I’ve always tried to present a positive view of the world in my work. It’s so much easier to be negative and cynical and predict doom for the world than it is to try and figure out how to make things better. We have an obligation to do the latter.
——– Jim Henson.
In the winter of 2017, I started writing a book about women and true crime. I spent eighteen months steeping in horror stories, which was kind of thrilling at first – learning how to avoid being murdered. But in the breach between days, as I dwelled on my own and others’ trauma, violent statistics hit rewind, play in my tape-recorder brain. News reports needled at my seams. Rupert Murdoch personally chucked my stuffing out the window. By Christmas 2018, my softness was gone. I don’t have the stamina, courage nor discipline to do that work anymore.
There has been one surprising, positive consequence to my unravelling, though – it’s revived my wintering love of the Muppets.
Created by visual artist and filmmaker Jim Henson, the Muppets are a ragtag group of anthropomorphic animal, monster and humanoid puppets. Whether you met the characters on Sesame Street or in the Muppet Theatre, I’d like to think that practically everyone has some emotional connection to Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Rowlf the Dog, Fozzie Bear, and friends.
The Muppets’ affecting tendency to occupy the spectrum of human emotion was – and remains – utterly delightful to behold.
In the 1970s and 80s, the felt-and-glue rebels were a global phenomenon: singing, dancing, karate-chopping, detonating explosives, and stealing the hearts of enraptured fans who tuned into five seasons of The Muppet Show and flocked to the gang’s first string of feature films.
Playing in a fascinating space between fantasy and reality, the Muppets certainly aren’t people, but their affecting tendency to occupy the spectrum of human emotion was – and remains – utterly delightful to behold. No matter how many times I watch Kermit and Fozzie’s anachronistic ‘The comedian’s a bear’ sketch, I’ll forever be amused by their mutual frustration (feels like every email exchange I’ve ever had with a co-worker). The mere thought of Gonzo singing ‘I’m Going to Go Back There Some Day’, a melancholy torch song for social outsiders, can derail my day entirely – Muppeteer Dave Goelz’s performance of the song at Henson’s memorial is a paean of heartbreaking pathos.
What of the man behind – or, more accurately, beneath – the Muppets? From his TV-loving teens outside Washington, DC to his repute as an award-winning artist and educator in New York and London, Jim Henson strove to make the world a more welcoming, creative, joyful place. His work with the Muppets – also seen on Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock and beyond – pulsed with a steady sense of innocence and decency. Though their shenanigans could, and often would, take a hard left into playful disarray, any silliness was always tempered with overarching notes of respect and empathy. In this way, Henson was subversively earnest, and earnestly subversive.
I think of that duality as ‘Big Henson Energy’, an emotional state underpinned by Jim’s wholesome notion that ‘Life is basically good. People are basically good.’
Sadly, in 2019, I find this idea unbelievably fucking hard to internalise.
Pulsing with innocence and decency, Henson was subversively earnest, and earnestly subversive.
In a world blighted by climate change, poverty, gender inequality, racism, corporate corruption, surveillance capitalism, private prisons, terra nullius and Tesla, Inc., among other stains, Big Henson Energy feels misguided at best – delusional at worst.
In July 2017, Tumblr user ariaste (aka fantasy author Alexandra Rowland) coined the term ‘hopepunk’. It’s a storytelling trend, an ideological stance, and a big mood that means ‘kindness and softness doesn’t equal weakness’. Rowland believes that, ‘in this world of brutal cynicism and nihilism, being kind is a political act. An act of rebellion.’
The post was liked and reblogged 50,000 times. Rowland’s clarion call for weaponised optimism clearly resonated with readers. In the two years since, I’d wager that hopepunk has grown all the more vital, and I reckon Henson would agree.
The Muppets are poster children for this movement. Against all odds (no American network would take them on), they hit the big time mixing Borscht Belt humour and a bygone songbook with raw power and DIY defiance in late-70s London. What’s more, they did so while embodying (literal) softness, hand-made as they are from foam-rubber and plush fabrics. When they’re not blowing each other up, they express emotional softness, too, extolling their dream of singing and dancing and making people happy. Vulnerability is a key Muppet trait, felt whenever Fozzie tanks a stand-up set, or Miss Piggy shares her unguarded love for her Kermie. But this softness is best exemplified by Henson’s most famous avatar, Kermit himself.
Despite the Muppets’ collective belief in (and reliance on) Kermit’s capacity to keep their group together, the little frog often loses his cool and openly doubts his ability to lead. That’s when the Muppets show each other their idiosyncratic softness, as squabbles give way to the group’s embrace of their diverse personalities and viewpoints.
These themes could be written off as typical territory for kids’ media, but Henson’s creepier, more adult-oriented films, The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, still hinge on the resilient power of community over venal individualism. Why do we discredit stories about co-operation as being lessons only children need to learn?
Why do we discredit stories about co-operation as being lessons only children need to learn?
One of Henson’s constant bugbears was that Hollywood executives snubbed the Muppets as kooky kid’s stuff. Beyond the Western hemisphere, puppetry is a rich cultural tradition enjoyed by all ages. Certainly, grown members of the Australian parliament – who call each other ‘muppets’ derisively, comparing leadership crises to The Muppet Show – could learn a thing or two about guidance, tolerance and compassion from Kermit and his pals…as could the Muppets of this millennium.
Since Henson’s death in 1990, and the Muppets’ move to the House of Mouse in 2004, the characters have not preserved the fervour of their heyday. This decade, they’ve starred in two coolly received feature films, and one disappointing sitcom, cancelled after sixteen episodes. Core Muppeteer Frank Oz, forever the salt to Henson’s pepper, suggests that Disney has destroyed the Muppets’ purity.
Then there’s those who seem convinced that the Muppets themselves couldn’t appeal to adults as well as children, which they absolutely can and do. From Peter Jackson’s Meet the Feebles came the TV series Crank Yankers, stage play Avenue Q, and feature film The Happytime Murders – each one subjecting its puppet characters to a plethora of obscenities, presumably intended to riff on Henson’s (perceived) legacy of straight-laced virtue. In this regard, Golden Raspberry-nominee The Happytime Murders is a particularly baffling miscalculation, given that it came from the Jim Henson Company, and was directed by The Muppet Christmas Carol and Muppet Treasure Island director (and Jim’s eldest son) Brian Henson.
Revelling in puerility, these titles are the antithesis of Big Henson Energy. Yet their grotesqueries prove the Puppet Master right: negativity and cynicism are cheap, easy alternatives (no pun intended) to sowing sincerity and maybe reaping ridicule. Gambling on hope is a tough gig, but someone’s got to do it.
Negativity and cynicism are cheap, easy alternatives to sowing sincerity… Gambling on hope is a tough gig, but someone’s got to do it.
Philosophies like hopepunk help me think the pop cultural tide is turning, carrying cynics out to sea, returning with a treasure trove of wholesome memes and buoyant themes. When I feel bitter about the swathe of serial killer biopics doing the rounds, I watch the latest The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance trailer and feel connected to all these kindred strangers preserving, furthering Jim’s vision. The Dark Crystal was the project he felt most proud of; it’s certainly the most hopepunk in Rowland’s fantastical sense.
Despite my disbelief in life – or, rather, sentience – after death, a small, unsure, lonely little part of me hopes that Henson sees we still need him.
This is a strange era in which to accept that one’s hero is a white, cis, heterosexual, non-disabled, rich guy. Henson had the luxury of believing ‘we create our own reality, and that everything works out for the best,’ because he moved through his world with a myriad privileges – several of which I share, others I don’t. I resent not being born with those that might help me make the dent that Jim did.
To this, my psychologist suggests I practice ‘radical acceptance’ and acknowledge that just one person will never change the world. Humouring the idea makes me feel like a deserter, giving in to the comfort of the status quo. Still, I have to learn how to fight for hope in a way that doesn’t deflate me.
For now, I’ll find stamina, courage and – maybe not discipline, but strength (I’m re-learning how to be earnest) – by choosing to believe that joy, trust and wonder can flourish alongside, in spite of, despair. May the beat of Big Henson Energy help me figure out how to make things better. I feel an obligation, and not just to Jim.