Hate cancel culture? You should love The Muppet Show’s content warnings

Conservative media is concerned about the Muppets.

Kermit Cancelled? Disney slaps offensive content label on the Muppet Show,” Sunday’s headline on The Daily Wire read. The Daily Mail UK scoffs: “The Muppet Show appears to be the latest victim of political correctness with new warnings over its historic content.” Is Outrage! Snowflake libs are even ruining The Muppet Show! 

They’re upset because when Disney+ re-released The Muppet Show this weekend, sixteen of the episodes came with a content warning reading:

“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 conversation to create a more inclusive future together.”

As a recovering Rush Limbaugh Conservative, I understand why people are upset. Libs can’t walk three feet without tripping over something that offends them. Things that just used to be good clean fun are now crimes, and everybody’s a victim.

These are things I used to say and think. Like most pernicious ideas, they’re not entirely untrue. You can find far-left activists who really are ridiculous, who really do get offended over nothing, and who really do long to see themselves as victims — and who really do want to squash joy, crush free speech, and silence anyone who disagrees with them. My kids had an English teacher who refused to teach Moby Dick because it didn’t have any female characters and was therefore sexist. That’s just a small example. There’s a push from much more powerful people to crush things that don’t deserve crushing (sometimes cynically shielding actual offenders in the process). 

But content warnings aren’t an example of this; they’re the remedy for it.

The Daily Wire and others have referred to the addition of content warnings as part of “cancel culture.” It’s literally the opposite: Rather than refusing to broadcast the show, they’re showing it. 

Cancel culture says, “This says or implies something I don’t agree with; therefore, it must be gone.” Content warnings say, “This says or implies something you might not agree with. Here it is anyway; you decide if you want to consume it or not.” This strikes me as manifestly conservative: We report, you decide. And they can’t be accused of insensitivity, because they did warn us! Their butts are covered.

Don’t get me wrong: Disney+ is doing this because broadcasting shows makes more money than not broadcasting them.  But in practice, it’s actually the perfect balance of free speech and personal responsibility. It may be the lifeline we need to drag us out of the quagmire of actual cancel culture, which really does make good things disappear. 

That being said, conservatives have made other objections to the inclusion of content warnings. But I think they’re equally bogus. 

The first is an objection to the very fact that there are warnings at all. This is disingenuous, especially coming from conservatives. 

When my kids want to watch a movie or show I’m not familiar with, and I don’t have the time or desire to watch it with them, what do I do? I look it up. I see if it includes nudity or violence or cussing or themes that may not be appropriate for their age. This is standard practice for responsible parents. Different parents are leery of different things, but there’s nothing new or outrageous about offering a content warning so we can make reasonable decisions. Heck, I remember chortling when a Batman movie warned me it would contain “menace.” I hope so!

It’s a core principle of American conservatism that Hollyweird is trying to pervert our youngsters, and we have the right and the duty as responsible parents to know what kind of media they’re consuming and to make independent choices about that. At least in theory, content warnings are an excellent tool to help us do just that. 

Also, memories are faulty, and standards change. Most adults, especially parents, have had the experience of watching a movie or show we haven’t seen in decades, and being shocked at how — something — it is. How sexist, how violent, how racy, how racist, how crude. There are even memes about this phenomenon: Showing a beloved movie to your kids and then leaping for the remote because OH NO I FORGOT THIS SCENE. I’m old and tired, and happy to get an assist, to avoid this kind of thing. 

The second objection has to do with what kinds of things earn a warning in 2021. And this is where conservatives will have a harder time; but if they’re Christians, they probably shouldn’t.

In theory, warnings are useful to parents, left and right, to have a heads-up about content. In practice, they’re are often a little less helpful. Saying “The following may be offensive to some viewers” is about as useful as saying “The sun may rise.” (I had a kid who found owls offensive, reasons unclear.) 

But the specific warnings on the Muppet Show episodes specify that they will “includes negative depictions and/or mistreatment of people or cultures.” In other words, it’s going to include a bit that makes some group of human beings look stupid or crazy or subhuman, for laughs.

I don’t have a list of the specific scenes that earned warnings (Newsweek has a list of the episodes), but I’m guessing the group of human beings are not oligarchs or mean bosses or anyone else who has power and influence. It’s almost certainly groups of people who have less power and less influence: Certain ethnic groups, maybe victims of domestic violence, being treated as if they themselves are jokes.

And this is what is actually at the core of objections against content warnings: Conservatives who are angry about the warnings want to defend punching down. They want to defend the practice of making fun of people who can’t fight back, for the sake of a joke. And they want the practice to go utterly unchallenged, even fleetingly.

This is something I’ve been trying hard to grow out of — or at least to be more consistent about, because I am a Christian. Here’s an example: I once told a funny story that hinged on a Chinese accent, and I got swatted down. I asked why my story was hurtful, when a joke involving a French accent wouldn’t be. And the answer was: Because Chinese accents get treated as evidence of stupidity and backwardness in a way that French accents do not. And that was right. I learned something, and now I’m more careful, because I’m a Christian, and I don’t want to punch down.

Being a parent, and having to think hard about what it will do to a developing young heart to see certain scenes and hear certain phrases on TV, has made me think hard about . . . well, my own heart. I’ve had to change. We’re supposed to change. We’re supposed to take it seriously when we realize we’re wounding someone. At very least, we should think it over, and not dismiss it out of hand as liberal fragility. 

I do understand that, when Disney+ or some other corporation chooses to put a warning on something, they do it inconsistently. They will warn the audience if they’re going to show something that current cultural standards finds offensive, but they don’t bat an eye over something else that’s equally offensive, but not in a popular way. 

My friends, so what? If you know better than Disney+, then good for you. It doesn’t hurt you to see a brief warning. Nobody’s preventing you from watching, and nobody’s making your mind up for you. All they’re doing is saying, “Here’s an idea; take it or leave it.” If your kids see a warning and have questions, then talk to them about what you think, and defend your take, and listen. If you just shut the conversation down and refuse to entertain the possibility that you’re wrong . . . isn’t that  . . . cancel culture? 



Image by Josh Hallett via Flicker (Creative Commons)

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16 thoughts on “Hate cancel culture? You should love The Muppet Show’s content warnings”

  1. Simcha I think you say a lot of wise things on many topics, but I really have to disagree with you on this. It sounds like you are defending content warnings on things that have not offended anyone until it was popular to be offended. When a public entity tries to imply that there’s something worth worrying about in the content of products heretofore unoffensive to the vast majority of consumers, they’re up to no good, and ought to be called out on it.
    Ben says it better than I could:

  2. Sorry, but I am a little confused at the proposed standard of which jokes are allowed. I recognize that french accents aren’t used to portray stupidity but they are often feigned for an either hyper-sexual or arrogant effect. Cards on the table: I’m southern and have spent time in academia where hearing a twang during lectures is frowned upon. I thought the standard was 1. If you were offending someone and 2. If you cared. Is this just prudential and based on what you percieve is the likely impact of your comments? I.e you would expect chinese people to be upset but don’t think the french would mind. Or do unoffended chinese or offended french people not matter because of historical relevance that’s lost on me?

    1. I didn’t mean to propose a standard, but just to give an example of the kinds of things we should ask ourselves about *why* a certain joke seems funny to us. I think in addition to 1. offending someone and 2. you caring, you have to ask 3. is this considered funny because it’s understood that the butt of the joke is downtrodden and deserves it. I do think it’s a matter of prudential judgement, though. Most of the Asian people I know are smarter, more accomplished, and wealthier than I am, so I had a hard time getting my head around the idea that they get dunked on as a group; but then I realized I had a friend my age whose father was in an internment camp.

      I guess I just think we have less to lose by being more thoughtful than we do by insisting that ethnic jokes are some kind of inalienable human right. But there is a middle ground that’s not clear cut. And that’s, again, why I think content warnings are not a bad idea. Sometimes I will see a content warning and disagree that there’s anything wrong with the scene. And that’s the end of it.

  3. Full confession: I love the original Muppet show, much more than I like the movies (old and new) and the new “Muppets Now”, which we did watch, but my husband and I kept saying, “This is NOT the real Muppets! Stop laughing!”

    Today my youngest was in a deep mid-week homeschool slump, so during lunch we fired up Disney+ and he got to see the Muppets episode with Mark Hamill. That show is a treasure. He was agog. It was like two of his favorite flavors of ice cream smushed together. Then, because I had never seen it as a kid (pre-VCRs, so if we were out of the house the one evening that Muppets was on, too bad kids, you missed it!), we watched the Johnny Cash one. We saw the disclaimer, and one of my kids said, “What on earth did you watch when you were young?”

    Turned out the offensive image was Johnny Cash singing in front of a Confederate flag, mounted next to a United States flag. I waited to see if my kids would ask what that flag was and why it was hanging there, but they didn’t. They were more concerned about Cash singing a song about a dirty low egg-sucking dog in front of poor Rowlf. One of my kids said, “That is so offensive!”

    We did, in fact, talk about why the disclaimer was there. My kids are fully cognizant of what the Confederate flag is (and that it is not even the flag of the Confederacy, really, but the battle flag, but that is neither here nor there), and what it represents to a lot of people, and what it represents to a minority of people. They know that the flag is offensive to a whole lot of people out there.

    So I think that the disclaimers are good. I think airing the shows is good. For better or worse, they are a part of our cultural history. The disclaimers do, in fact, help start dialogue. Ideally there should be disclaimers on movies and television shows that do a rotten job of representing people of faith, but I doubt we’ll ever get there.

  4. Coming from Disney, no thanks.

    This miserable corporate colossus is quite happy to do business with a regime engaged in quite a bit of “negative depictions and/or mistreatment of people or culture” with respect to the Uighurs. Mass rape, slavery, and murder–all documented several times over.

    And yet Disney had no qualms about filming their sanitized-for-Sinofascism reboot of Mulan right in the epicenter of the genocide. In fact, it thanked various Xinjiang government agencies for the privilege in the credits. And then it followed up with a China-market-only version of Star Wars books.

    But now they put on a sad face about the Muppet Show even as they rake in the bucks for showing it. Maybe in forty years they’ll recognize that genocide is wrong, too, and put a disclaimer before the live action Mulan. I wouldn’t recommend my grandchildren bet any yuan on it, though.

    Since this is not my page, I won’t finish with what I think of such soulless corporate goons, but suffice to say, it would require a disclaimer, too.

    1. Right, well, as I said, I doubt anyone thinks the warnings come from a place of sincerity. They clearly just want to make money. I was more interested in the social questions around the consumer end of it.

      We don’t do a lot of boycotts, because it’s impossible to be consistent (I mean, I know someone who refuses to buy Girl Scout cookies but invests heavily in Bitcoin, which at least as entangled with immoral practices as GS). I don’t have any problem with people who want to take a stand against certain corporations who are just too awful, as long as they don’t look down at people who’ve decided to put their moral energies elsewhere.

      1. But isn’t that the whole point of what’s so annoying about this Muppets warning? That such an amoral (at best) entity would dare to tell me or my children right from wrong? It’s one thing for them to list things that many people would find objectionable, e.g. language or stereotypes. That just gives people a heads up. But that’s not what Disney’s doing here. They’re telling us what they’re airing and you’re paying them for is wrong. And then they say they’re just airing it to start a dialogue. Yeah right. I see a big difference between a list of potential hot potatoes and telling me this potato in the following program is rotten . The first way doesn’t bother me. The second way, particularly considering the source, is offensive. To me, at least.

        I buy Girl Scout cookies because the little kid selling them to me is just trying to pay for her camping trip or her art supplies. She’s not the face of the Girl Scout corporation. On the other hand, if she were to hand me a Planned Parenthood flyer and ask me to buy cookies, I’d politely decline. In my mind, that’s what Disney is doing here.

        My young adult daughter loves Disney. She just rolls her eyeballs and forks over the money for her Disney +. That’s her right and it’s her money and it’s none of my concern. I would be worried about her though and feel I’d failed as a parent if she thought it was a good idea to take moral advice from the Mouse.

        1. Okay, but the message may be true even if the messenger is a hypocritical asshole. I think it’s kind of ridiculous for adults to refuse to take a good point to heart just because of the source. I see people defend this behavior more and more, though. Yesterday I saw a woman saying she won’t wear a mask even though she believes it’s safer to do so, because she’s mad at Fauci. That’s insane. It’s a lot lower stakes if you’re going to deprive yourself of the Muppet Show just because you don’t like the fact that immoral Disney is the one telling you that immoral things are immoral, but you’re still really only depriving yourself. It’s perfectly fine to have your own personal line — we all do — but I wish people would acknowledge that they have this line for emotional reasons, not especially logical or ethical ones.

          1. Well, that’s a new one. I guess versions of Covidiot mentality are constantly evolving, kind of like the mutations of the virus itself…

          2. Since the thought of giving Disney money makes me physically ill, obviously my reaction is not logical, but I still don’t like the idea of corporations staking out what they believe to be a moral high ground and telling me what to do and how to think. And it’s not just Disney, there are tons of them. But at the core of my emotional dislike of corporate preaching, there is a very logical component, i.e. it would be unwise to trust someone so wholly unrelated to me or my family’s welfare on moral issues.

            Disney’s job is to entertain, not to give out parenting advice or to tell me I need to engage in a conversation. And to allow them to encroach on my parenting would not be a bright thing to do, because ceding moral authority to any corporation is a slippery slope. I can have no idea what the next thing is that Disney will tell my children with absolute certainty was “wrong then and is wrong now.” Is it bigotry not to date a transgendered person? There are a lot of people who think that it is and they’re entitled to their opinion, but they’re not entitled to come into my home and tell my kid that. Obviously, since the Muppets were already more or less banned in our home, Disney (also banned) hasn’t said anything here with which I’ve disagreed, but that’s not the point. It is the principle – it is not their place and it never will be to tell my kid right from wrong in any manner, but particularly not in such an authoritative tone.

            Fauci’s job, on the other hand, IS to give out medical advice and if that lady isn’t wearing a mask simply because she doesn’t like him, well, that makes her nutty.

      2. I don’t have a problem with your argument in the abstract–it makes sense. And I have DVD compilations of old Warner Brothers’ cartoons which have the same disclaimer, pretty much word-for-word on them. And for good reason, to be frank.

        My problem is that it’s *Disney* delivering the message. It may have a point, but it’s like getting a lecture about the importance of marital fidelity from the 45th President.

        And that stratospheric level of hypocrisy causes me to deploy both of my tall fingers and leave them there.

        1. Oh, I get it! I have the same reaction to Nestle, and refuse to buy anything that says “Nestle”on it, even though I know they own other brands that I do buy. We all have our lines.

  5. Isn’t there a difference between a content warning/notification and a value judgment? For instance, I let my kids watch movies and play video games with warnings for violence but if there’s a warning for nudity or sex or drug usage I’ll probably dig further before I’ll allow it. If Disney+ were providing a warning of racial or sexual stereotypes that wouldn’t bother me at all. But this here is a value judgment. And I don’t want to hear some random company’s preaching to me about anything.

    Full disclosure: The Miss Piggy character was so irritating to me that we never had the Muppets in our house. I don’t know if that’s the particular stereotype that earned the value judgment warning from Disney but even though I’d happen to agree with them in this instance, I still I don’t want their opinion.

    Personally, I don’t do Disney anymore. I guess I’ve canceled them. I doubt they miss me but all I can say is I feel physically ill when I think about the situation with the Uighurs and so it’s happened that I’ve just completely lost interest in anything Disney has to offer me. https://www.vox.com/culture/2020/9/9/21427978/mulan-disney-controversy-explained-uighurs-xinjiang

  6. Sorry. but this just hit me at the wrong time. This isn’t the “cancel culture” that I worry about. In certain circles, mainly parts of academia and the entertainment industry, what you’re talking about can be a real problem, but mostly what I see is surge in white men having conniptions if anyone dares suggest they aren’t victims. Cards on the table, I just got my first really nasty parent complaint after decades of teaching high school over an assignment I’ve been giving for years. 12th grade students were asked to read Booker T. Washington’s well known 1895 “Atlanta Compromise” speech. They were asked to read two contemporary newspaper first person reactions, one in a Black paper, the other in a White one and compare the reactions. This father went ballistic. What difference did race make? Who cares if the writers were Black or White? Why should his son feel White guilt? What was with the political correctness? Why was I trying to gaslight my students? 1895 and a Black man is invited to make a public speech in Atlanta, but race makes no difference. Right. I’ve been teaching a long time, and this sort of thing just didn’t used to happen, not even in this rural, southern town. Not that there wasn’t always racism and sexism, but this specific brand of resentment that demands that race and gender not be spoken about, (unless White men are portrayed as victims), is new. These are the people who cry the loudest about “cancel culture,” and these are the people whose overweening sense of victimhood wants to shut down conversations that even acknowledge the existence of other points of view. This is what I worry about, and it’s getting worse.

    1. I don’t disagree that it’s a huge and growing problem, but I don’t think it’s an example of cancel culture.

  7. Great points. Yes, political correctness can go too far (for example, recent claims that terms like “pregnant women” and “breastfeeding” aren’t inclusive, and an article I read the other day that teaching upper level math is white privilege.) But there’s nothing wrong with content warnings. As a parent, I appreciate them for the reasons you mentioned.

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