He sings about The Rainbow Connection. His girlfriend’s voice sounds like a man. His best friend is a bear. And he frequently dances with other guys, but Kermit the Frog didn’t become a gay-rights hero until his fight with Chick-fil-A this week.
There’s just one problem. The story isn’t true.
In case you missed the endless media coverage, the Jim Henson Company dumped its toy partnership with Chick-fil-A after the fast-food chain’s CEO gave an interview saying he opposed gay marriage. The situation got more absurd when Chick-fil-A offered an alternate version of events, telling its customers that it wouldn’t be carrying the toys because they were unsafe, and Rick Santorum managed to show his support for the restaurant chain by Tweeting about how he was there with his family, pouring sauce “on everything.”
Yet few mentioned a significant fact. The Jim Henson Company sold the Muppets to Disney in 2004, and as a result, Kermit was never scheduled to make an appearance at Chick-fil-A. Instead, the toys at the fast food chain were supposed to be Mr.-Potato-Head-like body parts of other lesser-known creatures, according to a representative from the Jim Henson Company.
For better or worse, Kermit still grabbed the spotlight and ran with it. If you turned on MSNBC Wednesday night, there was Al Sharpton with a snapshot of the Muppets, under the headline, “It’s Not Easy Being Mean.” Among the images making the rounds on Facebook was a picture of Kermit: “He’ll Eat Flies But Not Chick-fil-A,” said the Courage Campaign, a gay rights group. (The organization has since been notified of its error. An employee told me he’d answer The Daily Beast’s questions immediately, before vanishing for the day.)
Disney, who owns the Muppets, has also been suspiciously quiet about Chick-fil-A-gate. A Disney publicist did not respond to a request for comment.
Of course, the Jim Henson Company owned the Muppets for decades, so a lot of the confusion is understandable. But maybe another explanation for the mix-up is that the Muppets have always been a little queer.
Whenever adults try to deconstruct children’s entertainment, they run the risk of sounding idiotic—like Jerry Falwell did, when he claimed Tinky Winky, the purple Teletubby, was gay. That said, there’s no question that the Muppets are gay(ish). They could wave a rainbow flag in a pride march and nobody would blink. As many gay kids of the 80s will tell you, the Muppet were a central part of our upbringing: the outcasts that made us feel like it’s ok to be different. And they made for excellent gay icons because they loved musical theater and performance.
When Jim Henson created The Muppet Show in 1976, he unveiled a truly unique form of entertainment. The series was kind of a predecessor to Pixar, with sophisticated humor aimed at adults as well as kids. With the exception of Kermit and Miss Piggy, none of the other characters in the Muppets dated or ever got married. Like Will & Grace, they existed in a world without nuclear families: they valued loving each other as friends over romantic partnerships.
“With Miss Piggy in particular, she was my first gay icon,” says Michael Schulman, a writer for The New Yorker, who examined Piggy’s fag-hag tendencies in Out Magazine. “She was over-the-top. She had an exaggerated drag queen quality to her. I think she had a lot of qualities that gay men tend to love.”
Last year, when I interviewed Miss Piggy, the experience was on par to talking to a cross-dressing headliner on Fire Island. The phone rang. A male voice said hello. When I started asking questions, he switched to his female piggy voice to answer them, but the magic was gone, and I kept hearing a trace of a male growl in his responses. Jordan Schildcrout, a theater professor at Purchase College SUNY, offers a similar reading of Miss Piggy in his academic paper, The Performance of Noncomfority on The Muppet Show—or, How Kermit Made Me Queer.
“Miss Piggy’s performance of diva femininity mixed with her aggression and physical prowess might put the viewer in mind not so much of a 1970s feminist but of an old fashioned drag queen,” Schildcrout writes. “And in a certain sense Miss Piggy is a drag queen. Initially played by Richard Hunt and then by Frank Oz, Miss Piggy has always been the creation of a male puppeteer. She regularly uses drag queen shtick, such as comically switching from a high-pitched coo to a basso profundo masculine growl.
Schildcrout’s paper makes other compelling observations. He notes how Janice, the hippie female Muppet in the band, seems “coolly unconcerned with heterosexual attachments—her identity can stand on its own.” Sam the Eagle is the series foil, a kind of Richard Nixon-like figure who is horrified that Elton John (just after he’s come out as bisexual) appears on The Muppet Show. But the queerest Muppet of all is Gonzo. “More often Gonzo is the lone ‘weirdo’ with ambiguous gender/sexual/species status,” writes Schildcrout. And traditions be damned, Gonzo is in love with his chicken Camilla. When Gene Kelly visits the show, Gonzo replaces Miss Piggy during a serenade, having Kelly sing him the romantic song, “You Wonderful You.” “I don’t think it will be the same,” Kelly says, before performing the tune anyway.
“There’s this thing about the triumph of the weirdos in The Muppet Show that can appeal to children who feel afraid of the world,” Schildcrout says in an interview with The Daily Beast. “Because they are puppets, there’s boundary-defying play. There’s no such thing as gay Muppets. Yet the Muppets are so playful, they are often transgressively playing with normal culture roles, including gender roles.”
As the Muppets have grown older and migrated to Disney, they are still as subversive as they were in the 70s. In their new movie last year, The Muppets, at least one review compared the story of the new Muppet Walter to a coming-out narrative. Even though Walter’s heterosexual brother (Jason Segel) is about to get married, Walter somehow feels different from the rest of his family. He’s filled with the desire to be with his own people, which jumpstarts his quest to move to Los Angeles and discover other Muppets.
“Whenever I’m having a bad day,” says Mike Barrett, an entertainment publicist in New York, “I religiously watch The Muppets Take Manhattan. I felt like the outsider as a kid. I wanted that great group of friends. Now I’m a New Yorker, living with my fiancé.”
He says that he even has a Muppets homage planned for his wedding next year. When groom and groom walk down the aisle, they’ll play an instrumental version of The Rainbow Connection. “It’s cheesy,” he later emailed me, “but we love that stuff.”
No doubt, Kermit and Miss Piggy would approve.