Saturday, September 5, 2015

Lances Ready

When I was young, gender issues were commonly framed within the not-entirely-serious idea of the Battle of the Sexes, and, as they say, all's fair in love and war. People's understanding of how gender and gender identity influence people and work within the world have changed, but all's fair in love and war has not. And so when I read Noah Berlatsky's New Republic article using reaction to the news that Kermit the Frog has a new girlfriend to address the fact that the public typically only engages with issues of domestic violence when men are the perpetrator, my first reaction was to shrug.

Back in the days of The Muppet Show, Miss Piggy never met a problem that she couldn't "karate chop" a solution to - and that included her disagreements with Kermit. Mr. Berlatsky takes exception to the fact that this was often found to be hilarious, and, in all honesty, rightly so:

When women (or female pigs) hit men, it's funny because it's unexpected—and because it violates our sense of how gender roles should work; when men are beaten, they cease to be men, and become emasculated and feminized. Likewise, Piggy’s karate-chops are funny because women who are powerful and violent cease to be classically female, and become swaggeringly masculine. That turns Piggy into a feminist icon, to some degree—but it's also why she's treated, throughout Muppet shows and movies, as a joke.
However, there is, and, I suspect has always been, some discomfort with Miss Piggy's way of solving problems. A discomfort that perhaps leads Megan Carpentier, writing in The Guardian, question the accuracy of the narrative, and perhaps to indulge in a little of what we would typically label victim-blaming:
It’s now clear that [Kermit] was also always colluding with the producers and directors to make sure that Miss Piggy looked like a violent, egotistical harridan and he was seen as the sensitive, Rainbow-Connection-bleating ex-hippie who gracefully put up with both her personality and living in her shadow.
Kermit the Frog's new girlfriend is younger, thinner – and blander
While one can go a bit overboard with using the "relationship" between a set of puppets as a stand in for serious issues in human relationships, in the end, Berlatsky is on to something. But he's also wasting his time.

Our current understandings of social justice don't tend to be about establishing an equitable society as a good end in and of itself. Rather they tend to be about addressing historical imbalances - attacking the social structures that elevated one group of people at the expense of another. There are different hierarchies that concern different people, but generally "the stereotypical affluent/wealthy, straight, white male" sits atop all of them, in a perceived central location in society, and everyone else radiates out from that point. And, generally speaking, conceptualizations of social justice view injustice as being solely a matter of the center pushing out against those farther out in the circle. While there may be a million personal reasons for this, it also fits neatly into the sort of Good-versus-Evil Manicheaen duality. Wealth, heterosexuals, whites and/or men are bad and poverty, non-heterosexuality, non-whites and women (and/or other people who do not identify as male) are good.

While it has been noted that this rather simple way of looking at the world has its problems, and some fairly serious ones, it's not going anywhere anytime soon, if at all. Whether locking others out of being seen as good is a strategy for maintaining access to scarce resources in what is perceived as a zero-sum game or simply a means of holding on to romantic ideals about the self or others, it's a beneficial adaptive strategy, which is why it has survived for so long.

Like it or not, society only advances through one enlightenment at a time. And a lot of the things that we find ourselves working to change are the result of both biological and social wiring, and thus, deeply ingrained. Thus, for the time being, articles like Mr. Berlatsky's are quixotic, at best. It strikes me as unlikely that Kermit the Frog will be on the receiving end of Miss Piggy's stereotyped karate chops as often as he was back in the day, if at all. Violence in general is more frowned upon in children's programming than it was when I was a child, and Piggy's hauling off and decking someone with a loud "Hiiii-ya!" is much more likely to be seen as a racist mockery of eastern martial arts, and thus Asians and Asian culture, that it was then. And so what we're left with is the online reaction to Kermit's new significant other, and if a columnist calls out Kermit as having faked the thumpings he received in decades past, who cares?

But if someone tilts at the windmills long enough, someone may actually see the giant hiding there. One can make the point that all of the great social justice movements of American, and even world, history started this way. So as much as I don't see the profit in taking up the lance myself, I salute those who do.

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