I’m all for being sensitive to other people and trying to avoid unnecessary offense. The trouble with that is knowing where the lines are, and who qualifies as a victim of prejudicial language.
Can any racial or ethnic group be stigmatized by stereotypes, or only those in a minority in a particular place? What differences are fair game for humor, and which ones must be avoided?
Should I feel slighted if someone makes light of my Southern accent, my interest in NASCAR, or my love of grits?
Could any stand-up comedian make it without telling jokes that play on cultural differences, including their own?
Political cartoonists could never survive without drawing elephants and donkeys and office holders with exaggerated physical features, but we don’t exorcise them from the newspapers.
How can we appreciate the richness and diversity of humanity if we can’t acknowledge it, and even occasionally rib each other about our age, our favorite foods, or our background?
Dr. Seuss Enterprises made recent news by deciding to pull six of the late Theodore Seuss Geisel’s books from publication, saying they contain racist imagery and stereotypes. In one book, two African men are portrayed wearing grass skirts with their hair in a bun. In another, Asian people are pictured wearing conical hats and eating with chopsticks.
I have seen both men and women wearing grass skirts, but in the setting of a Hawaiian luau, not in Africa. I’ve enjoyed visits to several Asian countries, where people who work in the sun still often wear conical hats and everyone eats with chopsticks.
I understand the need to be especially sensitive toward both Black and Asian people these days, as many have suffered from mindless prejudice, but resourceful sun wear and efficient eating implements are something to be admired.
Still, I get the concern, and Seuss’s drawings must have been considered offensive in other ways, but are children’s books that portray Latin men in sombreros or fishermen in foul weather gear or farmers driving tractors equally guilty of stereotypes?
Disney has also added a disclaimer to 18 episodes of “The Muppet Show,” which aired in prime time from 1976-81 and was recently added to the Disney+ lineup. I confess to being a great fan of the Muppets, to the extent of once ordering what I thought was a complete DVD collection of “The Muppet Show” from Amazon.
The disks turned out to be cheap bootleg copies from somewhere in China and only half of them would play at all – but understand that I’m not suggesting that all Chinese are either cheap or bootleggers.
Cultural standards were different 40-45 years ago, and I get that. Shows like “All in the Family,” “The Dukes of Hazard,” or “Sanford and Son” would never make it to the screen in 2021. Any number of older programs we laughed at would not cut the cultural mustard these days.
Recognizing this, “The Muppet Show” disclaimer says, “This program includes negative depictions and/or mistreatment of people or cultures. These stereotypes were wrong then and are wrong now. Rather than remove this content, we want to acknowledge its harmful impact, learn from it and spark conversations to create a more inclusive future together.”
I’ve been catching up with the Muppets while doing my elliptical workouts, and sometimes I find it hard to tell which part was deemed offensive. At least one is obvious: a sketch with Johnny Cash once included a Confederate flag. I’m surprised they didn’t leave that one out, as they did two other episodes. Nothing suggesting a positive attitude toward slavery is okay.
Another Muppet episode that came with a warning included a folk band of humanoid Muppet characters performing a song that mentioned a man who had a peg leg. I suppose that was deemed offensive to people with disabilities.
Yet another featured the Muppet singing couple Wayne and Wanda, introduced by Sam the Eagle as “the most morally unobjectionable singing team around.” When Wanda began singing “Indian Love Call,” a purple Muppet with a tomahawk and a feather in his headband showed up to listen.
The Muppet Show also features a variety of talking animals, two crotchety old wisecracking hecklers, an incompetent scientist, an unintelligible chef, and a rock band with a crazy drummer named “Animal.” A pig and a frog can be a couple. I suppose anyone could find something objectionable, but they’re Muppets, for Pete’s sake.
As much as we may believe in showing kindness and consideration to everyone, and in being sensitive to unwarranted racial or ethnic stereotypes, we have to acknowledge that it’s a struggle to know what’s acceptable.
My basic guideline before a potentially questionable comment is to ask myself whether Mr. Rogers would have said it, but I don’t always know. He was kind to judgmental people, too.
Though it’s in the news today, causing offense is nothing new, on stages large and small. While serving as a pastor for 26 years and an editor for nine years, I learned that somebody is likely to be offended about most anything.
Oh, wait – maybe I’ve just stereotyped both church members and readers.