It’s been a year now since news of the Schism was made public. At the risk of confusing my musical references, it seems like thirty.
I didn’t want to let the occasion pass without comment, but I also wasn’t sure what I wanted to say about it.
A few items of interest:
Now for the major news:
I don’t know if anyone else has tried to access Steve’s blog lately. When I try it on my PC, I just get an error message, but when I tried it on my laptop, I got a maintenance page with the following message:
Things are changing, and I’ll be back ASAP.
Thanks for checking in,
So it’s a bit vague, and I don’t know exactly what he means by “things are changing,” but it certainly sounds as though, after these six long months, he’s finally getting ready to come back to the blog!
I’m not sure this warrants a full-on Kermit flail but it’s certainly cause for cautious optimism.
I don’t begrudge Steve the right to do whatever he wants with his blog, but the unfortunate consequence of him absenting himself when he did was that he had just banished the troll(s) from the comment section, and reading the comments had become infinitely more enjoyable. So I’m hopeful that not only will we soon be enjoying more stories and insights from Steve but also having pleasant conversations in the comments section again.
My own words are insufficient to express my emotions at this development. Take it, Wembley:
Fathom Events is bringing The Dark Crystal back to selected theaters on a limited basis. More information here. Remaining show dates are February 28th, March 3rd, and March 6th. Showtimes are 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. local time (sadly, the 2 p.m. showings do not come with a matinee discount).
A lot of these Fathom Events never make it anywhere near South Dakota at all, so I was extremely fortunate that the movie theater nearest my house happens to be one of the selected theaters where The Dark Crystal is being shown, so I went to the 2 p.m. showing this afternoon.
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.
In the renewed interest of reaching out to fans, both casual and mainstream, about my concerns about Disney, the Muppets, and Steve, I created a quiz to see if Muppet fans could correctly identify quotes by Jim, Frank, and Steve. Please feel free to share it through social media, if you are so inclined:
(Please take the quiz before reading any further. Thank you.)
Someone posted the following video in the Muppet Pundit comments. Steve has yet to talk about it, so I don’t know all of the backstory, but it appears that Steve returned to his old high school in 1988 with some of his characters (Muppet and otherwise) in tow to participate in a concert of some sort.
Take it, Wembley:
I have another confession to make: in all my years of studying literature, I’ve found that, a lot of times, I don’t think that an author’s–or, in a broader sense, an artist’s–most celebrated or well-known work is necessarily their best. I read The Red Badge of Courage in grad school and was underwhelmed by it; my favorite Stephen Crane work is called The Monster; you’ve probably never heard of it, but it’s utterly brilliant. Similarly, I love Madeleine L’Engle, and I love A Wrinkle in Time, but it was a early novel of hers, and I think her later works show a growth and a maturity that is missing in Wrinkle, as wonderful as it is and as much as I have always loved it.
My point is that “My Way” is so famous and so popular, and arguably so overexposed, that I’ve never been that impressed with it. In fact, I’m not sure if I ever really paid attention to the lyrics before. But watching Wembley sing this little duet, the lyrics suddenly smacked me in the face, particularly the last verse:
“For what is a man? What has he got?
If not himself, then he has naught.
To say the things he truly feels
And not the words of one who kneels.”
Those lyrics might have been written for and about Steve; that’s exactly what he’s doing on his blog, and he’s taken–and continues to take–the blows for it.
I wonder what would have happened if no one had asked Disney about Steve Whitmire’s status with the Muppets.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not making a value judgment either way. But I just wonder what would be different now. Would Steve have started his blog? Would the Vogel!Kermit (henceforward to be known as “simula-Kerm”) video have dropped in July without fanfare?
That’s one thing that’s been gnawing at me all these almost two months, and nobody else seems to think that it is as significant as I do: when the news first broke back in July, Disney promised a “Muppet Thought of the Week” video with Matt Vogel as Kermit the following week. The fact that they claimed to have it cued up and ready to go, and yet didn’t make an announcement regarding the recast until specifically asked about it, implies to me that they intended to just release the simula-Kerm video on the world without comment, to try to sneak it past us and hope that we wouldn’t notice.
It’s frankly insulting. We’re Muppet fans, dammit! We notice tiny details; what makes you think we aren’t going to notice a seismic shift in the Muppet universe? We get pissed off when Fozzie wears the wrong color tie; what makes you think we’re going to let the end of the Second Muppet Era pass by without comment? What have we been doing for the past 27 years but analyzing Kermit’s voice? Of COURSE we were going to notice! We were always going to notice!
Then the whole thing became a bit like Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Steve took a Harry Potter-like stand by starting his blog to tell the world the truth of what had gone on at Disney. In response, Disney took a…well, to be fair, a relatively mild Dolores Umbridge-like stance and started trying to discredit Steve in the press. And a sizable chunk of the Muppet fandom started taking an Dumbledore-specific-to-OotP-like stance and started ignoring Steve just when Steve needed them the most. This was a rare miscalculation on Dumbledore’s part, but at least he had good intentions behind it. Perhaps the fans that have turned away from Steve have good intentions as well; history will be the judge. But I digress.
Amidst the fallout from all that, the simula-Kerm video drop was delayed by over a month.
This, I think, was a diabolically clever move by Disney. It gave people the opportunity to get used to the idea of Matt performing Kermit, to convince themselves that even a simulacrum of Kermit is better than no Kermit at all. (On which issue, by the way, I am still undecided.)
If, on the other hand, Disney had released its simula-Kerm video in July with no fanfare, the way it seems to have wanted to in the first place, not only would there have been confusion and uproar, but it would have demonstrated dramatically how little respect Disney has for us Muppet fans: the insult of thinking they could recast Kermit without our noticing or caring, added to the injury of ripping away the soul of our beloved froggy friend.
Then again, maybe it would all have come to the same pass anyway. Forced to do damage control, maybe Disney would have still released their same statement about Steve’s “unacceptable business conduct” and the Hensons’ support of their decision, and maybe the Hensons would have chimed right in on cue with the Steve-bashing, and maybe that same contingent of Muppet fans would have been convinced that they are right.
I don’t fault the guys at ToughPigs or The Muppet Mindset for investigating and publishing their findings; if anything, I wish they had been willing to do more investigating, to use the unique resources available to them to uncover the truth of the matter. In any case, what had seemed initially to have been an embarrassing inconvenience for Disney actually ended up playing right into their hands. Disney, with its Machiavellian efficiency, managed to turn a disadvantage into an advantage.
On the other hand, it also led to Steve starting his Muppet Pundit blog, which has become a joy and a blessing in my life, so I’m grateful for that. Nothing is so evil that good cannot come out of it, one way or another.
Of every waking hour I’m
Choosing my confessions
Like a hurt, lost, and blinded fool–
Oh no, I’ve said too much.”
–R.E.M “Losing My Religion”
I look at what I posted yesterday, and I cringe. The jokes that I made were intended to be jabs at the absurd situation in which we find ourselves, but reading them today, they look like nothing so much as mean-spirited digs at Matt Vogel, which was not my intention at all. Frankly, I’m ashamed of myself; I usually make a point of thinking about the words I use before I use them, specifically what effect they might have on the feelings of others. Yesterday, I just went for the punchline. I was angry and upset myself, but that’s no excuse.
Regardless of what I said in my annoyance and frustration, I do have sympathy for Matt. I might even have empathy for him, but to explore that, I would have to break a good-faith agreement–or at least come close to breaking it–that I made eleven years ago, and I’m not prepared to do that.
There is one–and only one–sentence that Steve Whitmire has written on his blog with which I take issue. And actually, it is not even a complete sentence: “I am having trouble understanding his [Matt’s] support of the recast…” To be clear, I am sure that Steve intended no disrespect, which is pretty clear from the context. Nevertheless, I don’t think it is fair to say that Matt “supports” the recast. Based on my own past experience, I think that it is one thing to go along and try make the best of a bad situation, and it’s quite another thing to “support” the bad situation. One could consider it tacit approval to go along without resisting, and maybe it is, but I’m not qualified to throw stones at anyone in that regard.
But the important thing to remember is that this is not a matter of “Steve versus Matt,” or vice versa. The people who claim otherwise are trying to create a false dilemma, to distract from the real issue of Disney’s ambivalence toward the Muppets; to say nothing of Disney’s complete and utter disregard for the people who work for them, who are viewed as disposable, tradeable, negotiable commodities rather than human beings.
Let us not forget that Disney is the author of all our problems. If they hadn’t decided to muck things up, we’d have Steve performing Kermit, Matt performing Jerry’s characters, everyone would be right where they belong, and all the Muppet fandom would be perfectly happy about it.
Or, as Wembley Fraggle might put it, “Instead of recasting Kermit and making everyone unhappy, why not just let Steve perform?“
“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?
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