by David Kaminsky
The plot of Jason Siegel’s 2011 Muppets reboot revolved around villainous oil tycoon Tex Richman’s efforts to buy and demolish the old Muppet theater so he could drill for crude. Talking heads at Fox Business, I assume after all having taken a fun fieldtrip to see the movie together, immediately noticed that the villain’s name could be cleverly parsed as “Rich Man,” and further opined that the character’s wealth and villainy were implicitly linked in the film’s narrative. Eric Bolling hosted an extended conversation on his show about his concerns that Hollywood liberals were trying to brainwash innocent children with anti-capitalist propaganda.
This seven-minute Fox Business segment subsequently became subject to scornful mockery from numerous other outlets, including Mother Jones, The Atlantic, The Guardian, The Week, and The Daily Show; even Business Insider spared a moment for some side-eye. Now, like any segment in Rupert Murdoch’s televised Ayn-Rand-o-sphere, it was mostly a barrage of infuriating rhetorical questions whose fallacious premises could be exposed with decent effectiveness by any sociology undergrad with a B average and enough time to outline and write the essay. It’s worth noting, however, that aside from the hyperbolic accusation of brainwashing, Bolling’s fundamental analysis is essentially right on the money. The movie had an unsubtle anti-big-oil message, as did the others in their list of offenders (Syriana, There Will Be Blood, Cars 2). If the segment were to be legitimately mocked for anything beyond the standard Fox bullshittery, it could only be for pointing out the extremely obvious. Tex Richman is a rich oil tycoon and his villainy is absolutely a function of that aspect of his identity. You might even say the obviousness is what’s funny about his name. The movie, if you haven’t seen it, is a comedy. It’s pretty good.
My response to the segment, unlike those of The Atlantic et al, was optimistic. To me it suggested the possibility of a turning-point in the country’s relationship to cultural politics. When US America’s most powerful purveyor of intentional right wing anti-intellectualism makes the case for a critical approach to popular film and then completely succeeds in its analysis—however low the difficulty setting—that simply bodes well for the democratization of media literacy. While in the short term those commentators may have convinced viewers to keep their kids away from the Muppets (and, I guess, Paul Thomas Anderson?) in the long term I have to believe that any move by Fox News and its affiliates to encourage the development of critical thinking skills in their viewers will eventually backfire.
Today I retain that optimism, while observing that we still have a ways to go. The blogosphere has democratized critical social analysis of popular media to an extent that would have been hard to predict seven years ago, and the news media have doggedly followed suit. Wired may lament the fall of the professional cultural critic and the rise of fan-centric analysis, and of course the erosion of paid in-depth journalism is a real and growing concern. But at the same time, the woke listsicle team over at Cracked does pretty good work. We’re still in a period of growing pains—some writers and editors have yet to realize that being socially conscious does not by itself qualify you for effective critical analysis—but popular media literacy is already in a very different place from where it was in 2011.
And here’s the thing. We really do need to examine the political messages in children’s media. I know that it’s the job of The Daily Show to mock the Fox networks when they’re being ridiculous (which is always, so I see how that’s exhausting) but implying that their critique is illegitimate because it targets the Muppets is just sloppy and misses the point. Their critique is illegitimate because big oil really is destroying the planet and undermining attempts to save it, so it’s actually okay to make them the villains in your children’s movie.