Life Lessons: What Can We Learn From The Muppets?Mar 20, 2023
Colloquially the word 'Muppet' can mean silly, daft or, at worst stupid. Through cultural changes, the word muppet, in this sense, has been replaced by other demeaning words and phrases which I won't linger on here. Instead, I will refer to 'the Muppets' as the focus of this piece.
As a child of the 1970s and 1980s, there is nothing more iconic for me than the Muppet Show. A Saturday early evening treat for my two sisters and me was spent watching TV with our tea on a tray adorned in our roll-necked tops and tartan kilts. Although fashion and eating habits may have changed for some families, the lure and magic of the Muppets haven't.
When Jim Henson was creating the Muppets (an amalgamation of the word marionette and puppet), I don't know if he aimed to create a world where every social demographic would be more than accepted but embraced and even overtly they weren't liked by the other characters they would always have a redeeming feature for the viewer to find or a message for us to relate to and help us. As the parent of two young (but growing up fast) daughters, I have been able to introduce the characters of the Muppets at different times, and every time, there has been a positive reaction. It is one of the very few TV programmes I am happy for them to watch without supervision. There are so many reasons, but for this post, the obvious ones to me are the features of learning about and from each other, understanding our own and different moral values, appreciating a sense of personal truth and learning about different cultures. All features resonate in the Muppets ethos, characterisation and underlying messages at every opportunity.
All the characters look different, some very big like Big Bird and some tiny like the small animals or Muppet babies with their little squished faces. The Muppets can be compared and contrasted and celebrated for their differences. There is Animal, who appears frenetic most of the time and doesn't have much dialogue; I have read that Animal's character can be summed up in five words: sex, sleep, food, drums, and pain, to which Animal has retorted: "Drums are food!" Animal's vocabulary is generally limited to guttural shouts and monosyllabic grunts, often repeating a few simple phrases, as well as his trademark gravelly laugh. Animal is usually chained to the drum set by a collar around his neck during performances, as his musical outbursts are highly violent. In some episodes, he has been summoned to chase off performers who are 'being annoying'. He is still loved and needed amongst his band members and groupies who come to see them. Although different and extreme at times in character, he is not asked or expected to change to fit in with others. He can embrace just who he is.
Then there is Oscar the Grouch, a character with a green body, no visible nose, and who lives in a trash can. His favourite thing is trash, with a running theme being his collection of seemingly useless items. I say seemingly useless, but they all have some resonance with him. Although "Grouch" aptly describes Oscar's misanthropic interaction with the other characters, it also refers to his species.
Usually, the characters or actors never comment on these apparent differences. Still, when they are, the message is about accepting differences, taking an interest in opposites and using it as an opportunity to learn more about each other. This is something to be celebrated. More than that though, is the deliberate intention to focus on issues that need to be discussed in our society, like bullying, a problem not just for children as we adults have experienced bullying in the workplace. Although the issue of divorce is presented to children, accompanying adults can get an insight into how it will affect their children and possibly how to talk about it with them.
"Sesame Street" seems to have always embraced diversity and inclusion by having its Muppets and their human friends discuss important issues and reflect on people kids see daily. Here is just a selection of those issues chosen to raise awareness, promote discussion and share ideas. All relevant topics that are very much part of our own life experiences.
An episode aired in the '90s in which Gina, who is white, receives a call from someone who saw her hanging out with her friend, Savion, who is black. Though viewers don't hear what is said on the phone, Gina makes it clear the caller didn't like seeing them together, and she and Savion explain the situation to Telly Monster. "Telly, there are just some really stupid people in the world who can't stand to see when people of different races are friends," Savion says. "Because Sav's skin is brown and mine is white he thinks we shouldn't be friends. It drives him nuts just to see us having fun together," Gina says. When Telly asks what colour has to do with being friends, Gina replies, "Nothing, nothing at all."
"Sesame Street" introduced its first Afghan Muppet Zari, a character who promotes girls' rights. Zari interviews Afghan professionals to learn about national identity and physical, social and emotional well-being. Zari is the "perfect opportunity to engage both boys and girls with lessons supporting girls' empowerment and diversity appreciation. We aim to help all children in Afghanistan grow smarter, stronger, and kinder.
Actor Will Lee played Mr Hooper on "Sesame Street," beginning with the show's first episode. After his passing, the issue of death was addressed head-on in an episode later that decade. In it, Big Bird is reminded that Mr Hooper has died but insists that his beloved friend will return. That's when his other human friends explain that Mr Hooper won't be back and remind Big Bird that he will always have his memories of his friend.
I believe that the Muppets and the development of these iconic characters give us a framework to build a discussion of ideas, accept and embrace diversity and the creation of ideas and focus on our similarities as individuals among many. The global village we are increasingly aware of gives us more significant opportunities than ever to reach out and connect with others to learn from and support and guide.
Members of the Female CEO will know this from the content we are all part of. We can also build a discussion of ideas, accept and embrace diversity and create situations where we acknowledge our similarities as individuals among many.
Do you want to be a Muppet?
Hayley McDonnell is a Personal Development/SMSC consultant and author intent on bridging the gap between countries, cultures, customs and ultimately people with “Global Collaboration” Her aim is to make our world feel smaller by connecting with our similarities and embracing our differences. She loves to travel and meet new people from different backgrounds, countries and cultures. You can find out more about Hayley here.
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