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