ABC’s The Muppets used a rather brilliant and time-honoured technique for stirring up buzz around its premiere earlier this year: Romantic strife between the programme’s stars. I had to admire the callback to longstanding traditions of old Hollywood, in an almost baroque level of meta, but I was also kind of charmed and amused by how invested the Internet became as things progressed — as I commented at the time, it was clear that the situation spoke to something deep inside us in the form of a desire to return to more frivolous things rather than being steeped in the heaviness of modern society (a la The Dress and llamas).
But we’re going to have to roll back a bit here for those who don’t follow the history of old Hollywood and the days of 20s-40s stars and starlets, for you see, at the time on-set romance was quite the thing in a way that’s a bit difficult to describe in the modern era. Hollywood’s celebrities were really the first social figures to define ‘celebrity’ in the modern sense, and they were huge — especially at a time when people were surrounded by the Depression and later the war. Then as now, movies were a form of escapism, but so were the lives of their stars, who became a sort of public property.
It was also extremely common for actors to become involved on set — or, rather, more accurately, for studios to cultivate the idea of on set romances whether they were occurring or not. It made for great publicity and drummed up considerable buzz about upcoming features (you can see where this is going) and young women (and no doubt some young people of other genders!) collected magazines featuring film stars with an intense fervor. These imaginary romances gave film fans a chance to imagine themselves in the heels of the lucky starlets, and made for considerable glamour on the red carpet.
Naturally, stars ended their relationships equally dramatically between films, an act often equally carefully orchestrated, because it could generate publicity of its own. Audiences of the time enjoyed relationship drama every bit as much as modern ones do, and the distractions of Hollywood romances no doubt proved a welcome break from financial struggle, the Dust Bowl, the war, the everpresent awareness of inequality.
There are lots of ways to generate attention for a new series, but the tack taken with The Muppets was extremely savvy, and my hat is off to the promoters at ABC for first spreading vague rumours of a split and then spinning them into a formal statement weeks before the premiere. The split generated scores of think pieces that revealed the deep cultural connection between the Muppets and society, as people took the split tongue in cheek, but still commented about it in the same deadly serious way they’d cover other key news. It wasn’t the dissolution of any celebrity relationship, after all, but the demise of Kermit and Miss Piggy, an iconic couple – and both of them were already dating around.
Two social factors about the breakup fascinated me. One was its clear callback to old Hollywood, an apt artistic decision given Piggy’s persona. She is, after all, a diva, definitely the most glam character on the series, and she’s constantly dressed to the nines and strutting herself — in many ways, she feels like an old school film star and that’s a calculated part of her characterisation. Miss Piggy is the modern day Vivian Leigh or Carole Lombard, if you will — a woman who maintains a flawless public appearance at all times and swoops down the red carpet like she owns it. Which she does, as a major driver of the Muppets franchise — like the starlets that she clearly references, she’s an incredibly valuable studio property.
(If you find the comparison of actual human beings to a puppet disturbing, you should — but it’s worth noting that many starlets of the era were actually treated like studio property. In addition to being told who they should date/marry and when, they were also ordered to undergo medical procedures, housed in company facilities, and heavily controlled to cultivate very specific images. Studios invested heavily in their female talent and they didn’t relinquish freedoms to women in film very easily — while in some ways starlets had incredible power, in others, they were almost more helpless than the women who came to watch their films.)
The intense reaction on the internet rather delighted me. Teasers showing Miss Piggy involved with Nathan Fillion and Liam Hemsworth clearly played to a younger demographic, trying to draw in a new audience for the venerable franchise. But everyone got involved in the hot speculation over the breakup, whether cheating was involved, who drove the decision to divorce, whether Miss Piggy was abusive and Kermit made the right move to get out — the internet took the breakup as seriously as it would any other tabloid breakup, and in some cases almost even more. It would be akin to hearing that major public figures with a long-established romantic relationship were separating; ‘Mom! Dad! How could you?!’
People went all in on the situation, and it reminded me of that heady, delightful day when the internet forgot itself to follow the drama of two escapee llamas and an optical illusion masquerading as a dress (along with the inevitable mashups, such as the llamas wearing the dress). The internet clearly needs these things, escapism in a format that lends itself to widespread distribution and discussion on social media, and I find it deeply wonderful that we still have the ability to suspend disbelief, set aside cultural and social differences, and just be silly for a few hours still.
In the last decade in particular, I’ve been really dismayed by humanity, and I’ve spent more time despairing over us than thinking we can possibly pull out of the tailspin we’ve created for ourselves. Things like this give me hope that maybe all isn’t lost.
Image: I ? The Muppets, Joe Penniston, Flickr