Fraggle Friday: Skenfrith

Skenfrith monster

Skenfrith needs our help.  You see, we’ve gotta believe he’s not a monster […] He hates being a monster; only we can help!”
–Wembley Fraggle

I recently read a post by my friend Marni Hill on her blog, Just for the Halibut.  (Fair warning: her post contains explicit language, but if that’s not an issue, you can read it here.)  In it, she described feeling skeptical and working through lingering doubts she still had about Steve Whitmire as a result of the nasty rumors and snide insinuations that have swarmed unpleasantly around him.  It was a challenging piece, and I had difficulty processing it.  As I was thinking about how to respond, I was suddenly put in mind of an old saying, regarded as something of a cliché, if not an outright glurge: “Believing is seeing.”

It made me smile.  It reminded me of my best friend from college, who hated that expression and wasn’t shy about saying so.  (Truth be told, I’ve never known him to be shy about saying so when he didn’t like something.)  I’m not necessarily inclined to agree with him, however; I think there’s some truth in the saying.

Then that put me in mind of the Fraggle Rock episode “Believe It or Not,” which introduced us to Skenfrith, a magical shapeshifting creature whose form changes as a reflection of the beliefs of those around him.  To put it another way, he becomes whatever others believe him to be.  It’s kind of a complicated concept; why I don’t I just let Skenfrith himself explain it:

When Jocelyn Stevenson created the character of Skenfrith for Fraggle Rock, she was trying to make the point that “belief affects perception [and] perception affects belief […] what you believe about things is then how you see them.”

And whether we’re aware of it or not, our beliefs about other people also affect our perception of them.  For example, I recently read a fascinating article about how preconceived notions about another person’s emotional state can influence how we interpret their facial expressions.  Not only that, but as we interpret the facial expressions of others, we subconsciously reflect the emotions that we are interpreting on our own faces.  So, in a way, we’re all kind of reverse Skenfriths.

As I was thinking about all this, I was suddenly hit with another epiphany:  What if Steve Whitmire is Skenfrith?

Not literally, of course.  I’m well aware that Dave Goelz played Skenfrith on Fraggle Rock, (and, as far as I know, Steve is not a shapeshifter).  But in a metaphorical sense, suppose that Steve is Skenfrith, and suppose that Disney and the Henson children are the Gorgs who–with a depth of malice only rarely plumbed by the actual Gorgs themselves–have gone out of their way to convince the Muppet fandom that Steve is a monster: a disrespectful, unacceptable-business conducting, outrageously demanding, understudy-eschewing, blackballing, destructive-energy emitting, brinkman-shipping, bitter, angry, depressed, unfunny monster.

I’ve now come realize that, for the fans who have been convinced of Steve’s multihyphenate monstrosity, everything that he says and does to try to justify himself gets filtered through that perception, like a funhouse mirror that twists and distorts the reflected image, so that the things that he says in his own defense are perceived as reinforcing Disney’s claims instead, and he is perceived as some sort of unhinged, bullying diva when, really, all he’s trying to do is stand up for himself.

And while I am dismayed and frustrated by this…*ahem*…phenomenon,  at least now I understand how Steve can post fundamental Muppet truths on his blog–stuff that I consider to be really basic, like “the Muppet performers are not interchangeable“–and be met with eye-rolling contempt by certain factions of the fandom.  While I don’t agree with the people who say things like, “Steve should have taken the ‘retirement package’ from Disney…he’s so disrespectful of Matt…he’s just digging himself in a hole…who does he think he is anyway to dictate what’s best for the Muppets?…” etc., at least now I understand where those comments are coming from.  To me, it’s similar to what Red says in “Believe It or Not”: “I know that [Skenfrith’s not a monster]…but I found the two heads very convincing!”  

One of my favorite authors is Madeleine L’Engle.  Best known for writing A Wrinkle in Time, she was a prolific and eclectic author.  There’s an idea that shows up in several of her works, but is perhaps best expressed in her novel The Young Unicorns: “People become trustworthy only by being trusted […] Not stupidly, you understand, but fully aware of the facts, we still have to trust.”

Notice that she doesn’t say that we have to be aware of all the facts.  That would be ideal, of course, but oftentimes in situations like this, facts can only take us so far.  And when it gets to that point, that’s when we have to make a choice whether or not to make a leap of faith in trusting someone.  That’s a difficult, dangerous thing to do; to trust someone else is to make oneself vulnerable, to risk being hurt.  It’s much easier and safer to sit back, to be passive, to accept what those in authority tell us.  But the easiest choice isn’t necessarily the right one; in fact, in my experience, it’s more often the opposite.

It is now incumbent upon each of us Muppet fans to make a choice:  Are we going to make Steve trustworthy by trusting him?  Or are we going to make him into a monster by making him out to be a monster?

7 thoughts on “Fraggle Friday: Skenfrith

  1. I’m certainly glad someone else get’s it. I’m still possess some doubts, but that’s a part of human nature I’m able to brush aside in favour of continuing to listen to Steve and what he has to say.

    The Skenfrith allegory is perfect and perception certainly is everything. I’m still astounded by how quickly people turned and snapped at Steve the second Disney revealed they had consulted with the Henson’s about the dismissal. I suspected from the beginning that Steve’s ‘retirement’ was a farce, so I was a little more willing to research into it…..If only more people had chosen to do the same thing.

    Oh well, the best you and I can do in this situation is stand stock still in front of Steve and take the brunt of the crap being thrown at him. Not to mention the duty of assisting him in familiarising the fandom with the fundamental elements of the Muppets.

    Also, Steve being a shape-shifter is my new accepted head-canon and no one and convince me otherwise!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I laughed hard at your new “head-canon”. I never meant to start a new rumor about Steve; what have I done? 😀

      Anyway, thank you for the affirmation. I thought it was pretty good, of course, but it’s hard to get a good perspective on one’s own work.

      Also, if you’re interested, I wrote something new in which I expanded on a comment that I had made on your blog a while back. I put it under the “Slightly Off-Topic” tab.

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  2. “Are we going to make Steve trustworthy by trusting him? Or are we going to make him into a monster by making him out to be a monster?”

    “now I understand how Steve can post fundamental Muppet truths on his blog–stuff that I consider to be really basic, like “the Muppet performers are not interchangeable“–and be met with eye-rolling contempt by certain factions of the fandom.”

    Brilliant analogy with Skenfrith and you have put into eloquent words my very disappointment with many of the fans reaction to this situation, T(cough)ough(Cough)Pig(cough,cough,cough)s………..

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    • Thank you very much! I share your disappointment; the example criticisms of Steve that I used in my post were all based on criticisms that I’ve seen expressed on the ToughPigs forum.

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  3. Hi, it’s me again. This is gonna be another long post, I hope that’s okay…

    I admittedly have never seen the episode of “Fraggle Rock” where Skenfrith appears, but this is a perfect metaphor.

    The only reason people are believing Brain, Cheryl, and Lisa over Steve is because they’re the Hensons. No matter how much better Steve acted during the “Ker-Fuffle” than they did (notice that he went out of his way not to attack them even while they spewed insults at him and bashed his performance as Kermit), no matter how much Mike Quinn defended Steve, no matter how many good points Steve makes on his blog, no matter how many other people that I have no reason not to trust like Frank Oz, Gabriel Velez and Andrew James Spooner side with him, they think that just because they’re the Hensons that makes them more trustworthy than Steve. And apparently Rick Lyon’s whining on Facebook about Steve is proof of Steve being a monster as well, even though I’ve seen other people claim that Rick’s a massive jerk who got kicked off of “Sesame Street” for stealing another puppeteer’s personal notes (I don’t know if that’s true, but at least three people have said Rick isn’t a very nice guy, so I wouldn’t be surprised if it is).

    I don’t know why the Hensons did what they did to Steve. It’s possible that they’re just sucking up to Disney. Maybe Disney paid them off. But here’s another possibility that I haven’t seen anyone suggest – perhaps the Hensons had just as many dumb ideas as to how the franchise should be handled as Disney did, and they’re bent out of shape because Steve tried to talk some sense into them. I mean, Brian agreed to have Scooter CAGE-DANCE in “It’s a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie” (I know that was SUPPOSED to be disturbing, but I don’t care. It’s still disgusting, needlessly crass, and not appropriate for a franchise that was intended for the whole family, not just adults), I wouldn’t put it past him.

    I’m wondering what it’s gonna take for people to start believing Steve’s side of the story. Maybe if at least one puppeteer, like Matt Vogel or Dave Goelz or whoever, defends Steve (I’m guessing the only reason they didn’t yet is because they were afraid that if they did Disney would kick them out as well, but now that it’s been a few years since the “Ker-Fuffle” maybe they’ll decide Disney probably wouldn’t care anymore and speak out)? Maybe if one of the puppeteers that they’re claiming Steve “blackballed”, like Drew Massey or Victor Yerrid, comes out and says that Steve didn’t blackball them at all? The fact that Gabriel Velez clearly doesn’t hold any hard feelings towards Steve says a lot, doesn’t it? Maybe if the various puppeteers who’ve worked for the Muppets and/or Brian come out and say that Brian is a massive jerk? Perhaps a combination of the three?

    Like, let’s say that, I dunno, John Kennedy goes on Facebook and posts a rant about how much of a jerk Brian is, claiming that he had a bad experience working with him on projects and that his claims about Steve were lies and that the only reason he slandered Steve is because he was trying to suck up to Disney so that Disney would give him the money to get some sort of project off the ground. I obviously have no idea of Brian is a massive jerk (at least two people on the Muppet Central Forums, one of whom worked as a puppeteer on “Muppets From Space”, have said that he’s not a very nice guy, but take that with a grain of salt), but who knows? It’s possible.

    As for Matt Vogel, I know you’re still not a huge fan of his Kermit, but I think he’s doing a good job. I was initially afraid to watch that “Muppet Thought of the Week” video where he debuted as Kermit because I was afraid I wouldn’t like it. After finally watching it, I think I thought to myself, “He’s alright, but at the beginning it sounds a bit too much like the Kermit impression that Constantine does.” I was really impressed by his work as Kermit in the live shows at the Hollywood Bowl and the O2. I think his best work as Kermit thus far was in that recent “Sesame Street 50th Anniversary Celebration” special. When he was talking to Joseph Gordon-Levitt before the song started up, I honestly thought that he sounded almost exactly like Steve’s Kermit.

    Phew… okay, I’m gonna end the comment here. You summed it up perfectly, the Hensons are giving Steve the Skenfrith treatment.

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    • Hi there, and thanks for your thoughtful and detailed comments. I think I never got around to responding to your first one, so I’m making a point of responding to this one.

      I think you’re exactly right that people give credence to the Hensons because of their name and their “pedigree,” for lack of a better word. Disney tried more or less the same techniques on Robin Williams and Roy E. Disney when each displayed an inconvenient amount of integrity. In the former case, it didn’t really stick, and it in the latter case, it backfired spectacularly. However, the common denominator is that each of them had what Steve does not: a recognizable name. I imagine that Disney execs know that the company’s reputation for fair and reasonable business dealings isn’t very good, which I speculate is why they were so quick to invoke the Hensons’ name and draw them into the discussion.

      I still don’t understand why the Hensons chose to get involved, and I probably never will, but the idea that they were independently annoyed with Steve is becoming less credible by the day. The Jim Henson Company headquarters has a giant statue of Kermit perched on its roof. Disney, of course, owns the copyright to Kermit, and Disney is not known for allowing other companies to use its copyrighted characters as corporate mascots, as the owners of several Florida daycare centers could attest. Clearly Disney is getting something in exchange for the use of its characters. It could just be money, or it could be favors. We have no way of knowing.

      Second, Disney+ recently announced a puppet talk show produced by the Jim Henson Company. Disney+ was in the works at the time that the “Ker-fuffle” was going on. I have no evidence that Disney offered Brian a deal for a series on Disney+ in exchange for him bashing Steve, but the timing seems a little too convenient to be a coincidence.

      This is all conjecture on my part, and it doesn’t explain everything, but if I’m right, it would go a long way toward explaining the Hensons’ vehement condemnation of Steve.

      Now, without commenting directly on whether or not Brian is a jerk, I think it is fair to say that his personality is vastly different from that of his father. His work tends to be a lot more cynical in attitude. ‘Dinosaurs’ is a good example, as is the scene from “It’s a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie” to which you take offense. (And by the way, I don’t like it either, but since it is supposed to take place in a parallel universe, I think there’s a more valid justification for it than there was for the objectionable content in the 2015 series that was supposed to be the Muppets’ “real” lives.)

      But I digress. Brian’s personality being different from his father’s is not necessarily a bad thing, because every personality type has its own strengths and weaknesses. And I can appreciate how difficult it must be for him to try to live up to an ideal that’s impossible for him to attain. I don’t think it’s fair to expect him to be just like his father or only do things that his father would do. At the same time, I don’t think it’s fair of him to use his father’s name to lend credibility to an act of needless cruelty.

      As for Rick Lyon, I have actually never seen the Facebook post you mention, but I’ve heard about it. It’s a tricky situation: on the one hand, I don’t know very much about Rick Lyon, but most of what I’ve heard is unfavorable. However, most of what I’ve heard is also unsubstantiated rumor. I can’t give credence to unsubstantiated rumors about Rick Lyon while simultaneously bringing people to task for spreading them about Steve. That would be hypocritical. All of which is just a roundabout way of saying that I can’t really comment about Rick Lyon one way or the other, but suffice it to say, I do not presume that he is trustworthy.

      As for Kermit, I will say in Matt’s favor that I have seen some marked improvement in his Kermit performance over the last two years. There are brief flashes from time to time in which he is recognizable as the frog of my heart. However, I wonder sometimes whether the problem is not Matt’s performance but my own reluctance to accept him as Kermit. In other words, maybe it’s not that I’m unable to embrace the “new” Kermit, but that I’m unwilling to do so. That would be another Skenfrith situation: having convinced myself that Matt’s Kermit is inferior, perhaps what I’m able to perceive most clearly are the flaws.

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      • Thanks for the reply!

        First off, I too really doubt that it’s just a coincidence that Disney just so happens to be collaborating with the Hensons on a project for Disney+. Amazing that nobody aside from you has pointed this out. I have no proof that Brian is a horrible person aside from two people saying he’s kind of a jerk on a forum, but if it is, that would explain some things. But if he really were an awful person, why wouldn’t it have been revealed by now? Wouldn’t somebody have come out and said it?

        You’re right that Brian’s attitude is kind of cynical. “The Muppet Show” was intended to be a puppet show for adults, but it was classy. It didn’t rely on having the characters make sex jokes and curse in order to get a laugh. Now, let’s compare that to whenever Brian does a project intended for adults. THEN we get cursing, sex jokes, and the aforementioned cage-dancing.

        Really, I think the situation with Steve and Disney is little more than “Disney got bent out-of-shape over Steve’s criticisms of the way they were handling the franchise”.

        In regards to Rick Lyon, you’re right that I shouldn’t just assume he’s a jerk because people online have said he’s a jerk. I think the reason I think it’s more likely than Steve being a jerk is because of what he said about Steve. I just don’t think a nice person would post something that nasty. Nothing about that post was particularly mature or tasteful – notice how he claimed that Steve “wasn’t the right fit for Kermit” and that he wasn’t a good actor or whatever? Even if he has a problem with Steve, that doesn’t mean he should insult the guy as a performer*. The whole post had a very bitter, mean-spirited tone to it. Plus, what he said doesn’t add up to what folks like Mike Quinn have said. I’ve been thinking for a while that maybe Rick is one of the puppeteers who auditioned to be an understudy during that whole “One Muppet, One Voice” thing, and that he’s just angry Steve protested the idea. I don’t think Steve has said anything about Rick, but I would like to hear his side of the story in regards to whatever happened between him and Steve. (side note, I looked on his Facebook page but I haven’t been able to find that post about Steve. I’d like to think that he felt guilty about it and took it down, but maybe it’s still up and I just haven’t found it?)

        I still think that if somebody like Matt Vogel spoke out in Steve’s defense, people would be more willing to believe Steve’s side of the story. I dunno if we’re gonna get any more information about this big, crazy mess, but I find it unfair that this happened to Steve and I just really hope he eventually gets some sort of justice.

        By the way, I didn’t bring this up in the comment I posted here, but I’m surprised that nobody else pointed this out – if Steve really did “blacklist” all those puppeteers who auditioned to be understudies, how come Brett O’Quinn, one of those puppeteers, worked on the Lady Gaga special and “Muppets Most Wanted”? Wouldn’t that be considered proof that the “Steve blacklisted puppeteers” thing is a load of crap?

        * That applies to the Hensons too, by the way. It was really uncalled for the way they insulted Steve’s Kermit, claiming that it’s his fault Kermit’s character got derailed or whatever despite the fact that he didn’t write the scripts.

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