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The Muppet Show: Disney+ adds content warning of negative depictions of cultures (theguardian.com)
32 points by m1 12 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 84 comments

This will be a good case study to find out how real "Cancel Culture" concerns are. Because if you are looking for a reason to be offended, the Muppets will give you one. Females being portrayed as pigs, Swedish chefs with speech impediments, depiction of mental disease for laughs, etc. Article also refers to situations such as Johnny Cash singing in front of confederate flag. Yet, there is not one ounce of malice or meanness anywhere to be seen. It is one big wacky party to which everyone is invited. We'll see what happens.

Will it be a good case study because it might expose "cancel culture" as non-existent, or because it might expose "cancel culture" as a tool used only to target those who don't toe the progressive line?

In other words, if the Muppets doesn't get "cancelled," is that evidence that "cancel culture" is a hoax, or is it evidence that "cancel culture" doesn't actually care about things like Swedish chefs, it only cares about conformity to a progressive worldview, which the Muppets arguably conform to?

I was always a little bothered by the casual violence on the Muppets. But that's not anything anyone wants to cancel.

Argh. My dream is that one day people will understand that a really large chunk (probably the vast majority) of piss-ripping found in humour isn't actually racist or misogynistic but is actually the complete opposite in making a statement about the stupidity of the protagonists' racism or misogyny.

Fawlty Towers 6th episode "The Germans" is a classic case in point. The entire premise of the episode was not "Germans are stupid" but "the idiot who is xenophobic who is being horrible to Germans is stupid". I don't know anyone - least of all any Germans - who are in the slightest bit offended by this. It's one example, but it happens time and time again. Literally the only people actually being offended are - who...?

Anyway. Sigh.

So, having been an avid watcher of both The Muppet Show and Fawlty Towers, it seems to me that you have drawn a selective analogy. Both shows were sometimes deliberately taking the piss. Other times, they were guilty of thoughtlessly repeating the same kinds of stereotypes. It happens. It happened a lot in the 70s. It still happens a lot. Comedy is a dangerous line of work.

Things like this are never cut-and-dried. There is room for both celebrating the good stuff and criticizing the less-good stuff, even within a single creative work.

I checked out the list that someone compiled on Reddit: https://old.reddit.com/r/Muppets/comments/lnwse2/muppet_show...

And I had to look up this one:

> Beverly Sills: Most likely for the Chinese Gorillla Muppet.

Yeah, that one was pretty bad. I think a disclaimer is appropriate.

I get what you're saying. There are casualties in this effort to contextualize or remove the humor of previous decades. I totally agree about the Fawlty Tower episode. But I think it's easier to have simple rules than to try to evaluate these things on a case-by-case basis. Humor is subjective after all.

> Literally the only people actually being offended are - who...?

It's not really about being offended though is it? The ones being offended and actually complaining is just the tip of the iceberg.

This kind of humor can create attitudes that can be a constant pain in the side for certain groups of people. I mean, you've still got shit like this going on today : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cc1GhI1Dwyc

How would you approach this problem?

> probably the vast majority

Ugh, naw, not at that time if you ask me. Most comedians are not as smart and tactful as John Cleese. He was ahead of his time in many ways.

You can still get away with quite stereotypical humor today if you frame it correctly, and I think most comedians today are more clever about it. They're not all smarter now, there's just a better culture around it.

There was a show in Norway that was pulled from streaming because an actor was using "blackface". But that comedian/actor has a thing about playing lots of different characters (men, women, older, younger, etc), and in that case he just happened to portray a vaguely middle-eastern character. There was a big counter-reaction, particularly from immigrants saying that this wasn't offensive to them. And the show was put back online, with a disclaimer. So I think it shows that there is course-correction when the humor isn't actually in bad taste.

> Literally the only people actually being offended are - who...?

Those who have been the target of persecution, slavery, police and other systemic discrimination up to outright genocides for hundreds to thousands of years.

It's not that hard to have fun without having to step on other people's toes, or to recognize that what was acceptable 50 years ago is not acceptable today, because society has progressed.

What Germans have been the target of persecution, slavery, etc?

Isn’t part of the joke that Germans are being discriminated by an innkeeper? And it’s the innkeeper who is in the wrong.

Note of course German Jews and other subpopulations were horribly persecuted in the Holocaust. If this episode targeted those subpopulations then there is a real case.

That's the point of what I was saying: Yes, shitty jokes about Germans or Swedes are shitty.

But we Germans don't care or complain because we Germans haven't been the target of relentless, historical injustice. For persons of color, for Jews, for Sinti/Roma the situation is different - every time some "comedian" uses their plight for cheap laughs, it's yet another slap in the face.

I adored the Muppet Show as a kid. Tried watching it with my daughters this weekend, since it just became available.

"Dad, this is weird. This is really weird. It's not even a show! Just weird little scenes!"

["not even a show" = no connective plot]

These kids have all kinds of precision-engineered laser-guided entertainment aimed squarely at their cerebral cortex. They don't need the Muppet Show like I did, I guess.

I think this is just a general change in entertainment. When media out was limited to fewer shows being created and the audience so much broader it was necessary to try and throw "something for everybody" into each show.

The Muppet Show is kind of the height of this with celebrities, silliness for kids, sly asides for adults, etc.

I'm not sure the Muppet Show was that; the very setting was a behind the scenes look at the operation of a live variety show of yesteryear, and iirc everything fit into that theme?

I was coming at this a little differently. Imagine that there's 75 jokes in the show. Muppets would maybe distribute them like:

- 25 for adults - 25 for kids - 25 site gags for toddlers

And media now is like: that should be 3 separate shows.

As if today's extremely successful entertainment didn't build exactly on the "something for everybody" idea. Take the insanely popular movies from the Marvel Cinematic Universe as an example. Has mainstream media really changed in this regard?

What's interesting is that the "Variety Show" format that the Muppet Show lampoons/mimics was a common thing from vaudeville through the 1970s, but has basically died as a format since I would guess about the mid-80s.

And I hadn't noticed, really. I do miss the old "variety" style holiday specials that Major Celebrities used to do. There have been a couple (ironic?) one-off stabs at revivals, but nothing sustained. (Stephen Colbert did one; so did Lady Gaga and Bill Murray.)

The movies that came out a few years ago are great. My daughter liked them (at least until something else came along and stole her attention). Great songs and a quirky humor where they break the third wall again and again in true Muppet Show style.

It’s called breaking the fourth wall. Although, to be fair, the Muppets often break the third wall too. Normally with a cannon.

Haha, you're of course right. FOURTH wall. Maybe I was thinking about radio.

You’re right... they broke radios too!

(Can you tell I've been watching these with the kids this weekend?)

Did you try to watch “Earth to Ned” with them? It’s a modern muppet take on talk shows, also on Disney+. It is also weird, but maybe in a more approachable format.

My kids have loved both, but the Muppet show a bit less when they don’t know who the guest star is. Thankfully, there are a few guests whom they recognize (Julie Andrews, for example).

Maybe try the 2015 series where they're making a TV talk show? It was fun and your kids might find it more relatable:


The show also emphasized the guest stars, who even for me are often a generation out of recognizing, so there's no way my young children have any idea who they are. If they were modern celebrities your kids might have more patience for them.

So imagine how it was for us in France, we had no idea who the guests were and there was nobody who could tell us.

When I watched the show as a kid I did not know they were supposed to be famous, I though they were just people from the street.

> When I watched the show as a kid I did not know they were supposed to be famous, I though they were just people from the street.

I love this :-)

"...Just weird little scenes!"

Does this not describe YouTube too?

At least all Youtube video's have a common thread of promoting VPN, with little bits of humor or information in between.

FWIW, I'd rather see a disclaimer about the show reflecting the time it was made in, than to have the show changed to reflect our current times.

I don't like the excesses of cancel culture or what is described (at this point mostly derisively) as the "woke movement." Still, reading the descriptions of these episodes, I'm not surprised Disney added content warnings.

The warnings are not for us, they are for Disney. Let's face it, a lot of Disney content has not aged well. The company has a long history of racist and sexist depictions of characters and cultures. Of course Disney wants to distance itself from that and say "hey, this isn't who we are!" Honestly, I'd much rather they do than just bury or edit the content.

The real issue I see is that Disney has so much control over this content due to continual extension of their exclusive copyright. To crib a line from a noted (now) Disney owned character, these episodes belong in a museum! They are more valuable now as part of our history than as exclusive Disney+ content, and it shouldn't be up to Disney whether or not anyone gets to see them.

What does it mean to have a "negative depiction"? Would that be a depiction that is viewed by the majority as negative, or is it assessed by some objective function?

Sometimes I hear people talking about "negative depictions" and "negative stereotypes" I'm either not convinced they're negative (Apu from The Simpsons) or other times I find a stereotype being depicting as overtly negative yet seemingly it's acceptable because (I assume) it's a negative stereotype about some group society doesn't care so much about (the white police officer stereotype, the useless dad stereotype, etc).

I am assuming you read the article in detail and simply forgot that they listed the actual examples:

> a multitude of caricatured national costumes as part of a performance of It’s a Small World After All, including as a Chinese person with exaggerated front teeth and a long braid.

> Peter Sellers appears in a segment titled A Gypsy’s Violin wearing a black headscarf with gilded trimmings, a red vest and a large red satin belt, and singing in a heavy accent

It seems like almost everyone interested in a good faith discussion would agree that these two examples are offensive stereotypes that don’t really belong in a children’s show. Considering the episode’s aren’t being removed I can’t imagine why anyone would object to this in good faith.

Unfortunately there are a ton of people who are fully aware that these stereotypes are offensive but, in bad faith, pretend that they are innocuous jokes and that this is just a moral panic. Although HN rules prevent me from accusing anyone of bad faith, I will suggest that someone who doesn’t have a problem with Apu from the Simpsons is someone who affirmatively supports using racist stereotypes.

There are more examples here: https://old.reddit.com/r/Muppets/comments/lnwse2/muppet_show...

If you take the Speedy Gonzalez example, negative depiction means whatever middle-class, urban Americans think they can be offended about on behalf of whoever is being depicted, even if the group being depicted has totally different views on the matter.

The same content warning has been added to 'Aladdin' (the 1992 cartoon, not the Will Smith shameless money grab).

I'm wading into shark-filled waters here but could someone please explain the racist bits of Aladdin to me?

A quick Google found me: "It mispronounces Arab words including “Allah,” depicts nonsense scribble instead of real Arabic script, and codes its characters to reinforce racist and Islamophobic tropes. Main characters that the audience is meant to admire, like Aladdin and Jasmine, have Western features, lighter skin, and American accents, while nefarious or impoverished characters like Jafar and shopkeepers have beards, hooked noses, and thick, Middle Eastern accents."

90s parents were relieved it was just nonsense scribble and not some secret sex-related easter egg. Society's sources of moral outrage have morphed a bit.

It would be an interesting to do a quality redub and maybe even a touch up to the animation just to see how it came out.

I mean, it really couldn't be worse from an entertainment standpoint than the live remakes, right?

Aladdin was obviously not intended to be racist and was probably made by people with good intentions. The same could be said of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Song of the South. But 1992 was a dramatically more racist and reactionary era than 2021, and the 1992 film really is unacceptably racist to show to children.

It is impossible to ignore that Jasmine/Aladdin both have light skin, European faces, and American accents, whereas Jafar and all the hostile guards or street merchants are grotesque Arab caricatures. Seriously - the only Arab “accents” come from bad guys, they tend to have huge hooked or bulbous noses and very dark skin, and they’re all psychotically violent. Most of the references to Arab culture are superficial and rely on stereotypes for cheap laughs (watch the opening scene with the merchant again).

> But 1992 was a dramatically more racist and reactionary era than 2021

No, IMO, it wasn't.

It was a dramatically less antiracist era, which isn't the same thing.

(That is, active racism wasn't much more prevalent in 1992, and maybe even less prevalent, but active antiracism—especially in the US concerning targeted groups other than blacks—was much less prevalent.)

You are just wrong: in the early 90s 55% of US whites were opposed to interracial marriage (compared to 13% opposition in 2013) [1]. In my view this one shocking and outrageous stat is enough to refute your point. But also look at the political world then. Ron Paul was selling virulently racist propaganda in 1992 while serving as a representative [2]. Someone simply could not get away with that today - even Steve Scalise would call for them to be expelled from the House. In 1990 David Duke came dangerously close to becoming a US senator (after serving four years as a representative) and in 1992 was still very powerful in LA politics. This was the era that Rush Limbaugh rose to great fame (and he certainly had the most racist major radio program the country had seen since the 60s). Hatred towards homosexuals was standard - it was rare even for even snooty liberal art films to treat gay people like human beings (showing off drag queens was representation enough).

The country has become more progressive since then (despite the Republicans specifically becoming more reactionary on the whole).

[1] https://news.gallup.com/poll/163697/approve-marriage-blacks-... [2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ron_Paul_newsletters

> in the early 90s 55% of US whites were opposed to interracial marriage

In the early 90s, roughly 80% of whites were opposed to laws against interracial marriage, but a larger share thought “disapproved” of it. Was that racism, or an assessment of it's viability based on life experience of older adults growing up a society where racism had always been prevalent? A hint might be that it wasn't until the mid-1990s that Black support for interracial marriage started climbing from where it had been since the 1970s. [0][1]

> . In 1990 David Duke came dangerously close to becoming a US senator (after serving four years as a representative) and in 1992 was still very powerful in LA politics.

And in 2000 his superior performance with his appeal to his white supremacist base was explicitly cited by Donald J. Trump when he dropped his bid for the Reform Party nomination—before reinventing himself politically and coming back 16-years later using the same tactics and appeal to the same ideals to win first a major party nomination and then the Presidency.

Whites in America seem to think that racism continued being less of a problem over time through to today, but for blacks, in a number of areas, that perception increased starting in the late 1990s. [2]

> The country has really become dramatically more progressive since then (despite the Republicans specifically becoming more reactionary on the whole).

I think that's arguably true, but only in a way consistent with my description earlier: it is much more that (a significant subset of) the not-racist segment has become much more actively anti-racist than that the country has become less racist. This has also resulted in racial issues being much more polarizing.

[0] https://igpa.uillinois.edu/programs/racial-attitudes

[1] https://igpa.uillinois.edu/sites/igpa.uillinois.edu/files/ra...

[2] https://igpa.uillinois.edu/sites/igpa.uillinois.edu/files/ra...

Aladdin and the Muppet Show are both great. Maybe Disney’s warning system can be used as a filter for finding the best content on the platform?

That’s kind of like my “banned from Twitter” filter for deciding who a cultural leader is. (Not necessarily a good leader, but a leader nonetheless.)

Sort of like r/ControversialClub

> the Will Smith shameless money grab

I have yet to come up with any explanation besides racism for why the live action Aladdin, and specifically the casting of Smith as the Genie, is the thing among all the recent live-action Disney remake films and TV recyclings that is disproportionately singled out for this treatment. I mean, sure Disney is a particularly aggressive money making machine and this description is accurate for basically everything they ever do, but why this one gets singled out above all others?

I'm not singling out Aladdin.

IMO all the live action remakes are shameless money grabs. Remakes in general are creative bankruptcy. Very rarely do they bring something new to the table.

The line “it’s barbaric but hey it’s home. “

> the Will Smith shameless money grab

Did you watch it? It's actually not bad. It's different—and honestly, the parts where it holds too closely to the original are probably the weakest bits. When it does its own thing, it ends up being fun to watch. I still miss Gilbert Gottfried, though.

>> ... and singing in a heavy accent lines such as: “Once his love gave him golden earring / And now the ears are turning green.”

One has to dig deep and have a basic understanding of chemistry to understand that insult. If we are digging that deep for insults there are bound to be hundreds more. The Muppets are all in primary colors. Many of them do silly things that other characters laugh at. And they each display exaggerated characteristics that never really evolve. If we draw out venn diagrams of color/race, slapstick comedy bits and offensive historical stereotypes, surely we can find something more insulting than this. Swedish Chef would be in my crosshairs, excepting the fact that in one episode it is explained that he isn't actually Swedish.

What they ought to do is add a second audio track that explains and talks about the issues with the film.

It's fun we often pause older movies (80's "Clue" was the last one) so we can explain period stereotypes and prejudices to our 8yo daughter.

Concentration camps in China are apparently fine, but god forbid if someone makes an "edgy" joke.

No one said concentration camps in China were fine

The price for doing anything about the concentration camps in China is higher than anyone is willing to pay, whereas the price of putting warnings on tv shows is negligible

This is where it gets confusing. If Disney puts these preroll notices in front of lots of content, does it mean content without it has been reviewed by Disney and they haven’t found a problem?

This used to be crazy for me to think, but this article literally says Disney has hired people to review all content. Makes sense that they would review their recent blockbuster, Mulan, before Muppets episodes from decades ago.

So it seems Disney is pretty much saying the concentration camps in China are fine. Or at least are more fine than Petter Sellers dressing as a gypsy. In the spectrum of messed up stuff, I think making fun of gypsies is on there. Maybe 3/1000 on the butthurt-o-meter (with literal Nazis carrying out Holocaust being 1000/1000 and Triumph of the Will being like 600/1000).

So I would guess that just putting money into a region where people are rounded up, sterilized, retrained, etc must rate at least a 50/1000 right?

Your last paragraph gives away the game. There is no content in Mulan to give a warning about. The issue you have is with the Chinese government, not the content of the film Mulan.

It gets kind of convoluted as to what’s acceptable and what’s not. My comment was addressing another upstream that said something like “ No one said concentration camps in China were fine”

In this situation should Disney put a preroll that says “While we filmed this movie in an area where people are being oppressed and gave financial support to the oppressors, we don’t support concentration camps?”

I’m not sure I understand what reasoning Disney is using to put a preroll before a muppet episode where someone dresses as a gypsy. Or even a generic warning around a specific episode where someone sings in front of a confederate flag in a way that sounds pretty racist.

It seems like Disney has made a decision that one situation requires one and the other doesn’t.

Personally, this is why I don’t pay much attention to these things and don’t draw conclusions based on them. They are so cloudy and subjective, it becomes hard to try to address all the hypotheticals.

Disney is putting a content warning before content they think might need a warning. There is no content in Mulan that they think needs a warning, so there is no need to put a content warning in. What you're doing is whataboutism, and imo it doesn't sound like any solution would make you happy.

You think there’s no content that needs a warning, but others may. And that’s kind of the point (people may be hurt remembering civil war and slavery and people may be hurt knowing that the content supported the construction and operation of concentration camps, etc).

I’m not concerned with being happy, I’m just trying to understand the value system that Disney is using to make these notices.

I don’t think it’s potential harm to the viewer, but maybe we’ll never know. One theory was that they were trying to atone for previous harm caused while making stuff (eg, using the confederate flag when they shouldn’t, etc).

I think it is sort of whataboutism, but only because Disney is literally whataboutisming their own content library. Usually I don’t think it applies since it’s not relevant that Y is bad for whether X is bad.

But in this scenario, Disney has stated that they reviewed and updated content. So if Disney reviewed content and didn’t find it preroll worthy, it gives a signal what Disney thinks is relatively bad.

I think you are, perhaps intentionally, missing my point. If they had shot all of the scenes that they did shoot in China somewhere else, the movie ("the content") would be exactly the same, but you would have nothing to complain about. Which means your complaint isn't the content of the movie, it's how/where they filmed it. Disney isn't adding random warnings, they are adding content warnings- warnings about content. You do not find the content of the film objectional, you find where they filmed it objectional, and those are two different things.

(although I would be interested to hear from anyone who thought that simply taking place in China despite being filmed elsewhere/in front of greenscreen, or having Chinese people in the film would also warrant a warning. Would love to see that rated on the above x/1000 scale.)

I made the scale purposely farcical, but I wish we could actually solve for this.

I suppose the x/1000 scale would need to objectively measure the harm and suffering caused by a thing and normalize.

On the contrary, not refilming Mulan would have saved Disney quite a bit of money and some respect from the fans of the original movie.

Every remake disappoints some fans, and the biggest reason Mulan lost so much money was COVID, not the quality of the film.

Is the Swedish chef offensive?

Hilariously so. Bork.

You mean that's not actually Swedish?! ;-)

As someone from Denmark I gotta tell ya, that guy is 100% authentically Swedish. I'm pretty sure the Norwegians will back me up on this. :)

I once had a sales call with the CEO of a fairly large Swedish consulting company about a potential project - he was saying how great their company was and how they have offices all over the world and then adds "But not Denmark, obviously".

Sorry to break it to ya, but there's no moose in a chocolate mousse.

I'm shocked. My childhood was a lie.

Let's be fair to them: their first musical number was a cover of a song from an Italian "pornumentary" movie about Sweden.

In a children-oriented program.

In the 70's.

"Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real," is one of my favourite quote fragments. (Baudrillard)

It should be updated to mention that content warnings are presented as meaningful to make us believe that criticism elevates us above an experience. The real point of the content warning is to indoctrinate kids into that particular critical framework.

This feels like the latest round of moral panic that we'll look back on with bewilderment

Wouldn’t Disney (and all the other platforms) kill these disclaimer non-stories by giving subscribers the option to opt out of questionable content disclaimers?

It seems like a simple and effective way that would allow one to have their cake and eat it too.

At some point these cultural sensitivities will cross a line where a majority of people will go "enough" and create a backlash. I do believe that somewhere in the future we wont get these content warnings even when they would be appropriate.

Also that Disney does it rubs me the wrong way. There is so much content in that is not racist but affect attitudes and views of children in much more unfortunate ways. And I speak from experience when not keeping an eye on my child watching Disney Channel and having to undo that damage. I'm not sure that managed to undo it totally.

What happens if this kind of content ends up being popular because people want to see negative depictions of cultures? Would they add more of it?

Disney? Probably not. But there are plenty of people who would.

Hey, didn't Disney make those war-time toons where they made fun of Germans? I guess they'll probably slap a warning on them now...

Germans? If you're going to look into Disney wartime propaganda films, Disney made some anti-Japanese cartoons that in retrospect are pretty overtly racist.

I'm not bringing this up to make Disney out as any kind of villain. These old films are a reflection of the times they were made. The nation was at war and Disney wanted to do their part to help the effort. Times change.

So when they do it to the Japanese, it's racism, but when they do it to the Germans, it somehow isn't?

Well, yes, of course.

The Germans were the same race as the whites that dominated America in the 1940's, including Walt Disney himself. To think that race played no part of the propaganda of the times is delusional.

No warning needed. It’s ok to mock them if they’re white.

Germany here. We're fine being mocked for being white, thank you very much. Even my neighbors from Gambia, Spain or Columbia are fine with that as a reminder for our shitty history, to keep the remembering alive to never repeat that shit.

I think that Germany has gone too far with that. I am the third generation after the war (born in the 70's) and I have friendly feelings about Germany. I am French and our countries fought for millenia, and there there was Pétain and everything.

My German friends told me that WW2 at school was presented in much details, explaining how Germans fucked up. Some people still expect Germans to apologize 80 years after the fact.

If I was German I would be pissed off and I am not surprised that the are neo-Nazi waves because of that. The treaty of Versailles should have taught everyone a lesson.

My children speak German and when they meet penpals from Heilderberg you could see that history was history for them (they child not care less, they had Instagram stuff to share).

With this in mind, I still do not know what to make out of this : https://youtu.be/HMQkV5cTuoY

There is no such thing as inherited guilt.

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