“With a war of words in the press with the Hensons, Disney executives will never be held accountable for mediocre creative directions that lay at their feet, or for the way I have been treated. After literally refuting every one of Brian’s allegations on paper throughout the night, I cannot bring myself to send it to the media out of respect for Jim. No matter how carefully I frame it, because I know so much about them, it feels like a counterattack that might do real personal damage. […] I will continue to speak about the issues surrounding my dismissal by Disney, but I cannot in good conscience speak against my mentor’s children. It flies in the face of a great man’s philosophy of watching out for each other and loving and forgiving everybody.”
–Steve Whitmire “The Last Few Days, Part 1,” July 22, 2017
Rarely have I seen a better practical, real-life example of someone “turning the other cheek” (cf. Matthew 5:38-39) than this example of Steve refusing to fight back against the unwarranted personal attacks leveled against him by the Henson children. It tells me everything I need to know about who Steve is as a person and completely validates the faith and trust that I have invested in him.
And yet, while I understand and agree with Steve’s personal decision not to retaliate against the Hensons, I nevertheless feel that the Hensons should be held accountable for their words and actions. As responsible adults, we all understand (or, at least, we should understand) that actions have consequences, and one cannot reasonably expect to be held to a different standard due to the high regard in which people hold one’s late father. In fact, it is precisely because of the high regard in which we hold Jim Henson that his children ought to be held to account, because their actions are reflecting badly on him, and he’s no longer able to defend himself or assert his own point of view.
I agree with Steve that it is inappropriate for him to criticize the Hensons, for the reasons that he stated, but I don’t think it necessarily follows that the Hensons should not be criticized at all. If I criticize the Hensons, it is unlikely to turn into a war of words, as I doubt that they would consider refuting me to be worth their time. I have already provided well-reasoned, well-researched criticism of Disney and will continue to do so; therefore, I do not anticipate that anything that I have to say about the Hensons will distract from the Disney critique but rather show it in sharper relief. Moreover, since I do not know the Hensons personally, I doubt very seriously that my criticism of them would have the potential to do “real personal damage.”
Which is not to say that anything and everything about the Hensons is fair game. I have always been mindful of the inexpressible pain that they must have felt, and presumably still feel, about the loss of their father, and I will always try to be sensitive of that, as I always have. And yet, I look to the example of Jon Stewart who, when he was hosting The Daily Show, had a talent for knowing what was foul and what was fair, for calling people on their hypocrisy without hitting below the belt. And if Jon Stewart were still hosting The Daily Show, I would like to think (though, of course, I have no way of knowing) that he would have devoted some time–not a lot of time, mind you, maybe just five minutes of the show on July 17th or July 18th–to go over to camera 3 and say, “Seriously, what the hell, Hensons?”
So that’s what I’m trying to do now. More than that, however, I’m just trying to work through the negative feelings of hurt and betrayal that I myself feel over the Hensons’ words and actions. These negative feelings are burdensome to me, a stumbling block that I will have to get over if I have any hope of being able to move past these issues towards the forgiveness which Jim Henson himself advocated.
If Steve is reading this, I hope that he will understand my rationale for doing what he has nobly refused to do and forgive me if I am out of line in doing so.
(Incidentally, I should mention that when I talk about the Henson children, I’m specifically talking about Brian, Cheryl, and Lisa. To the best of my knowledge, Heather Henson has not remarked publicly on the matter one way or the other, so she is not included in my criticisms.)
Initially, when the Schism appeared to be just a simple matter of Disney versus Steve, there was no question in my mind whose side I ought to take. I have always respected and admired Steve, whereas I had known for years that Disney is a whited sepulcher of greed and corruption hiding beneath a veneer of wholesomeness and purity. So even without all the facts, I had no qualms about taking Steve’s claims at face value.
But when the Hensons got involved…that did give me pause.
I had always respected and admired them too. Even when I disagreed with their decisions, I’d trusted in their good intentions and took for granted that they knew better than I did what Jim would want.
I don’t think I ever went so far as to doubt Steve–if I had, I would feel a lot guiltier about it than I do–but the Hensons’ involvement did raise some questions in my mind: Had I allowed myself to be deceived? Was my faith in Steve misplaced? Had I jumped to a wrong conclusion without knowing sufficient facts? I had assumed that Steve was a victim of corporate bullying, but was it possible that Steve was the bully all along? Could Steve’s entire career with the Muppets have been just a (very) long con game?
That last question was almost too terrible to contemplate, as the implications of it had the potential to shake the foundations of my entire worldview. It would be like reaching the afterlife and finding out that Q is God. (“The universe is not so badly designed!”)
That would mean that Wembley was a lie, that Kermit was a fraud, that the only sincere character that Steve had played in nearly 40 years with the Muppets was that damn turkey from “A Muppet Family Christmas.” It would mean that Caroll Spinney was wrong to take Steve under his wing (so to speak), and that both Jim and Jane Henson had been deceived in him. If it’s true, as one of the villains says at the end of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, that “decent people are so easy to manipulate,” then maybe any one of them could have made an error in judgment, but all three of them at the same time? That’s not giving any of them much credit.
My intuition told me that Steve had been wrongfully accused and unfairly maligned, but I was having trouble reconciling my intuition with the unflattering portrait that the Hensons were painting of him. So I took a step back, stopped worrying about what I saw, and started paying attention to what I didn’t see.
Without reiterating all the allegations that Disney and the Hensons made against Steve, some keywords include that he was supposedly difficult, demanding, aggressive, and hostile. So I looked back on the things that Steve had said, and I didn’t see any evidence of any of that. In the past, I’ve observed that if a person is genuinely aggressive and hostile, even if the person is trying to suppress those qualities and put on a good face, hints of those qualities will nevertheless seep through.
My hypothesis was that if Steve was really as aggressive and hostile as Disney and the Hensons were saying, then he would have engaged in a lot of finger-pointing and name-calling when given the chance to respond to the allegations. In fact, the complete opposite was true; Steve refused to even mention any names. Pay close attention to this New York Times article: when asked to name the Disney executives who had called him in October 2016 with the devastating news, he declined to do so. Similarly, he declined to name the company that was making the commercial that caused the union dispute. Contrast that with Brian Henson, who told The Hollywood Reporter that “I really don’t want to be talking about” the reasons Steve was fired, and then proceeded to give a lengthy interview about the reasons Steve was fired.
(By the way, as stated above, since I worked through all this on July 17th, my faith in Steve has been vindicated several times over by the way that he has consistently and repeatedly turned the other cheek in the face of the smear tactics and harsh criticisms that have been leveled against him. If I had any real doubts on July 17th, they were swept away by July 19th.)
I then turned my attention specifically back to the Hensons. Here are some things I wanted to see from the Hensons but didn’t:
Gratitude: I kept waiting for one of the Hensons to say something to the effect of, “We’re sorry to see it has to come to this sort of acrimonious end, but we’re still grateful to Steve for stepping up when we needed him and keeping Kermit alive all these years…” But none of them said anything of the sort. They just kept making petty insults and unfounded accusations about Steve, as though he were some sort of ne’er-do-well cousin that they didn’t like but had to put up with at family reunions. To be honest, I don’t know which was more disingenuous: Disney putting on a false show of regret about the dismissal or the Hensons excoriating Steve with vindictive personal attacks, all the while refusing to provide any sort of proof of their assertions.
Professionalism: I was initially shocked to see that Disney had name-checked the Hensons in their statement. I had hoped that it was some sort of misunderstanding, that the Hensons had actually made a neutral statement that Disney was creatively interpreting to serve its own purpose. What I initially hoped and expected the Hensons would say was something to the effect of, “As we no longer own the Muppets, it is inappropriate for us to comment on Disney’s personnel decisions in regards to who performs them.” More than two months after the fact, it still bewilders me: why did they feel the need to get involved at all? Yes, Disney drew them into the discussion, but that doesn’t mean that they had to engage. And yet, they seemed almost eager to dirty their hands by slinging mud at Steve.
Love and Forgiveness: Many people, from big-name fansites to vloggers to Steve himself, have quoted (or otherwise made reference to) Jim Henson’s final instructions to his children from his last letter over the past two months–and now I must do so as well: “Please watch out for one another. Love and forgive everybody.” (my emphasis) One interesting thing that I can’t help noticing: the only people who haven’t made reference to Jim’s advice about loving and forgiving everybody–at least, not that I’ve seen–are the Hensons themselves.
And I think it’s fair to ask why not: Did they forget? Did they just not think it was relevant? Was it too painful to remember? Did they realize that it would weaken their rhetorical position? Did they anticipate that an odd little blogger from South Dakota–with no ties to either Disney or JHC, and therefore with nothing to lose–would start making inconvenient observations about how, logically speaking, Steve Whitmire should surely be included as part of “everybody”?
In fairness to the Hensons, they have done a pretty good job of watching out for each other in that they’ve been advancing the same narrative and backing each other up. And I’ll be honest, if I thought that somebody had wronged one of my siblings, or my family as a whole, I would probably do exactly what they’re doing: lashing out against the person and badmouthing him without regard for facts or history.
But none of that has anything to do with loving and forgiving … and that, to me, is really the important part of Jim’s final request. Forgiveness isn’t easy, of course; it’s much easier to be angry and lash out at others But forgiveness pays better dividends in the long run. I’ve often compared the kind of negativity that the Hensons have exhibited to a drug addiction: it feeds off you, demanding your time and energy in order to sustain itself. Give in to it too long, and it will eventually consume you. I think that’s what Jim was warning his children against … albeit in his gentle, indirect way.
So after looking at the things I didn’t see, I came to the following conclusion: nothing that the Henson children had said in this matter was in any way consistent or compatible with Jim’s principles of love and forgiveness and integrity, both as it relates to personal integrity and as it relates to the integrity of the Muppets. Furthermore, nothing that Steve had said was inconsistent with Jim’s principles.