what drives them to such measures. Acting out, being loud, making a big mean show is seen by them as the only way to get what they want.
Let’s also point out that it’s very likely that the educational system has failed them. The song they perform is very clearly written by one or all of them – it’s way too referential not to be – and they sing the line, “We don’t wish to learn, but we hate what we don’t understand.” These boys were let down by their school system. A good teacher goes a long way, and maybe Riverbottom has not provided that for them.
Same could be said about the medical system failing them. If healthcare was free, these guys would be able to visit a dentist on a regular basis, and they’d learn about the importance of brushing their teeth and they’d have fewer toothaches making them mean!
Now let’s talk about their song in the talent show. Sure, they join in the contest a little late, but besides that they win the competition fair and square. We’re set up to be sad that neither Emmet nor Emily win, because we know their personal struggles, but let’s be real. The Nightmare Band has a killer set up and a song that slaps. They’re adept at playing their instruments. There’s plenty of talent and potential in these boys. Here’s hoping that music could be a creative outlet that this gang could use to work out their aggression towards society. And again, this song? It SLAPS.
And also, let me remind you, their band is called The Nightmare. Like, I think we all forget this fact, because the song repeatedly ends its verses with Chuck screaming “RIVERBOTTOM NIGHTMARE BAND!” which in and of itself would be a pretty good name for a band, but no. They are just The Nightmare. Which is a damn cool band name.
But okay, okay, I’ve speculated a lot. Here’s the crux of what I’m building towards. The Riverbottom boys aren’t the villains of this film. Ultimately, the special’s villain is capitalism.
Capitalism is what plagues Emmet and his mother. Sure, the Riverbottom boys swoop in and win the $50 right out from under them, but the Riverbottom gang are not the reason the Otters so desperately need that money in order to afford Christmas presents. Just like our real world, the system in which Waterville is based is broken. There’s a blatant wealth gap between the creatures doing odd jobs for barely anything and the rich folk like Mayor Fox and Doc Bullfrog. The Riverbottom boys did not create this system, nor do they benefit from it. It’s a wonder more creatures in this special aren’t acting out as well.
My final note is that the Riverbottom gang are truly victims of toxic masculinity. For those who don’t know, toxic masculinity is a set way that men are expected to behave and this, in return, has a negative impact on men and on all of society. Often boys are raised on gendered expectations that they have to act certain ways in order to make themselves big – in order to be seen as men. Not all boys have Emmet’s life where he has a loving relationship with his mother that helps guide him towards becoming a vulnerable, sensitive person (erm, otter). Toxic masculinity holds onto young boys and tells them being macho, being rude, being callous is what’s important, it’s what gets you what you want. The Riverbottom boys are stuck in a vicious loop where they hurt others around them. They act out and others move out of their way. They intimidate and others are fearful. Breaking out of the cycle of toxic masculinity is hard, especially for men because they often feel like they benefit from these actions when, in actuality, it does hurt them and those they’re close with. We’ll never know the future for the Riverbottom gang, as the last we see of them is after they’ve won the talent contest. It’s pointless to hope for a future for fictional puppets, but I guess I can hope that anyone who sees a glimmer of themselves in these characters can grow; they can learn that they too are worth vulnerability and care.
Am I digging way too deep into a group of secondary characters from one solitary holiday special (and its stage show adaptation), which barely gives us any clues into their backstories or personalities? Absolutely. If this were a gritty TV series and the Riverbottom boys were played by problematic human males who were absolute bullies and not Muppets would I be writing this piece? Not in a million years.
But I know all of this will still be on my mind next year when December rolls around, and all the Decembers to follow, as I’m breaking out the tree’s ornaments all over again. Maybe I’ll never know for certain the motives and future for the Riverbottom gang, but you bet that I will never stop me from wondering.
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by Julia Gaskill