March is Women’s History Month, and International Women’s Day is later this week, so I’ve been thinking a lot about the female characters of the Muppets lately. Yes, both of them.
Yeah okay, there are more than just Miss Piggy and Janice in the Muppet troupe, but you had to think about it for a second, didn’t you? There’s Camilla (mostly silent), Annie Sue (only used as a Bizarro Piggy), Skeeter (doesn’t technically exist), and a bunch of seldom-seen forgettables. The Muppets have always been, and may always be, overwhelmingly male.
We’ll likely talk about Janice some more in the future, but today I want to focus on the main Muppet woman – the one with her gender identified within her name, and quite possibly the most famous lady in pop culture history. That’s right, it’s Miss Mousey. Nah, you know that’s a blatant lie. Let’s talk about Miss Freakin’ Piggy.
As the second-most prominent Muppet, there’s a ton of stuff we can say about the porcine diva. I mean, we named our entire website after her. Heck, I wouldn’t be surprised if this is the start of a series, leading to an entire book, culminating in the inevitable Miss Piggy Encyclopedia.
With such a long history, where do you start with figuring out who Piggy is? If you take a step back and look at her entire timeline, there’s an obvious divide into two categories: The Frank Oz Piggy and the Eric Jacobson Piggy.
Characters getting new performers is always going to make for a huge change, which is often jarring and occasionally subtle. Take Grover, for example. It’s pretty difficult for anyone but the most trained Muppet fanatics to tell the difference between puppeteers. Ernie, on the other hand, might as well have a new name under Steve Whitmire’s control.
The key is figuring out what, exactly, the core differences are. And I think I’ve nailed down the biggest one.
Frank Oz performs Miss Piggy as a man, Eric Jacobson performs Miss Piggy as a woman.
Okay, so hear me out. This isn’t a comment on her actual gender or history, but in the way she’s performed. Frank Oz has said in interviews that he performs her as a “truck driver wanting to be a woman”. Despite the backstory he gave her that clearly defines her as female, this is how he chose to bring her to life. And it makes sense for him, as it allows her to be tougher and it’s funnier when she pours on the femininity.
Eric Jacobson has the unfortunate disadvantage of not having the time to really develop the character as his own. For years, his Piggy was relegated to TV movies, YouTube videos, and the occasional talk show interview. It wasn’t until the 2011 The Muppets movie, followed by Muppets Most Wanted and The Muppets TV show, where he really got to turn her into something new.
Eric’s earlier performances are rarely looked favorably upon, as his Piggy was a little too angry, a little too quick to violence, and rarely fun to be around. She was a puppet version of Mimi from The Drew Carey Show.
But then we saw Eric’s Miss Piggy get tender. In The Muppets (movie) she wasn’t jealous of Kermit flirting with the celebrity of the week, but instead upset due to losing touch with her true love. In Muppets Most Wanted, she had a crisis of conscience while finally marrying Kermit while understanding that the situation may not actually be what she wanted. In The Muppets (TV show), she found herself making new friends and rediscovering herself as a newly single woman. Although she was still the same old emotional and strong pig, she found her third dimension all over again.
Meanwhile, Frank’s Piggy owned her toughness in a different way. She antagonized her fellow Muppets, but she was just as welcome joining them for a song or in a hospital room or on the Swinetrek. Her karate chops were perfectly balanced by “kissy kissies” and back-breaking poses to the camera. But those vulnerable moments were effective because they seemed out of character in the moment. We enjoyed seeing her act like a diva because she seems to embody the opposite of a beautiful movie star.
The best example I can think of is comparing “Never Before, Never Again” to “Something So Right”. The song from The Muppet Movie was written for a Johnny Mathis or Frank Sinatra-type, but Jim Henson thought it would be funnier if Piggy sang it herself. And he was right, because although it starts a bit sweet, it eventually devolves into Frank Oz belting high notes like Florence Foster Jenkins. And although the intention of the song is romantic, the end result is hilarious.
“Something So Right” from Muppets Most Wanted is one of my favorite Muppet songs from recent years. Piggy is thoughtful, vulnerable, and questioning her lifelong dream. But mostly, she’s exhibiting the feelings that anyone would have in her position. It’s not even that she’s acting as a real woman, it’s that there’s no question of gender – just identity. That said, I dare you to listen to that song and picture a man in a sound booth singing it. Miss Piggy, in that moment, is unquestionably female.
Since developing this theory, I’ve been trying to pay attention to how Piggy acts in any of the Muppet productions I’m watching. It definitely doesn’t work across the board. In rewatching The Muppets Take Manhattan last week, I recognized Piggy as a woman. Her devotion to her craft as well as her desire to stay near Kermit were endearing and relatable. At no point did I see her as a man in drag. Likewise, her scene in The Great Muppet Caper when she and Kermit fight, and she breaks down and cries is a great example of the truck driver showing her true colors as a woman with actual feelings.
Still, Frank’s Piggy in the Muppet Show days reeked of overcompensation. The minks and furs, the driving desire to be respected as a star, the jealousy of every other female on the show – these may be things a woman would do, but Piggy takes them all to the nth degree (as she does).
What it boils down to is this: Miss Piggy has the potential to be a wonderfully unique pop culture female. She was a fantastic three-dimensional character under the hand of Frank Oz, and she became her own woman again in recent years with Eric Jacobson. And although both are legit great versions of the character, it’s satisfying to appreciate everything Miss Piggy was, has become, and will ever be.
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by Joe Hennes – Joe@ToughPigs.com