We Need To Talk About Piggy (Part One)

Miss Piggy is a popular character, both in the Muppet fandom and out of it. She is loved for being funny and admired for being strong. Some even regard her as a feminist icon. Nevertheless, I, for one, want nothing to do with Miss Piggy’s particular brand of feminism, nor would I mind having nothing further to do with the character herself.

I find very little, if anything, that is either funny or admirable about Miss Piggy. At best, she is a bully, and at worst, her behavior (particularly toward Kermit) is abusive. It’s a pernicious double standard that I believe needs to be called out.

A common criticism in regards to Miss Piggy is that her character has been flattened and flanderized over the years. Some even go so far as to unfairly scapegoat her “new” performer, Eric Jacobson (who’s been playing her for nearly 20 years now), much in the same way that they blame Steve Whitmire for making Kermit too nice and/or too bitter. Make no mistake, however, the behaviors that I find objectionable have always been part of Piggy’s character, dating all the way back to the Muppet Show days, regardless of whether she’s performed by Frank or Eric.

I recently ran across YouTube video of Kermit and Piggy doing an interview to promote Muppet Treasure Island and Muppets Tonight. I expected to enjoy it because I love both of those productions and I love Steve and Frank. But while the interview was mildly amusing, on the whole it just made me uncomfortable, particularly because of one section in which the interviewer asks them about violence in movies:

Not withstanding a previous ill-conceived (albeit funny) fat joke, Kermit does nothing to provoke Miss Piggy; she uses him for a demonstration just because he’s there. And I understand, of course, that it is supposed to be exaggerated and funny, that Steve and Frank are intentionally playing it broad in the interest of slapstick, but I find it less funny and more disturbing when Kermit gets up off the ground shaking and protests that it really hurt, and Miss Piggy responds by immediately hitting him again. It’s cringeworthy.

Then there’s The Muppet Show. Now admittedly, on the Muppet Show, there are times when Kermit does provoke Piggy, which doesn’t really excuse her behavior but at least makes her a little more understandable and sympathetic. Kermit is frequently a jerk on the Muppet Show, and there are plenty of occasions in which he gives as good as he gets when it comes to Miss Piggy.

Then there are moments like “I Enjoy Being a Girl.”

I really want to like the Cheryl Ladd episode of the Muppet Show (mostly because she’s a fellow South Dakotan), and I really want to be able to like this number. However, I can’t get over the fact that Miss Piggy calls Kermit a “dummy,” lures him into the room under false pretenses, and starts beating the crap out of him merely because it is expedient for her to do so.

I understand where the humor in the bit is supposed to come from, that they’re singing this song reveling in stereotypical gender roles while displaying qualities of strength and toughness that are not stereotypically associated with femininity. However, I think the gag could have worked just as well, and been more funny and less uncomfortable, without Kermit’s involvement. As it is, I don’t find it amusing at all.

In the past, I’ve often expressed a preference for Miss Piggy as she appears in the movies (at least, the early movies) in which her more aggressive tendencies are usually toned down and she uses her martial arts skills for defensive purposes, only hitting those who deserve it.

Then I re-watched Muppets Take Manhattan lately and had to revise that particular thesis. Towards the end of the movie, she does hit Kermit, which I would consider disproportionate retribution, although it was done in a fit of temper rather than being coldly calculated, and it has the positive effect of curing his amnesia, all of which helps to ameliorate it somewhat. However, her REALLY disturbing behavior happens earlier in the movie, in which she stalks Kermit and becomes irrationally jealous over him hugging Jenny:

At this point, you may be thinking, “You’re just being overly sensitive, Mary; lighten up!” Theoretically, I acknowledge that that’s possible; I am temperamentally inclined to be overly sensitive and take things too seriously.

Therefore, I have an exercise I do to help me keep things in perspective. I look at whatever gendered behavior is bothering me, and I flip the genders to see if it’s offensive when a male character behaves that way. If it’s not, then I am just being overly sensitive and should lighten up, but if it is, then the behavior is unacceptable and shouldn’t be tolerated from anyone, male or female, human or porcine.

In the first video, the Clive James interview, Piggy not only hits Kermit, more than once, twice in a way that she knows will hurt him, but before that she demeans him by saying “Sometimes the frog needs to be taught a lesson.” Imagine that it was a male character making such a condescending statement about a female love interest. He would be condemned (if you’ll forgive the pun) as a chauvinist pig, and rightly so.

In the second video, put aside the silly lyrics and ironic staging of “I Enjoy Being a Girl,” and just imagine if two male characters were to lure an unwitting female character into a room for the sole purpose of brutalizing and humiliating her. That sounds more like a horror story (or, perhaps more to the point, a Lifetime movie) than a comedy.

This is not intended, and should not be construed, as a criticism of Frank Oz, Eric Jacobson, Jim Henson, any of the Muppet performers, or any of the many designers, builders, writers, etc. who had a hand in creating Miss Piggy. I’m sure none of them realized the full implications of what they were doing. Even though Miss Piggy’s behavior has bothered me for years, I didn’t fully comprehend the implications of her behavior either until I recently read an article (dating from the time of Kermit and Piggy’s “breakup”) that pointed out that Miss Piggy demonstrates all the warning signs of a domestic abuser, including the following: 

  • Hitting, striking, or pushing
  • Getting one’s way through violence or the threat of violence
  • Irrational jealousy and possessiveness
  • Insults, criticism, and belittling behavior
  • Destruction of one’s partner’s possessions
  • Emotional blackmail
  • Unpredictable temper

According to the same article, the trope of a woman acting physically or emotionally abusive toward a man is supposed to be funny because women tend to be physically smaller and weaker than men, so it is a juxtaposition of our expectations. In fact, Jim Henson frequently played on the inherent humor of a small creature getting the better of a larger creature in an abstract, non-gendered way in skits like “Hugga Wugga” and “Java,” to great effect. In the case of Miss Piggy, however, it reveals something very disturbing about how our gendered expectations influence our perceptions, because Miss Piggy is demonstrably larger than Kermit. This is most markedly obvious during the buggy ride in Muppets Take Manhattan.

Do our stereotypical expectations that a woman is smaller and weaker than a man blind us to the evidence of our senses that clearly demonstrates the opposite in the case of Miss Piggy and Kermit? What a horrifying thought! Furthermore, since Miss Piggy has been behaving this way for over 40 years, I don’t think playing against audience expectations is a legitimate excuse anymore, if it ever was.

There’s a valid argument to be made that there are Muppets who do things that are as bad, or worse, than the things Miss Piggy does, e.g., blowing things up, eating other Muppets, and so on. (And don’t even get me started on Animal chasing after women; that’s a whole other essay just waiting to happen.) Speaking for myself, I think Miss Piggy’s behavior bothers me more than that of other characters because she’s a more prominent, better developed, more rounded character and because she rarely, if ever, faces any sort of consequences for her actions, precisely because she plays upon helpless-woman stereotypes. She can do the most awful things and then immediately get out of the consequences with a simper, a whine, and a flash of her big, blue eyes. 

It’s also worth pointing out that there are plenty of instances (many of which the mainstream Muppet fan community is happy to overlook) in which Miss Piggy herself is the victim. In The Great Muppet Caper, Nicky Holiday seems ready to abduct her despite her desperate pleading for him to let her go. In “The Fantastic Miss Piggy Show,” John Ritter makes several advances toward her that are clearly unwanted, invading her body space and going so far as to forcibly kiss her over her vocal protests, behavior that would likely end his career today if he were still alive. In a clip from The Muppets Take Manhattan, linked to above and embedded below, she is both victim and perpetrator at the same time, enduring shudder-inducing verbal harassment from a crowd of boorish construction workers while stalking Kermit and Jenny.

I think this clip is really the key to understanding how to respond to Miss Piggy’s behavior. When she is the victim, she deserves sympathy, but that doesn’t give her a free pass to behave however she wants. When she is the aggressor, she should be held to account for her actions. 

(I’d like to hold any discussion of this piece until I’ve had a chance to make my full argument; therefore, comments are disabled.)