A Sow
is Born

by Elliott Sirkin

Miss Piggy in a Star

In the depression of the Thirties, we were cheered by the friends of Mickey Mouse; in the recession of the Seventies, we are cheered by the friends of Kermit the Frog. It is heresy, of course, to compare Disney’s menagerie, so coarse and rambunctious, with the stars of The Muppet Show. The Disney gang was a collection of American cornballs—old troupers who could have easily swapped jokes on the radio or wiggled in burlesque houses or toured the boondocks in Abie’s Irish Rose. Jim Henson’s puppet colony represents a loftier tradition. Like Keaton and Astaire, or Merman and Martin, they are popular artists who erase the line between high and low culture.

Not that there aren’t certain similarities between individual Muppets and Mousepersons. The bouncy, unflappable Kermit is kin to the bouncy, unflappable Mickey. Neither has a neurotic bone in his body; both are born leaders. Even their tastes in sidekicks coincide. Loyal, innocent, and physically inept, Mickey’s dog Pluto is the same kind of adorable imbecile as Kermit’s friend Fozzie Bear. (Though, thanks to his partial resemblance to Bert Lahr, Fozzie has a bit more tone. One awaits anxiously for him to appear in the Muppet version of Waiting for Godot.)

But there comparisons must stop. Who would dare contend that Miss Piggy Lee, chanteuse, siren, Renaissance beauty, and waif, has an antecedent in the Disney bestiary? The true star of The Muppet Show, she is without predecessors in Disneyland, or anywhere else in the history of stage and screen. Piggy is her own progenitress. The scandal is that the undiscerning, among them Mr. Les Brown of The New York Times, wish to portray her as a second Minnie Mouse. This perhaps would be entertaining blindness, if the subject were some silly here-today-gone-tomorrow television starlet. But Miss Piggy is not some shallow shoat. She is a goddess.

All right. It will be conceded that Piggy and Minnie do have a certain exaggerated, excessive femininity in common. They flirt in the same squeaking falsetto; they favor the same Joan Crawford bows on their shoes. Minnie, however, can only squeak, in that same cloying My Hero monotone. Those who have been privileged to hear Piggy’s voice will vouch that it is the most delicate and flexible of instruments, reminiscent of Deanna Durbin one moment, William Bendix the next.

Beribboned finery? The difference is how it is worn. Bedizened in her frills, Minnie suggests a Glendale housewife wearing the wardrobe of her dreams—Mildred Pierce dressed by Frederick’s of Hollywood. Piggy, on the other hand, chooses her ensembles with an unmistakable touch of Camp. Her fortress-like necklines and her obese costume jewelry are deliberate exaggerations. The skeptical should consider her coiffure. Only a woman bored with the ruins of modern fashion and tickled by the unique possiblities of parody would have hair like Piggy’s. Her peroxided shoulder-length tresses both mock and exalt the soggy mop of the mid-Sixties go-go girl. What Ann Margret wore with a straight face, Piggy wears with a mandarin sneer.

One could play this pig-and-mouse game forever. But, in the end, what is the point of trying to classify Miss Piggy Lee? (Why, one wonders, is her surname so infrequently mentioned? Have fits of jealousy from her less talented namesake brought on threats of a lawsuit?) In the final analysis, Piggy is herself. Like all great stars, she has no choice. As was true of Dietrich and Garbo and Gish, herself is all she can be.

Her response to the “celebrity” guests who visit The Muppet Show each week symbolizes this intransigence. As a rule, it is the personality of the star that determines the tone of the evening. An Elton John will inspire an aura of frenzy and glitter; a Judy Collins will make things feel as laid-back and low-pressure as a lazy morning in Woodstock; a Milton Berle will import the hard-driving high-spirited atmosphere of backstage between shows at the Roxy. Obliging hosts, the Muppets blend effortlessly into whatever ambiance their guests transmit. With one exception. Piggy does not blend. She can not. Set in a steam bath, her “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” duet with Rudolf Nureyev featured the mad Russian clad in nothing more than a bath towel. The inviolable Piggy would not even meet him halfway: her pearls and opera gloves remained securely in place. Piggy is Piggy: intense, proud, wild, vulnerable, and free. Above all, she is mercurial. The whole story is in her surpassingly beautiful eyes—the eyes which she herself refers to as “a curse.” Alone among the Muppets, Piggy has eye color; the others need only enormous, permanently dilated pupils. The importance of this difference can not be overstressed. No windows are needed to peer into the souls of Piggy’s co-stars: one knows in advance how they will react to any given situation. But Piggy’s moods and emotions are a law unto themselves, ordained by nothing more than the violent contradictions of her own character. A shy and girlish ingenue at one moment, an inflamed and eloquent tragedienne the next, she is all faces of Eve. Piggy is Cleopatra and The Little Match Girl, Lady Macbeth and Lady in the Dark, “O” as in Jackie O and “O” as in The Story of.

Her dazzling blue peepers forecast the changes in her emotional weather. One watches them in a state of ecstatic suspense, awaiting some new revelation—perhaps some outburst of delirious romantic intensity, or better still, a soaring moment of tragic grandeur. There is always the possiblity that this fabulous beauty, this consummate artist, will give in to the worst in herself. Squeals of petty jealousy, squeaks of false pride, oinks of sadomasochism—in moments of weakness, she has been known to surrender to them all, usually accenting her tears and tantrums with a karate chop to the belly of her foe.

In a crisis, the viewer can only hope that Piggy will not disgrace herself. She is capable of the most chaste ardor. Only consider the fiery tenderness she brought to the lyrics of a Calypso tribute to her amphibious crush this winter: “Kermie, Kermie, so shy and cute,/How I love that handsome brute!” Helen Morgan records sound like singing telegrams by comparison. One longs for anger from Piggy Lee—but noble, passionate, mature anger. Certainly there is nothing more cathartic than one of her seizures of justified rage. Dame Judith Anderson herself would learn more than a thing or two about Medea were she to spend a day or two in Piggy’s pen.

M.P. is not of the Apollonian school of stardom. The stately reserve of the Garsons and the Shearers, the demure restraint of the de Havillands and the Deborah Kerrs are well within her range. But she is, above all, a sister in that exclusive sorority that counts among its members Garland and Holliday, Magnani and Moreau, Bankhead and Bernhardt, and, of course, Davis. A true handmaiden of Dionysus, Piggy takes her audience on a journey to the farthest extremes of the heart. The end of the road may be despair and madness. But art is the only religion she knows.

In light of that, isn’t the behavior of her current employers somewhat suspect? The men who pull the Muppet strings have been less than appreciative of her genius. And “men” is the operative word in the sentence. Scan the credits, and you will see in an instant that The Muppet Show is as thoroughly masculine an enterprise as any multinatonal corporation. Men write, produce, compose, design, and direct. Women sew costumes.

Could this be why the terrain of Muppetland is as woman-less as a McQueen and Newman buddy movie? In effect, there are no other major Muppets of Piggy’s gender. Kermit has a nephew, not a niece; Fozzie has no straight woman; Piggy almost appears to have been hired under affirmative-action pressure. The speed with which she was promoted from near bit-player to star status after the show’s debut in 1976 may be significant. Was someone in a panic to shake off the Feds?

From her bosses, Piggy can expect one of three things: impatience, condescension, or neglect. As a vocalist, she is in unprecendented combination of Jeanette MacDonald, Patti Page, Lauren Bacall, and Chubby Checker. But what has Piggy been given that is worthy of her extraordinary musical gift? All that comes to mind is her marvelous rendition of “Cuanto le Gusta,” in which she shook her maracas in a patioed setting worthy of William Cameron Menzies. On the night of Ethel Merman’s guest appearance, Piggy Lee graciously offered to sing a medley of the Merm’s greatest hits. Her performance that evening would certainly have lived in video history . . . had Kermit not stretched out a forbidding flipper.

Such deliberate suppression of talent makes one conclusion inevitable. A conpiracy is at work, and Kermit is, if not its chief architect, then its chief agent. Ah, yes, Kermit. At least half of Piggy’s material revolves around him. Week after week, scripts require her to throw herself at his horny head; week after week, her attentions meet with abuse, humiliation, and final rejection. The scriptwriters must take the public for a sap, if they think they can convince us Piggy sees something in this chartreuse charlatan. Kermit may be engaging, and he may be bright. But he’s only another Most Likely To Succeed student-council president type, whereas Piggy is a woman of wonders—a glorious eccentric for whom emotional freedom and artistic experiment are the very breath of life. Are we really to believe that she sees a soul mate in a scout master?

Whatever the truth about her feelings may be, Kermit, it is plain, only wants her around for ego fuel. His coquettish spurning of her does not suggest that he would like her to get lost once and for all, but that he would like to keep her dangling. Like Ashley Wilkes resisting Scarlett O’Hara (Piggy’s Southern counterpart), he wants her to keep coming back to flatter him with further declarations of hopeless love. Think of his behavior the night she sent herself flowers and bribed the audience to applaud every time her name was said—all in hopes of making him “notice” her. The fortune spent on the project could have kept her in blue eye-shadow for years. But when Kermit learned of the ruse, instead of being moved, he gave her “notice” of another kind. Piggy was cashiered and then rehired.

The Frog will never give his Pig a poke. He’s only interested in keeping her in a state of bewitched and bewildered uncertainty. In her heart of hearts, Piggy must know this and despise him for his mediocrity. Only the whim of her taskmasters, so eager to keep her in her place, could coerce her into re-enacting the same demeaning Sadie Hawkins scenario with one so unworthy. The truth is this: The big boys can not deal with a strong woman. They can only try to degrade, suppress, and, if necessary, terrorize her.

If these sound like paranoid feminist sentiments, there is ample evidence to support them. Remember a night in October of 1977—a night that will live in infamy. Two minutes into the show, with all America watching, Piggy was informed that Kermit would sing the opening number not with her but with one Miss Mousey. It is unimportant that when Miss Mousey showed her hairy face, she tumed out to be a frump in a lace cap who sang like Cybill Shepherd and looked like a fugitive from a waterlogged copy of Tales of Beatrix Potter. Nor is it important that Miss Mousey was the most sexless and deracinated of rodents. Even Henson and Co. had to realize that. (Miss Mousey has since been demoted to supernumerary status, and was last seen as an extra in a beer-garden sequence.) The point isn’t that this was the most absurd scare campaign since Columbia Pictures tried to threaten Rita Hayworth with Ann Miller. The point is that the credo of Diaghilev—“No one is indispensable”—was being shrieked in Piggy’s face.

I don’t know how Piggy feels. But the fact that the hysteria she displayed on that October night turned to healthy indignation in the course of the show is a good sign. Now isn’t it time she shrieked back? An artist of her magnitude can not survive in an atmosphere of patronage, condescension, and resentment. Nor can she prosper with material that denies her all chances to expand and test her gifts. The Muppeteers may once have been the kindly Gepettos who fashioned her out of Dynel and flannel; but they soon enough became sadistic Strombolis, determined to keep her submissive and fearful, a swine in a gilded sty. The Muppet Partners (as they ominously refer to themselves) are not fools. Think of the boldness with which Frank Oz, the rascal who takes credit for Piggy’s voice and movements, pushed his way into her recent Vogue photograph. Was Grant Tinker ever so brazenly possessive of Mary Tyler Moore? Obviously, Oz and Henson and the rest are running scared. They know that, if Piggy were to see too much of the world that is clamoring for her, the result would be porcine equivalent of A Doll’s House.

But the writing is on the barn wall. It’s only a matter of time before Piggy realizes it is they who are dispensable. The day will come when she, like Ibsen’s Nora, slams the door on them. When she does, phones will ring, doors will rattle, and Sue Mengers, recognizing not only a great talent but a sister under the skin, will rush to sign her up. The problem will scarcely be a shortage of options. A national tour of A Chorus Line would be nice—with Piggy playing all twenty-eight roles, of course. And though Cher might not have been able to conquer the ratings in her own variety show, a weekly Miss Piggy Hour would prove that, where the talent is great enough, One’s Company. Ailing, floundering Broadway needs her desperately. Billboards announcing Piggy at the Palace would create a box-office stampede. And you may be sure that, unlike the Minnellis and the MacLaines, Piggy would not have to snout-sync.

But Miss Piggy is already beyond such major challenges. She must go straight to the top: Hollywood or Bust. The omens are good. Already the film industry is feeling her influence. Would Liz Taylor have dared show up in A Little Night Music, looking as she did, if Piggy’s international success hadn’t first sounded the death knell for the bone-thin beauties?

Singing like Dunne, dancing like Rogers, acting like Hepbum, Piggy will be cream of the crop, head of the list, top of the box-office heap. Some may say that movies already have a triple-threat sensation and that heartbreak awaits Piggy if she trys to dethrone her. Such pessimism is unfounded: as her millions of fans know, Piggy can handle competition. Wise and canriy, she will debut in Funny Piglet, pause to make For Pork’s Sake, and subsequently graduate to Funny Sow. By then, the truth will be apparent to all. Barbara is just a slab of Kosher bacon; Miss Piggy is the real silk purse.