DANNY HORN: Hey, did I ever tell you about my theory that Mew’s death is a metaphor for AIDS? It’s 1986, and gay men are dying all over the place. The creators are TV puppet people from New York and LA, so obviously a lot of their friends are dying. So in this special, you get Mew — the despised, unfairly judged cat-toy — dying suddenly. Rugby realizes how precious Mew is… but he figures it out too late. […] Then the fantasy is that the dead loved one can be resurrected and vindicated, just through the power of love and Christmas. You can see how this was an appealing fantasy for artsy people in 1986.
KYNAN BARKER: Did I ever tell you MY theory that sometimes a kids’ TV special is just a kids’ TV special?
–ToughPigs.com, “My Week with Another Christmas – Day Two: Doll Be Home for Christmas,” December 24, 2003.
Today is Epiphany, so I wanted to do not only a Christmas-themed article but one with some real substance to it, and this 14-year-old conversation about The Christmas Toy is a good jumping-off point for a discussion of allegory versus applicability.
An allegory is a detailed, in-depth metaphor that represents a situation or event in the real world. Authors who write allegory are usually not very subtle about the point they’re trying to get across. For example, I would consider A Christmas Carol to be an allegory: There’s not much to speculate about what the three spirits represent; it’s right there in their names.
On the other hand, a work has applicability if it can support multiple interpretations, regardless of what the author’s intention may have been. As J.R.R. Tolkien explained it, “I think that many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’; but one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other resides in the purposed domination of the author.” Tolkien ran up against this attitude often when Lord of the Rings fans would ask him questions about the allegorical meaning of the novels, to which he would respond that there was none, but that it was applicable to many real-life situations or events.
Another famous example of people confusing applicability with allegory is The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (the original book): Ever hear the urban legend that the novel was written to be a political allegory about the late 19th-early 20th century populist movement? It was not. That story came about because a history teacher in the ’60s applied the novel to the populist movement in order to connect the unfamiliar (and somewhat dry) subject matter with something that his students already knew and understood. It was so successful in both engaging and teaching the students that he wrote an article about it. On reading the article–and most likely because of the public’s predilection to believe that artists who create content for children probably have some ulterior motive or secret agenda–people mistakenly started believing that Baum had intended that allegorical meaning when he wrote the novel, and hence the urban legend was born. (By the way, there’s a term for reading an allegory into a story where none necessarily exists: allegoresis.)
As a student, I was significantly influenced by reader-response theory. Using that theory as a jumping-off point, I came to believe that the meaning of an artistic work does not come solely from the artist nor solely from the audience, but from the nexus wherein the artist’s intention and the audience’s interpretation meet and meld into something entirely new, though still related to its antecedents. Therefore, I tend to think that even a largely unambiguous allegory can still have applicability. I’ve often thought that the difference between art and propaganda is that art is open to interpretation. As a result, I believe that you can recognize an author’s point of view without necessarily agreeing with it, and that the author’s opinion about a work and its meaning is not necessarily the only valid one.
So, was The Christmas Toy intended to be an allegory on the AIDS crisis? Maybe yes and maybe no; to me, it doesn’t really matter. Is The Christmas Toy applicable to the AIDS crisis? Absotively, posilutely. As seen above, it’s a defensible interpretation, and that makes it an entirely valid interpretation, regardless of what the author intended.
Similarly, The Christmas Toy was clearly not intended to be an allegory on the Schism, simply because no one in 1986 could have possibly foreseen the decades-long series of unfortunate events that led to Steve Whitmire’s dismissal from the Muppets. But does it have applicability to the Schism? You bet your talking tiger toy it does.
In The Christmas Toy, we have Mew–“the despised, unfairly judged cat-toy”–played by Steve Whitmire who, 30 years later, became the despised, unfairly judged puppeteer. Mew is filled with unconditional love for Rugby Tiger and the other toys and is willing to sacrifice his life for them, even though they do nothing but abuse and ridicule him–including Rugby, who is supposedly his best friend. Steve has been willing to sacrifice everything not only to protect the integrity of the Muppets but to defend the dignity of his fellow Muppet performers. And what has he gotten for his trouble? Rejection and slander from Disney, abuse and ridicule from the Hensons, and quiet contempt from the mainstream Muppet fan community. Steve’s sacrifice has arguably been even greater than Mew’s; as the character of George Washington says in Hamilton: “Head full of fantasies of dying like a martyr? Dying is easy … living is harder.”
In a way–and by his own acknowledgement–it would have been a lot easier for Steve to have just shut up and go along, to do as he was told, to play it the company way. But there is a consequence for all our choices in life, and I think Steve could only have done that at the cost of his own soul. Not all at once, you understand…but every principle compromised and every bad executive decision unchallenged would have worn his soul away by attrition until it was obliterated entirely.
I’ve been in a situation that compromised my principles and wore away my soul–I stayed in it for the sake of convenience far longer than I should have–and I can tell you that, while it may be the path of least resistance, the psychological, emotional, and spiritual consequences are extremely difficult to bear–especially if you happen to be a person to whom personal integrity is important. After a while, you become unrecognizable to yourself; you look at yourself in the mirror and you say, “Who am I and what am I doing? Why am I wasting my life spinning away relentlessly and pointlessly as a cog in a giant machine?” To paraphrase J.K. Rowling (across multiple books), it is a half-life, a cursed life; you have no sense of self anymore, you just exist…as an empty shell. I wouldn’t wish such a fate on my worst enemy, and certainly not on somebody whom I would like to consider a friend. So when Steve says that he was willing to bite his tongue, stop offering unsolicited feedback, and accept whatever lousy decisions the executives handed down for the sake of keeping the Muppet ensemble whole and intact–which, by the way, 99% of the fandom would have agreed was in the best interest of the Muppets prior to 2016–I can tell you that it’s not self-serving, as some have alleged, but self-sacrificing…or, perhaps more accurately in this case, soul-sacrificing.
The attitude of the other toys in the playroom towards Mew in The Christmas Toy is applicable to the recent/current attitude of the mainstream Muppet fandom toward Steve. They aren’t as obvious about it as the toys that shout “Ew, it’s Mew!” whenever Mew enters a room. The mainstream fans’ contempt is a lot more subtle, less significant for what they say and more significant for how they say it. Some particularly jarring examples include the way that some of them have distanced themselves from Steve by referring to him as “Whitmire,” whereas before they’ve called him by his first name, or the way that they talk about Steve’s “departure” from the Muppets, which implies that it was at least partially volitional on his part. Even when they try to keep their words neutral, the derisive tone of voice they use when they mention Steve (and sometimes his characters) in videos and podcasts makes their true feelings unmistakable.
With that being said, in The Christmas Toy, the toys in the playroom seem to have always been dismissive of and hostile to Mew. Therefore, the attitude of Jamie, the little girl and primary toy owner in the story, may be even more applicable to the mainstream fandom’s attitude toward Steve. Every year when Jamie receives a new Christmas toy, she pledges to love it forever, and yet seems to largely forget about the old toys every year when a new toy comes along. Oh sure, she gives some lip service at the end about loving all her toys, but it is pretty clear that she doesn’t love them all equally. Towards the beginning she declares Rugby to be the “specialest toy in the whole world,” and Balthazar the teddy bear is pretty casual and matter-of-fact in describing the way that Rugby took Apple the doll’s place as Jamie’s “favorite Christmas toy.”
In 2009, when Steve was temporarily replaced as Kermit by the largely unknown Artie Esposito, the fandom was in an uproar. In 2016, Steve was replaced as Kermit by the universally–and deservedly–beloved Matt Vogel, and the fandom rejoiced (I engage in hyperbole in order to make a point). So if you’re a Disney exec, what’s the takeaway from that? That the fandom is fickle and gullible? That they know nothing of loyalty and only object to unfamiliarity? That they can be manipulated to turn their backs on a puppeteer whom they have admired and praised for approximately 40 years on the basis of a vague story, short on facts and long on insinuation? That if you’re going to run a smear campaign, it might be nice to have the Hensons on your side? That you can dismiss puppeteers with impunity as long as you replace them with someone that the fandom already knows and loves?
I don’t know which is sadder: that Disney would try to take our love and respect for the puppeteers and turn it into something ugly and divisive, or that they seem to have largely succeeded.