No, Seriously… The Muppets Are NOT Liberal Propaganda

At the risk of giving too much attention to a stupid, unnecessary debate, we’d like to remind you that there’s a difference between good drama and political rhetoric.

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani

We don’t care much for politics here at CraveOnline. In our personal lives, of course, we all have our opinions and we all vote accordingly, but when reporting, discussing and reviewing elements of the entertainment industry the subject just doesn’t come up very often, except when films have an overt political slant. But here’s a sad exception, when a movie with no overt political slant has been given one by an outside party: Fox News is accusing the makers of The Muppets of pushing liberal propaganda.

Did you hear about this? Watch the clip above. Fox News, no stranger to conservative rhetoric (whether you agree with them or not, it’s hard to deny it), has lashed out against the popular new Muppets movie, declaring that their depiction of the film’s villain, the jokingly-named “Tex Richman” played by Chris Cooper, is a demonized portrayal of the 1% intended to brainwash children into believing a liberal anti-corporation message that… No, seriously, it goes on like this. The clip goes on to lambast poor old Captain Planet for the same thing, as if his argument that pollution is bad for the environment is somehow subversive.

Do the makers of The Muppets lean left or right? Couldn’t matter less. Does Hollywood sometimes make movies with a political agenda? Couldn’t matter less. No, seriously, it couldn’t matter less. The clip admits that portraying corporate tycoons as villains isn’t anything new. If there really was a liberal conspiracy, it’s been going on for the bulk of a century and has clearly failed, since there’s no lack of conservatives at any age. It’s actually fitting that we published an article about the life and films of Frank Capra today, because his films are often defined by a struggle between the idealistic “working man” and the rich and powerful folks who sometimes lose perspective on their path to financial or political success.

And that’s the crux of their faulty argument: that these villainous characters are not presented as “evil,” if indeed they even are, because they have money. They’re presented as villains because they place material gain over ethics and/or their fellow man. Whether or not that’s common (certainly with folks like Bernie Madoff in the world, there’s no denying that they’re out there), it makes for good drama. Every simplistic story – something Hollywood has always had a knack for – needs a good villain, and a good villain needs to have more power than the hero in order for the hero’s journey to feel sufficiently dramatic. Giving them power over life and death is common, particularly in the case of criminals and serial killers, but in a movie with lower stakes, particularly entertainment geared towards children, you can’t have the bad guy killing people. So they’re given more power through their finances or political resources instead. It’s good drama. Has it generated a pattern of negative portrayals of tycoons and political leaders? Certainly, but that same pattern can be found in literature (read The Christmas Carol sometime), the theater (The Merchant of Venice anyone?), professional wrestling (Vince McMahon willingly played the part) and virtually any other narrative medium.

The Muppets falls into a similar pattern, but admittedly the full story isn’t in the final product. Cut from the finished film, but available on the soundtrack, is the full song sung by Cooper that reveals the true motivation for his villainy: he’s incapable of laughter. Genuinely, psychologically, maybe even physically capable of experiencing the simple, humanizing joy of laughter. When Cooper says “maniacal laugh” over and over again in the movie, he’s not just being cute, he’s demonstrating a symptom of a terrible affliction that prevents him from seeing the value in the Muppet’s ethos, namely that whimsy is an important aspect of the human condition. At the end of the film – SPOILER WARNING – Cooper is hit on the head with a bowling ball, which miraculously cures of him of his ailment and makes him agree not to tear down Muppet Studios. He’s not cured of being a dastardly corporate tycoon, he’s cured of cynicism. There’s nothing political about that. It’s kind of sweet, really. END SPOILERS. This motivation didn’t make it into the final cut, so again, I can understand the confusion, but a rudimentary search into the facts of the production would have demonstrated that an overt political message was not the filmmakers’ intent for the character, and “intent” is what people are complaining about.

In their rush to demonize the makers of The Muppets and turn an innocent family movie into an unnecessary and irrelevant political talking point (coming up with 24 hours of news is hard, admittedly), the folks at Fox News have failed to do their research and made an inaccurate accusation about this particular movie. Do other movies have a more overt liberal message? Yes. Does Hollywood tend to favor liberal messages? Yes, but again, the alternative doesn’t usually make for good drama. The failure of Atlas Shrugged: Part One to connect with a larger audience would be prime example, if the movie was good enough to warrant that audience in the first place. If Fox News wants to argue that movies with a conservative economic or political viewpoint are hard to find in the mass media, I wouldn’t argue, but social conservatism, at least, is still a major part of the Hollywood machine. Divorced parents get back together all the time, conventional notions of romance and the joys of traditional family dynamics are constantly reaffirmed, and with rare exception homosexuals are still relegated to background characters whose primary purpose is to support the love lives of heterosexual protagonists.

Whatever you believe, rich people aren’t bad guys in movies because being wealthy makes them evil. Bad guys in movies are rich because it makes them more effective bad guys. If knife companies complained that Jason Voorhees failed to use their products as directed, we’d say they were being idiots. Don’t pretend that this Muppets “controversy” has a more meaningful argument.

I’m genuinely sorry for giving such a stupid news item this much time and energy, but if anyone actually felt swayed by this egregiously misinformed accusation I just wanted to make sure they heard from the opposition. Not the opposition to conservatism, but an opposition to these misinterpretations of the basic tenets of dramatic storytelling, and in particular, a misinterpretation of The Muppets.