When I was 17 I auditioned for my first – and only – musical theater production.
Looking at that sentence, you might think it was a horrible experience (it was). And you might think that’s why it was my only musical (it wasn’t). It was kinda-sorta horrible because I had thought about auditioning throughout high school and never worked up sufficient courage until my senior year. I hung out with the music and theater kids anyway, I didn’t have a reason to be terrified; but I was.
My reading went fine. I can act; ask anyone. But then it came time for the singing audition. I had selected, The Rainbow Connection, from The Muppet Movie, as my song. My very good friend Nancy was playing piano for the auditions, so empathy was an arm’s length away. She started, and I joined in with:
Why are there so many songs about rainbows, and what’s on the other siiiiiiiiide?
And then I stopped. Because I forget every single word thereafter. It was nightmarish. I stood there for a second while Nancy kept playing and gesturing to me with her eyes to just “join in.” I said, “I’d like to start over.” And her eyes flew open to the approximate size of dinner plates. Don’t do that! Just pick it up! But I didn’t, and she shook her head in disbelief, resigned to my inexperience. We completed the song just fine the second time around.
This post isn’t about stage fright or the benefit (or risk) of starting over when you screw up. But since I know you want to know, I got the lead in that musical – a little known Music Man ripoff called High Button Shoes that was on Broadway with comedian Phil Silvers somewhere around when Lincoln was president, I think. I was cast in the lead – con-man Harrison Floy – after the choral director, Dr. Saul Feinberg, and Tom Quinlan, the drama teacher, argued bitterly over the decision. Dr. Feinberg, who we all called “Doc,” was adamant that I couldn’t handle the singing, but Mr. Quinlan, the director, liked my comic timing. Mr. Quinlan won the argument after I agreed to immediately join the choir and work my ass off four mornings a week before class.
I became one of a robust and enthusiastic group of students indebted to Doc’s compassion, support and dedication. To this day I hope he was ultimately glad he took a chance on me.
Anyway, this post is about The Muppets, whose oeuvre has recently been re-released on Disney+, the streaming service that would make you exit through the Gift Shop after every episode of WandaVision if it could. If I sound bitter it’s only because they own everything I would actually pay money for at this point, and I’m just struggling with the cataclysmic risk this presents. Whereupon Disney unveiled the legacy episodes of the groundbreaking variety show, they saw fit to place long disclaimers – white paragraphs on a black screen – in front of 18 episodes alerting viewers to “negative depictions and/or mistreatment of people or cultures.”
I mean, I always thought the gang was kind of a dick to Gonzo, like reminding him no one knew what the hell he was, but I just assumed that was the Muppet equivalent of schoolyard shenanigans, not something that needed remediation.
But no, that’s not it. They put these warnings over episodes that contained content that was apparently OK in the 70s but not anymore. Things like the legendary Johnny Cash singing in front of a Confederate flag.
I immediately want to jump up and down and scream about political correctness and cancel culture and how we are doomed as a society – how we cannot have a future if we continue to relive the past. But after a moment the blood pressure levels out and I look a little deeper. What I see is…encouraging. I think.
First, there’s the disclaimer itself. It starts, “Rather than removing this content, we see an opportunity to spark conversation and open dialogue on history that affects us all.” That’s a good start, since I have always believed dialogue is the missing element in our society today, and the foundational ingredient in an antidote to cancel culture, if there is one.
Then the statement reads, “As we embrace each other's stories, we embrace possibility. And that's why we're committed to doing the best we can to represent communities authentically. So people not only see the best in themselves, but the world can see it too." And, ok, while that is just about the most Disney-fied statement I think I’ve ever heard, it’s also really worthwhile. If you believe it – and I guess they’ve earned the benefit of the doubt – then it represents a direction I wouldn’t mind taking.
But come on, the Muppets? Johnny Cash singing in front of a Confederate flag? How do you hold the damn Muppets accountable for that? Cash is dead. “The South,” in the configuration depicted by the flag, is dead. (If you don’t think so, Google “US Senators, Georgia.”) Jim Henson is dead. What is the statute of limitations on this stuff anyway?
But then I remember that Disney could have taken a position and censored the content; they didn’t. They could have left the content without annotation, effectively ignoring the pain felt by literally millions of people, people whose lot 50 years ago included suffering in silence. But they didn’t do that, either. So I wrestle myself back to the discussion.
Disney has launched a diversity, equity and inclusion initiative called Stories Matter. In the preamble they say, “Stories shape how we see ourselves and everyone around us. So as storytellers, we have the power and responsibility to not only uplift and inspire, but also consciously, purposefully and relentlessly champion the spectrum of voices and perspectives in our world.” Again, as someone who likes pretty words I am engaged by the statement while remaining skeptical – because I’m a cynic.
The program has enlisted the aid of almost a dozen nonprofit organizations whose mission is to protect and advocate for groups defined by racial origins and ethnicities, sexual orientation and religious affiliation. There’s one that’s, “a creative outreach program of the National Academy of Sciences that connects entertainment industry professionals with top scientists to inspire engaging science-based storylines and positive portrayals of scientists in film and television.” This is troubling to me, as I love the David Ogden Stiers character in Lilo and Stitch and I definitely don’t want some butt-hurt egghead messing with Dr. Jumba because he’s thrumming the old “mad scientist” trope. What about Doc Brown? Will we lose Back to the Future to political correctness now?
Note: I am perfectly fine relinquishing Back to the Future III and calling it a day if appeasement is called for. Leave the first two installments alone.
The website gives several examples of Disney content from decades ago that will bear the new viewer warning. They are truly cringeworthy, far more explicit and offensive than Johnny Cash singing country ‘n western. They include:
- The Siamese cats in The Aristocats. (Think about it a moment: We are Siameeeeeeeeze if you pleeeeeze.)
- The Indians in Peter Pan. (Blame the British for this one, JM Barrie was an Englishman!)
- The crows in Dumbo. (The leader of the crows was named Jim for God’s sake! Jim Crow! How did that make it past even cursory review?!)
And all of a sudden I feel kind of ashamed. If you’d asked me about these movies and my memories of them, I wouldn’t have remembered any of these characterizations, these racial slurs. They didn’t make an impression on me one way or another. I didn’t think twice about them when I saw them as a child, and I wouldn’t remember them – fondly or otherwise – unprompted, as an adult.
Which I realize, today, is the whole problem. Because, at 58, I am learning that a whole universe of men and women who don’t look like me, weren’t raised like me, did notice these slights when they were growing up. They do remember them now. Back in the 1960s there was no avenue to voice frustration or push back against such abject tone deafness. The world – America at the very least – belonged to white people, and it was everyone else’s lot, their choice, to live in it. Or not: If you don’t like it, go back where you came from!
This is patently awful. I don’t believe most people felt that way. Despite the batshit crazy events of the last six months I still don’t believe most people feel that way. I don’t think the average person is indifferent to the pain of others.
I can’t think that, and continue to function.
I don’t think Walt Disney felt that way. I know some say he was an anti-Semite (see earlier blog post) but I choose to believe he was a product of his time. When you hold an accounting, a cost benefit analysis of a life, I challenge anyone to stand up against Walt Disney and see how well they fare. If he has blind spots, demons, deficits, so be it; so do we all. So do you, whoever you are.
So do I.
I had an infuriating phone call less than a year ago. It was with a dozen or so executives plus a handful of diversity consultants. We were laying a foundation for a formal D&I program launch, and I increasingly felt like I was attending a foreign film with blurry subtitles. The pressure being applied seemed unwarranted and excessive. I felt personally targeted for reasons I couldn't quite explain. I tried to wrestle myself back to midpoint again and again because I want, genuinely, to be part of improving the situation. But it was tough. And exhausting. And I hung up the phone feeling brittle.
On my way home I called a colleague I like and trust, a woman of color. I asked her a pointed question about a management communication we’d released recently, something she knew very well that I had a hand in writing. She gave me all the answers I wanted.
So I called bullshit.
“I’m not asking you for your official, professional reaction,” I told her. “I want to know how you felt. As a black person, not a marketing person. Take your work hat off.”
She paused. Then she said, “I was…disappointed.” And it went from there. She shared what I asked for, how it felt to be a black woman in 2020. She kept tempering her statements with phrases like “I know it’s not intentional.” And I mostly kept quiet, except to swat away her rationalizations and encourage her to keep talking.
It was eye-opening to say the least. It sounds like a total cliché but I don’t typically think of people as a certain color. I surround myself with people, to the extent I can, whose intellect and character and humor I admire. I use foxhole pragmatism, looking for people who will believe I have their backs and pledge to have mine. I’ve actually been praised for having a reasonably diverse team and I’ve shrugged off the observation since I never once paid attention to diversity while building it.
I felt like a good person, like “not seeing color” was the pinnacle to which we should aspire, and here I’d achieved it. I’d always rejected broad accusations of widespread, systemic racism because it’s not how I lived my life. Why should I shoulder the blame for the uneducated, the unsophisticated? The minority. Some say if you’re not actively fighting against these biases, the damage being done to others, then you’re as guilty as the abusers. It’s the time-honored Nazi question: Were all Germans (and others) responsible for the Holocaust because they let it happen? It’s not a yes-or-no question, but a question of degree, in my estimation. HOW MUCH responsibility does Germany, the Allies, the US, bear for the death of 6 million Jews and millions more in Europe during WWII?
That’s a hard question, whereas this is much simpler.
My blindness to color suited me just fine but it never helped anyone else. I didn’t ever look at things through another’s eyes because I didn’t have to. I was born white, and we make the rules. As long as I can lay down at night and feel like a decent human being, I could say, to myself, I was part of the solution. But in reality I wasn’t – because I didn’t acknowledge there was a problem. Not for me. I didn’t see a problem, I wasn’t making a problem.
But I sure wasn’t solving one, either.
I have gone on record saying things like, “Keep your hands off stand-up!” and “Leave Trader Joe’s alone!” I believe in the healing power of laughter, and the necessity of dialogue, having a common ground where it’s okay just to experience life, even when we disagree. But I’ve held that opinion from a position that isn’t quite equal. I get to defend the status quo with my intellect and the overwhelming weight of time. All time. Others – those with opposing views – have had to defend their views with nothing more than a legacy of being dismissed, marginalized, experienced as somehow less important.
Even when it was important to recognize their differences, like in elementary school assembly twice a year, the differences themselves were less important than the status quo.
It didn’t occur to me because I never once had to consider it. I didn’t occur to me because I only ever had to teach my kids to be good people, not how to interact with “good people” to help ensure their safety. Not success – safety.
One of the things I learned from that phone conversation with my colleague is that college educated, professional, intelligent, articulate black women watch their husbands and sons leave the house in the morning and they suppress a stabbing fear in the pit of their stomach that they might never come home. They wait for the phone to ring, dreading the voice on the other end, the unthinkable news that – still, impossibly – wouldn’t exactly be a surprise. Because that dread, the reality they live with, that I don’t, is always out there.
I’ve read stories. I’ve thought about this phenomenon, but in the abstract. I’d never heard it from a friend’s mouth. Because I never, until that day, thought to ask a friend.
Back to Disney, and their careful treatment of The Muppets. There’s still something about having to call attention to these moments from our past that upsets me. I don’t want everything I’ve ever known or loved to be called into question. Mostly I don’t want to be made to feel ashamed for having known or loved things that were, purely circumstantially, hurtful to others. It’s that shame, and the aversion to feeling shame, that’s at the heart of any defensible push-back. Who would want to just wake up and feel ashamed for something they felt, or heard, or just were? Something they had no control over, something that just was.
Like the color of their skin, even.
No one would volunteer for that. It would be horrible to be judged based on what others thought about who you are, or how you lived your life. It would be horrible to have to tamp down and deny the things about yourself that could keep you from achieving your dreams – or even keep you from believing you had the right to dream. It would be horrible.
It must have been horrible.
Damnit, Disney. Keep taking my money.