Listen to the Pig
When I wrote my Twilight review earlier this year, I compared the weak and helpless Bella to Ms. Piggy, who, in my opinion, is an icon for feminism. Some of the commenters disagreed with me so I thought I would try to apply some skepticism to my theory. I thought more about it while writing my review for the new Muppet movie.
As you all probably know, I have a bit of a Muppet bias. As far as I am concerned, Ms. Piggy is one of the strongest female characters in popular culture in the past 50-odd years. Piggy proves, time and again, that she is a strong, confident woman who can go toe-to-toe.. or snout-to-snout with anyone else. But I might be wrong. Let’s analyze a little, shall we?
(SPOILER ALERT: Minor spoilers below for the new Muppet movie)
Why Ms. Piggy is an Icon for Feminism:
1. She trucks no bullshit
Time and again, in the Muppet movies, we see Piggy as a strong, no-nonsense woman who will fight for what she wants.
Whether it’s taking on cat burglars in the Great Muppet Caper or scaring off cat-calling construction workers in the Muppets take Manhattan, Piggy is strong and powerful. And if her friends are in danger or need help, she has no problem taking over and leading the gang, even if her methods aren’t always the most … peaceable. (I’m getting to that, I promise).
2. She is a career woman
In the original Muppet movie, there’s a scene where, after rescuing Kermit from frognappers, Piggy gets a call from her agent with a part in a commercial and drops Kermit like a hot potato to take the role.
In the most recent Muppet movie, Piggy is arguably the most successful of the Muppets who have gone their separate ways for several years. When we finally track her down, Piggy is in Paris and their Paris plus-sized editor.
She is confident in her abilities too. Yes, she is a prima donna. But she knows what she wants and knows she is the best at what she does. In the Muppets, she says to Kermit ‘Remember, I am irreplaceable” and it’s impossible to disagree with her.
3. She is comfortable with her body
Piggy’s size is the.. butt of many jokes. But at the end of the day, Piggy never doubts herself. I’m willing to bet Kermit has never been asked “Does this dress make me look fat?”
Piggy is gorgeous and she knows it. She revels in her own body and her beauty.
4. She wants it all
Go back and listen to Piggy’s “I’m Gonna Always Love You” song in the Muppets Take Manhattan. It’s nothing less than an anthem for feminism.
Gonna climb the Matterhorn.
But only after all my children are born.
‘Coz I want to be a good Mommy too
And I’m going to always love you
Pretty compelling stuff. But, of course, nobody is perfect. Here are the reasons that Piggy fails as a good role model:
1. The Violence
Poor Piggy. She really just wants things her way and when she doesn’t get them, well, she has a bit of a temper. And an unfortunate habit of using violence to solve problems. And we can all agree that in the real world, violence is not the way to solve problems.
But… this isn’t the real world. Piggy lives in a world that is encompassed in violence as the natural order. Time and again, we see the Swedish Chef going after animals with rolling pins and hatchets, the Great Gonzo blowing himself out of cannons in stunts that would kill in the real world. Lew Zealand‘s whole bit is that he THROWS FISH AT PEOPLE. And seriously, if this was the real world, Crazy Harry would be in Guantanamo for terrorism.
Muppet world is one where violence is a way of life and it’s all done for humor. Piggy isn’t any better or worse than any of the male characters in her life in that respect so I don’t think we can judge her on this point at all.
2. The Competitiveness
Whether it’s competition for a role or a rival love interest for the Frog, time and again, Piggy stamps out any competition, sometimes literally. Some would call this dysfunctional. But again, let’s examine what is going on here. With the exception of Camilla the Chicken, and Janice, the guitarist for the Electric Mayhem, both of whom are really side characters, Piggy is the ONLY regular female Muppet.
From a 1979 People magazine article: “According to [Frank] Oz, Miss Piggy’s father chased after other sows, and her mother had so many piglets she never found time to develop her mind. ‘I’ll die before I live like that!’ Miss Piggy screamed, and ran away to the city. Life was hard at first. People got all the jobs; pigs had to take what was left. To keep going, Miss Piggy walked a sandwich board for a barbecue stand. Desperate, she took a stage name, Laverne, and entered a beauty contest. She won and got her big break: a bacon commercial. This led to a season as mascot for a local TV sportscast called Pigskin Parade — and then on to The Muppet Show.”
Ms. Piggy worked her way up from nothing and knows how competitive show business is. So she fights to protect what she has worked for. I think it’s just ambition that is driving her competitiveness, and her desire to be able to maintain the lifestyle she has grown accustomed to.
Even I have to admit that Piggy acts irrationally when it comes to Kermit. She’s almost bipolar with him – one minute smothering him with kissy-kisses, the next karate chopping him across the room.
Kermit seems to bring out the best and the worst in Piggy and that, in my opinion, is why her character is so powerful. Piggy shows us that even the strongest, most confident people falter sometimes, particularly when it comes to love. And, if you ask me, Piggy knows full well that Kermit has this effect on her but embraces the madness nonetheless.
So maybe Piggy isn’t the Ideal Feminist Icon. But maybe her imperfections are what make her a really great role model. She’s strong, smart and flawed. It makes for a compelling character. I, for one, would be thrilled to be Ms. Piggy when I grow up.
Wow. Awesome, Maria. I laughed, I cried, it became a part of me. Wow.
I am converted. Miss Piggy for President! I am so happy that you dealt with her flaws, too – I’ve been recommending the Hunger Games trilogy to people recently because I loved it so much specifically *because* Katniss is a flawed female lead who still manages to be strong and inspiring. She isn’t an antihero, but she isn’t a Mary Sue either. She screws up and finds it really hard to trust anyone, she has her own biases and she often acts without thinking, but she still does what needs to be done, even in the face of devastating grief.
So while I know it has its problems, I try to get people who’ve read Twilight to read THG too, to get a role model who is more than a blank piece of paper, but not a perfect in every way superhero, either. I may now have to start recommending the Muppets for more than their general awesomeness.
Looking for more great female role models for girls? I highly recommend the Nickelodeon cartoon “Avatar”. The one that the crappy “Last Airbender” movie was based on. Every single female character is tough and independent while never losing their “girly” side. They save the boys and are grateful when the boys save them. They are each unique, right on down to their individual fighting and bending styles. I love that my 7-year-old daughter goes back to THIS show again and again as opposed to Cinderella. Because, as this clip shows, Avatar girls “don’t want to be Cinderella. I’d rather save myself.”
Get her to watch “Ever After”. Spoiler ahead!
The prince goes to save pseudo-Cinderella from the bad guy’s castle, only to meet her striding out, having just rescued herself.
Also, the Terry Pratchett Tiffany Aching series has a fantastic female role model. Everyone! Go out and read the Wee Free Men. RIGHT NOW.
It’s not just Tiffany – it’s all the witches in Pratchet’s books. What makes a witch a witch in his world? Intelligence, a comprehensive understanding of human nature, compassion when needed, hardness when required, and an unbreakable resolve.
Sure, some of them start cackling. Who hasn’t cackled at some point in their life? But the witches of Discworld are tough as nails… even when they come from chalk.
I’ve thought Granny Weatherwax was the coolest literary figure ever, since ‘Equal Rites’. I really enjoy Tiffany Aching, too.
Using your little brother as bait for a hag, gotta love it.
Not to mention the Watch characters and their approach to women, outwardly expressed women, women in law enforcement, etc.
Glorious, glorious stuff.
Oh and, to the topic at hand, Ms. Piggy may be a role model to women but she’s just dead sexy to men. A strong willed, self-assured, martial arts expert? Hubba hubba!
Well, I guess I have to be the dissenter. You make excellent points, and I think the positives about Piggy are absolutely true. But for me, I just cannot get over the domestic violence. It’s not cute, funny, interesting, or positive in any way. So I took your paragraph and rewrote it:
“Even I have to admit that Ike Turner acts irrationally when it comes to Tina. He’s almost bipolar with her – one minute smothering her with kissy-kisses, the next karate chopping her across the room.
Tina seems to bring out the best and the worst in Ike and that, in my opinion, is why his character is so powerful. Ike shows us that even the strongest, most confident people falter sometimes, particularly when it comes to love. And, if you ask me, Ike knows full well that Tina has this effect on him but embraces the madness nonetheless.”
Yeah, it’s a lot uglier when it’s real domestic violence, which is a real problem in our society.
Instead of Miss Piggy as an icon, a couple of real feminist icons that I can think of are Peggy Olsen, from Mad Men (she’s basically a proto-feminist), and Ellie Arroway from Contact. Both are characters who have the same attributes as Miss Piggy in the pro column, without the ugly detriments. But they’re not perfect characters either, which is what makes them interesting. However, their flaws are not in areas that degrades their feminist credentials.
And finally, I hate to say this, but Miss Piggy is a straw feminist at best, and I’m afraid to think that some MRAs, or even people on the fence might see an article like this and think that we really are out to get men.
That’s a problem with the setting of the Muppets, though, as the author acknowledged. ALL violence on the program is cartoonish and over-the-top, with no long-term consequences. You can fault the setting, but to hold it against Miss Piggy individually is unreasonable.
Yeah, exactly. I mean, obviously amongst humans, domestic violence is awful, and a woman physically abusing and controlling a man is in and of itself no less reprehensible than vice versa.
(although there is the typical difference in physical strength and power to take into account, but that’s not a given, which is why I’m making the “in and of itself” point).
But these are muppets. They follow the laws of cartoon violence, and it’s a part of their lives and world. It seems a bit weird to hold Miss Piggy to a higher standard than the other characters. And if you’ll forgive me for extrapolating, doing so could perhaps be taken as suggesting that women are “supposed” to be more meek and passive and non-violent than men, even in a madcap, violent, cartoon setting.
Maybe the reason we judge Miss Piggy’s violence more harshly is because it is in the context of a relationship?
I don’t know. It’s a good point, and a good discussion, and I don’t want to suggest people are wrong to point it out. But I just think there’s a few different ways of looking at it.
Miss Piggy’s behaviour to Kermit matches a common stereotype in anime/manga known as tsundere:
The disease you were searching for when describing Piggy’s relationship with Kermit is Borderline Personality Disorder (you used bipolar). The most common symptom of this disorder is best summed up by the title of a book on the topic of the disease, “I hate you, don’t leave me!” Most of the sufferers of this disorder are female and outgrow it by their 30’s or 40’s.
Off topic: Steve Jobs may have died because of “thinking differently” about cancer treatment:
So, when you’ve made a supernova career out of thinking differently, how do you know when to listen to orthodoxy?
(To bring it slightly back to topic, I’ve seen speculation that Jim Henson’s ‘Christian Science’ upbringing may have caused him to fatally delay going to hospital with his final illness. Be warned: it looked speculative to me at the time, and I’ve had about two decades to forget the details.)
I love this post so much, Maria!!!
Tonight I went to a Tycho Brahe party and we watched Muppet Family Christmas. And what I couldn’t help but thinking is one of the things that’s great about Ms. Piggy is that although she’s a strong, independent, self-determined woman, she also is so in a completely feminine way. Like, her strength isn’t simply from imitating men, or attempting to live up to male expectations, she just wholly owns her womanhood and femininity and asserts it in a totally self-determined way. And that is totally badass. I find that too often writers will, when trying to write a “strong female character”, settle for basically just writing the female-ness right out of the character while keeping her boobs and everything. This isn’t to say that women are “supposed” to be feminine or anything, but that sometimes it feels like we tilt in the direction of saying that the way for a woman to be powerful is to act in accordance with the social expectations placed on men instead, and I feel like that can end up just swapping one way of judging a woman by her ability to live up to externally imposed gender expectations for another. You know? So there’s a special place in my hear for characters like Ms. Piggy or The Powerpuff Girls or The Mane Cast of Friendship is Magic for being strong characters without in any way compromising the fact that they are indeed female.
P.S. I got a set of muppet nail polish as a door prize / christmas present!
One of the bizarre advantages of the relative scarcity of women at skeptic events. There were only three women to compete with over it, and none of them really like nail polish. :p
I am wearing Muppet nail polish RIGHT NOW :)
Yes! Yes! Yes! I love the Powerpuff Girls. Especially Bubbles. I love a character that can maintain a childlike innocence, yet kick major ass when she needs to. Plus, she’s the best at seeing the beauty in the world.
I agree with a lot of what you say, but as far as the new film goes check out the last panel here.
On Have I Got News For You last week Miranda Hart in the Chair read out:
“A spokesperson for the Muppets issued the following statement in response to Fox News’ accisations of communism:
Piggy truly is a feminist icon. Another one in recent books and movies is Hermione Granger. She is the smartest and the best wizard. Not to mention over coming all the prejudice put upon her because she is muggle born. Way better than Bella.
I love Piggy too, but I have a couple more.
Dot, the Warner Sister from Animanics
And, my personal favorite, Chihiro from Miyazaki’s masterpiece Spirited Away. Since the age of five (!) my daughter has wanted to be Chihiro. All of her other “friends” from that time (Dora, Spongebob, and especially Elmo) have gone by the wayside, but not Chihiro. She asked to be her for Halloween too late for me to get a costume together but maybe next year.
I also second Hermione (actually all the female characters in HP are strong).
Cimorene from Patrice C. Wrede’s Dealing with Dragons. Go look her up, I’ll wait. … Done? Yeah, she rocks. Patrice makes amazing female characters for every story I have read. From Dealing with Dragons, to re-writing Snow White and Red Rose (no simpering allowed in that book!). Perfect for young teens.
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