Since I can safely assume that very few people other than myself are interested in decoding the racialism in The Muppets, I’ll keep this very to the point.
As I posted before, the above is a picture of the villains in the new Muppets film.
These characters are only the most blatantly racist exponents of the racially-coded rural-urban dichotomy that props up the film’s structure.
Jason Segel and Amy Adams, the whitest people alive, are from Smalltown, USA.
Smalltown is a loving embrace of quaint, fifties-style Americana. It is described as the best possible place to live.
After beginning their quest to reunite the Muppets, Segal, Adams and Walter (his puppet brother) must journey into the city of Reno. Reno is a far cry from the kitsch of Smalltown, USA, and they find Fozzie in the unenviable position of fronting a cover band called ‘The Moopets,’ which is composed of those pictured above. There’s a pivotal scene here in terms of racial symbolism, when our heroes are outside in an alleyway talking with ‘Miss Poogy,’ the Miss Piggy substitute. During a conversation expressing disbelief that Fozzie could ever end up in such a terrible place, the sound of gunshots is heard. Later, Miss Poogy is seen sharpening knives, presumably for sheer pleasure or criminal intent.
Underpinning this entire drama is the juxtaposition of the clean, safe, neighborly Smalltown with the dirty, violent and hostile urban city. To say that this dichotomy has historically been predicated on the nostalgia for all-white rural homogeneity is not exactly a quantum leap. The sentimentality that surrounds fifties-style community is often expressed through a fear of the urban, which transposes quite naturally into (and is often meant as nothing but a coded expression of) a fear of non-white minorities.
Before the accusation comes that we are reading too much into this, the depiction of ‘The Moopets,’ and the positioning of them as greedy, violent villains says otherwise. The Moopets are entirely composed of Muppets that were darker-toned to begin with or are conspicuously darkened versions of light-toned ones. In the case of dress, clearly the Moopet versions of Fozzie, Miss Piggy and Janice are so overtly racialized as ‘thugs’ as to make the point clear.
Last, but certainly not least, comes the fact that these characters align themselves with Chris Cooper, the primary antagonistic in the film, who, in his one musical number, delivers a parody rap called ‘Let’s Talk About Me.’
In this, the racial coding finally becomes crystal clear: the villains rap, the heroes sing. But, even beyond that, we have the extra racism that is inherent in what these days passes as hip-hop parody. As something of an enthusiast for calling out every white person who thinks parody raps are funny, I am the first to assert that this is no different whatsoever. Instead, The Muppets is just another iteration of a beloved cultural trend, as seen in The Lonely Island, Taylor Swift and T-Pain’s “Thug Life,” endless commercials and Youtube videos, and God knows everywhere else. That trend is the absolutely giddy enthusiasm of white people to seize every opportunity to do that which they are not supposed to do: namely, rap, or, better put, act black. As I’ve said before, all of these jokes have the same punchline: this is not how white people are supposed to behave; and therefore, all of these jokes establish a hierarchy by telling a racial joke that cannot be told in reverse. The underlying premise is that the performers of these ‘parody raps’ are temporarily inhabiting these archetypes; that when the joke is done, they can leave and return to acting regularly—a privilege not afforded to the blacks they mimic.
That last point is what extends this argument even to white rappers who are attempting to be taken seriously, not ironically. As a white rapper, you are afforded the privilege, as Greg Tate sez about Eminem, to be ‘not burdened with representing the ‘hood and black sex to hiphop’s prime real estate, the vanilla suburbs.’ This is why I think people like the Emerson-canonized George Watsky are pricks; hip-hop isn’t all about verbal linguistics, or, in Watsky’s case, ‘rapping fast.’ The fact that you not only think it is, but can actually achieve some sort of fame from it, is nothing but an indication of privilege. After all, a Youtube video called ‘black kid raps fast,’ would never go viral. It would not be seen as exemplary, merely expected; it would not be seen as talent, merely inclination. Only when a white person excels at something that is normally associated with blackness do we care to take note, do we care to designate that skill as bonafide ability, and do we exert all necessary effort in showing not only can these white kids do it, they can do it better. What is missing from this is the baggage that white culture forces black hip-hop artists to carry: the crucible of ‘authenticity’ on which black artists must prove themselves but which white slam poets can simply bypass.
Paul Mooney puts it bluntly when he calls white hip-hop ‘blackface without the make-up.’ Harry Allen puts it even more bluntly when he sez ‘from a certain angle, there’s just a shade of difference between white people rapping and white people telling nigger jokes.’
In other words, if you’re white and you think rapping is funny, here’s some advice: it’s fucking not.
Or, is there any compelling difference between Chris Cooper’s performance in the Muppets and in vogue ‘ghetto parties’ like this?
I contend that there is not.
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