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bechdel taser: the muppets

My friend was super psyched to see The Muppets, simply because she really likes The Muppets. My own reasoning is more complicated.

I can draw everything in my life back to Buffy. Often in writing these columns I will wonder whether I should bring up the connection to Buffy which I noticed in a nanosecond. Christophe Beck, who scored the program, put his footprint on Tower Heist and Anthony Stewart Head (Giles) shows up in The Iron Lady. Willow’s mother, Sheila Rosenberg, appears in only one episode, in typical bildungsroman fashion, but is played by Jordan Baker, who also features as Rhoda’s mother in Another Earth.

Sometimes the connections are even more tangential and convoluted. In 3.02 “Dead Man’s Party”, Brie is referred to as a smelly old man cheese. The mere reference was enough to convince me to try the cheese, commencing a long obsession which culminated in searching for ‘cheese song’ on youtube several years later. This effort from The Mighty Boosh popped up and through that connection I heard about Russell Brand. Later still, I hear he will be in a movie penned by Jason Segal, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, which had already piqued my interest due to Jason Segal. Jason Segal, who I knew as Marshall, from How I Met Your Mother, which I started watching because of Alyson Hannigan (Willow).

Everything. It weighed on my mind more heavily than I anticipated during the Segal-penned Muppets, not only because Christophe Beck popped up again and Amy Adams once guest-starred as Tara’s neo-con cousin. The reason being that The Muppets isn’t that kind to the ladies. It doesn’t really pass the test; Adams has the role of Rashida Jones in the Segal/Rudd starring I Love You, Man. She is the cock-block in the bromance of Gary (Segal) and Walter (a muppet). The film see-saws between portraying her as long-suffering and slightly bitter, and happy to tag along in someone else’s adventure. Granted, Gary’s own motivations are equally cloudy outside his commitment to Mary and Walter – at least Mary has a job. If Adams’ role weren’t such a worn-out trope at the moment, I’d be forgiving of the lack of believable development. After all, both human characters are included at the discretion of an ensemble of felt.

The film itself is the strange amalgam of I Love You, Man and The Blues Brothers. In the getting-the-band-back-together stage, we meet Miss Piggy, the fashionable plus-sized editor of Vogue Paris. To pick at decades old, cherished characterisation would be sacrilege, no matter how problematic the original characterisation was. But why did she have to be the plus-sized editor of Vogue, as though they’d even have a thing? Certainly, Piggy would be quite forthright in insisting glamorous designer clothes in her size, but she is set up as a direct parallel of Anna Wintour – down to having Emily Blunt as her receptionist – so why even bring up the issue of size?

It’s easy to hate Tower Heist, because it’s rubbish extraneous to its anti-feminist sentiment. But The Muppets left me so happy that my eyes were glazed for hours hence. This made the gender hi-jinks sore thumbs, even if you leave aside a villainised-character-who-is-potentially-transsexual-but-we-won’t-overthink-this-because-it’s-The-freaking-Muppets. Like many movies, then, The Muppets will make you laugh. It will charm your pants off more than most, and careful of how uplifted you may be without them – there are children in attendance.

Most of the jokes are explicitly meant for adults, and I suspect only Community’s Abed would pick up on every cameo and meta-text. At some points, I wondered if they actually bothered hiring extras, so replete was the movie with recognisable faces. The Muppets doesn’t really want you to think about its plot – you know this isn’t going to end with a homeless Kermit and broken-hearted Gary. This makes it all the more paramount for the film to make the journey as box-tickingly (if not box-ticklingly) fun as possible. And it actually succeeds, reminding audiences and hopefully producers that it’s okay to break the fourth wall, say ‘maniacal laugh’ rather than doing one, or make illogical jumps across continents. Movies with some by-line about appealing to children seem to have more freedom to do these things, but everyone I know who has loved the film is over 18. Many of them, like myself, didn’t even have some unwavering loyalty to Jim Henson’s creations which propelled them toward the cinema.

It’s not that the film sets out to be forthrightly misogynistic, and I doubt any female watching is going to feel worse about themselves because of what The Muppets is doing. But it’s disappointing that the film is so ordinary – misrepresenting women in the same way as, frankly, most Hollywood comedies. It’s the only thing that stops the movie taking me to the same magical, 7-years-old-again place as the ‘When You Wish Upon A Star’ Disney pan-across that precedes it.

I enjoy so much Hollywood entertainment which is, frankly, an embarrassment to my gender. And I will keep on doing so, because so often, my desire to see a movie is tied back to Buffy, or the intertextual thoughts give me a little dopamine surge during some mighty schlock. But it reminds me at every turn of how things can be done. In short, bring on The Avengers.

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