I know, I’ve been listening to too many podcasts about Carrie — The Musical, but that’s not the reason for this post. Rather, a friend shared on FB an article about a supposed movement to cancel Miss Piggy: this is when I realized that this diversion and distraction about “cancellation” is going to far. For those jumping to the conclusion that he’s going to talk and complain about cancel culture — well you’re wrong as well.
Let’s get this straight: The owner of intellectual property has every right to do with that property what they will until it is in the public domain. They can withhold it from the public (as the Seuss estate is doing with six books); they can put it in context (as TCM is doing with a number of “classic” movies), or they can do nothing. That’s not the supposed cancel culture: that’s a business making a business decision about how continued marketing of their product will impact their future business and how their brand is viewed in the future.
But let’s turn to the question of Miss Piggy, and her behavior in contrast to another recent discussion topic, Pepe Le Pew. I think this comparison leads to some interesting and important conclusions about how the owners of the IP should behave. It also sheds light on what the Suess IP owners should do, and what similar IP owners should do.
Question 1: Is the problematic aspect of the character the only aspect of the character? Is the character one-note? For Pepe Le Pew, that’s certainly the case. The entire joke around the character is a skunk (which looks like a cat with a white stripe), falls in love with a cat with a white stripe, who wants nothing to do with the skunk. Remove that, and you have no character. If you just had a skunk with a French accent, placed in other situations, there would be no joke. What makes the Le Pew character is his clueless advances. The same is true for a character like Speedy Gonzalez. What makes that character is the accent and characterization. Remove that, and you essentially have the Road Runner. On the other hand, take Miss Piggy. Her chasing after Kermit is only one aspect of her character. Other aspects, such as self-love and bossiness, can exist independently. Indeed, her lust for Kermit has been toned down in recent portrayals. They’ve eliminated the problematic behavior and an interesting character still remains. Thus, there is no need to cancel “Miss Piggy”; indeed, her change can be viewed as a lesson in itself.
Question 2: Who is the audience for the character? Although the Looney Tunes shorts were originally aimed at adults in the 1940s, they rapidly became children’s cartoons. That’s where they exist today. And little kids don’t have the maturity to put things in historical context. That’s the problem with the Suess illustrations and problematic Looney Tunes. They are aimed at little kids. That’s why the fresh publication of these problematic characters is ceasing. But the older images remain, and adults can look at them and put them in context. But Miss Piggy?
Although she has been on Sesame Street, the oldest episodes of that series where she chased Kermit are long out of circulation. Kids aren’t seeing them. They are seeing the new Piggy. Her other appearances? [Edited: Piggy was never on Sesame, although she appeared with some of the characters] [Muppet movies and the Muppet non-CTW TV productions] are aimed squarely at adults (secondarily at children), who can put past behavior in context. Audience and its maturity matters.
What we are doing now: Reexamining past art, and recognizing when it was reflecting wrong attitudes, is a good thing. Making clear the context of the art, when the intended audience of the art can understand placing it in context, is a good thing. It can serve to teach, and to show us how we have changed and when we need to change. But if the intended audience can’t understand the art, it is reasonable to rethink whether it is still worth putting out there. It is also appropriate for businesses to think about how what they put out in the present day reflects the values and morals of their business. Past portrayals and images, no matter how cherished by older customers, may not be appropriate today.