If you read my blog regularly, you know that I am not a fan of the Walt Disney Company, and I do not hesitate to call out its greedy or amoral behavior, especially when it has the potential to ruin individual lives or undermine our already fragile system of government. However, calling out bad behavior is only one side of the accountability coin. The other side is praising individuals or corporations when they do something good.
A lot has been made lately of the content warning appearing in front of certain Muppet Show episodes on Disney+. Conservative talking heads are painting it as censorship and “cancel culture.” Unfortunately, we cannot have a meaningful discussion on “cancel culture” until we agree on an accurate meaning that does not validate bad-faith actors on the right by accepting their self-serving definition. However, we can talk about censorship and why the Muppet Show edits do not fit that definition. We can also talk about why the content warnings are a very good thing and why more Muppet Show episodes are deserving of them.
Content Warnings Are Not Censorship
Tough Pigs recently published a very good article on the topic that did an excellent job of calling out the bad actors on the right who have been complaining about Disney censoring and “cancelling” the Muppets. It points out the hypocrisy of Fox News and its ilk calling the Muppets “sacred” after having repeatedly found fault with Muppets and Sesame Street in the past, accusing them of trying to indoctrinate kids into some radical left agenda.
Nevertheless, my definition of censorship is slightly different than that advanced in the article. Mine is a simplification of the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition. To me, censorship is a decision to remove or suppress content because it is perceived, accurately or otherwise, as offensive, inappropriate, or dangerous. Censorship comes in two different flavors. Government censorship is usually an abuse of power, though sometimes necessary to preserve national security. Censorship by private entities is not prohibited by the First Amendment and sometimes, though not always, done with more justification.
However, none of the cuts made to The Muppet Show on Disney+ qualify as censorship according to my definition because they were not made because of concerns over content. Songs were allegedly cut because of music rights issues, which was often cited as the reason for delaying the DVD releases indefinitely, so it seems plausible. The only Muppet Show cut that comes close to meeting my definition of censorship is the exclusion of the Chris Langham episode. This appears to have been done not because of concerns over the content itself but because the guest star did some unspeakably terrible things decades after making his appearance on The Muppet Show. I hasten to point out that we do not know for a fact that the episode was excluded because of the guest’s subsequent history of criminal activity, but it is reasonable to assume that it MAY have been a factor in the decision. But even if that WAS the reason, it still doesn’t really count as censorship because it is not the content itself that is deemed offensive.
Content warnings don’t count as censorship either. Censorship occurs when the content is not available for viewing or consumption. The objectionable content in The Muppet Show is all still available to be viewed through the streaming service, for better or worse, so there’s no censorship.
Content Warnings Provide Choices
The thing that makes censorship so frustrating, even when it is justified, is that it prevents people from seeing the content and making their own judgments about it. There’s an element of paternalism to it; the entity doing the censorship, be it a government agency or a multimedia corporation, is essentially saying, “We know better than you do, and have decided that you can’t handle this, so we have made the decision not to show it to you, for your own good. You’re welcome.”
A content warning doesn’t prevent you from seeing anything. It just gives you a heads-up that there might be content you don’t want to see, giving you the opportunity to make an informed decision whether to tough it out or to give it a pass. It neither forces you to watch something potentially upsetting or prevents you from seeing anything. It gives you the decision-making power, whereas censorship takes that power away from you.
More Muppet Show Episodes Deserve Content Warnings
In my view, anything that puts the power in the hands of the audience to make an informed decision is a good thing. Therefore, the Muppet Show content warnings are a very good thing. However, in my opinion, they do not go far enough.
For example, I recently watched the Kenny Rogers episode in its entirety for the first time. I figured the content warning was because of the stereotyped Middle Eastern oil tycoons, and that was probably accurate. But then I wondered if it might have done double-duty for the “Coconut” number in which the doctor gradually transforms into a “witch doctor” stereotype, complete with bone in the nose.
I knew that the Muppets had actually performed the song “Witch Doctor” in a previously released episode of The Muppet Show, though I couldn’t remember which one. Muppet Wiki informed me that it was the Gilda Radner episode, so I checked to see if it had the content warning, and it did not. Disney may think that nonspecific stereotyping is acceptable, but a lot of people may disagree.
The UK Spot for the Liza Minnelli episode features a bunch of Muppet dogs singing a song called “Pass That Peace Pipe.” They don’t dress in stereotypical indigenous garb or wear “war paint,” but the song lyrics do ascribe cultural practices to a bunch of different tribes. Ceremonial pipes are traditional in the religious practices of many indigenous North American people, but the lyricists don’t appear to have made an effort to choose names of tribes to which the cultural attribution would be accurate. Rather, the names seem to have been chosen at random based on how well they would scan with the music and how alliterative they were. In fact, I’m not even certain that all of the names were authentic. According to the closed captions, one of the names was “chickadee,” which is actually a songbird. I’m not an expert on indigenous religions or customs, so this may not be the best analogy, but I think it’s something akin to singing a song with lyrics like this: “Say that Rosary as the Catholics, Baptists, Lutherans, Mormons do!”
It appears that the content warnings are mostly for racism or cultural stereotyping rather than sexism or domestic violence. But if it were up to me, every episode in which Miss Piggy hits Kermit or forces her attentions on him would get a content warning as well. But the depictions of domestic violence (or at least something STRONGLY resembling it) don’t stop there. The Arlo Guthrie episode includes a “square dance” sketch in which the caller tells the female dancers to beat up on their male partners (which they do, because you always have to do what the caller says in a square dance) and then says, “Men get even; kick ’em in the shins!” as though that somehow makes it okay.
There are few things that infuriate me more than the fallacy that equality is some sort of tit-for-tat wherein both sides should be allowed to carry out the same bad behavior against one another. No, equality means holding everyone accountable to the same standard of good behavior and punishing the bad behavior wherever it occurs and whoever commits it.
The thought occurs to me that fewer content warnings on The Muppet Show may be a good thing because if they’re on every episode, people might start getting desensitized to them. So putting a content warning on every episode in which one of the Muppets behaves inappropriately may not be practical. There are about 20 episodes that I haven’t seen yet, but my experience so far is that almost every episode seems to have at least one moment that is questionable at best.
Content Warnings Alone Aren’t Enough To Make Disney an Ethical Company
Now look … Disney deserves credit for content warnings up to a point. But we have to keep in mind that they are not doing this out of the goodness of their collective hearts. They can pay all the lip service they want to presenting “inspirational and aspirational stories” but their real objective is, as it has been for at least 35 years, to cover their own asses from a legal point of view while playing on people’s emotions to make money.
They may have ended up doing the right thing, but their motive for doing so was not pure. We have to keep that in mind when deciding how much credit to give them.