It’s been forty years since the last episode of the Muppet Show was broadcast, but the program featuring live celebrities and colorful puppets lives on through Disney’s streaming service, and a professor at the University of Virginia says it has things to teach us about race relations.
As a child, Shilpa Dave was a Muppets fan. As a college professor, she’s studied the program and how it portrays race and gender.
“It was after the Civil Rights movement, so we were seeing some of the benefits of bringing in interracial relationships onto the screen, but also seeing a lot more African-Americans," she recalls. " It was also the feminist movement, so we were seeing a lot more women.”
Guest stars included Rita Moreno, Lena Horne and Gladys Knight, and the puppets themselves sent a message of inclusion – suggesting different races and species could at least get along.
“Some of them are animals that we recognize, like Kermit the Frog. Others are animals that are made up like Gonzo. We’re not quite sure what he is," Dave says. "Muppets can interact with each other even though there’s a lot of difference among them, so it gives you a positive message about how people interact and work together.”
But 18 of the 120 episodes produced contained what today’s media executives considered negative depictions or mistreatment of people or cultures. One, for example, was hosted by Johnny Cash.
“He was in front of a confederate flag, and then there were Muppet characters in white sheets flying in the background, so the image is very, very problematic," nshe explains. "It was something that they thought would be funny, but that kind of humor doesn’t resonate and should not resonate, but it was still acceptable in TV because nobody was objecting to it.”
Today – Disney includes a content warning noting “stereotypes were wrong then, and they are wrong now.”