Last week subscribers to Disney+ likely noticed something extra when watching vintage episodes of The Muppet Show. No, Disney didn’t uncover unseen footage nor any rare outtakes. Rather, the streaming service added a disclaimer that reads, the show “includes negative depictions and/or mistreatment of people or cultures,” and added “these stereotypes were wrong then and are wrong now.”
This isn’t the first time the Mouse House has added such disclaimers to vintage content. The service used the disclaimer for several of its “classic” movies including The Aristocat, which featured Siamese Cats performing what is now considered a caricature of Asians. Dumbo features a disclaimer for its inclusion of crows that have been said to reference minstrel shows—while one of the birds is quite literally known as Jim Crow!
In the case of The Muppets, the flagged content varied. One flagged episode included country/western singer Johnny Cash performing in front of the U.S. flag and Confederate battle flag, while another features folk singer Joan Baez performing an Indian accent. In one other segment Kenny Rogers appeared with Muppets dressed in Arab attire drilling for oil.
While these segments may seem culturally insensitive now, and perhaps the disclaimer appropriately addressed the issue, a question should be asked where we will draw the line? It seems that the character of the Swedish Chef isn’t considered offensive and we should ask why—especially when a 2012 article in Slate reported that some Swedes found the character annoying if not offensive.
This is a trend that is all too common today. Eurocentric characters aren’t considered offensive, but others are and perhaps we should ask why?
This reporter has ancestors that came from Romania on the paternal side of the family. Therefore, should I be offended by the Universal horror/monster films of the 1930s to 1950s? Those “Dracula,” “Wolfman” and “Frankenstein” films are certainly filled with unflattering depictions of Eastern Europe including the ignorant peasants armed with pitchforks.
In American “cancel culture” today, universities regularly warn students in the weeks leading up to Halloween not to dress up in costumes that poke fun of other cultures. Even genies are now considered culturally insensitive, yet vampires—especially of the Bella Lugosi variety—are fair game. I actually have some minor aristocratic ancestors in the family tree but I’m not sure whether they were counts or other nobility, and they certainly didn’t dress like Bram Stoker’s Dracula or Grandpa Munster! Even Count Von Count from Sesame Street should be considered guilty of “cultural appropriation” and insensitivity while we’re on the subject.
Likewise, it is easy to see how Eastern Europeans in general could certainly be offended by Rocky and Bullwinkle and the depictions of Pottsylvania and its Fearless Leader. The cartoon series literally mocked the conditions that many who lived behind the Iron Curtain had to endure. In fact, it is forgotten now, but the show—which ran from 1959 to 1964—was actually banned in the Soviet Union as being anti-Soviet propaganda.
It isn’t just the handling of vintage programming that has sought to “correct” the problem. Case in point is Fox’s The Simpsons, which has essentially retired some characters such as Apu, for being culturally insensitive while other characters are now voiced by more “appropriate” actors.
Yet, there has been no effort to ensure that the Rich Texan character is actually voiced by an actual Rich Texan. Perhaps I’m taking the point too far, but how is this character and other regional stereotypes on the show not a problem? If Apu was so troubling, shouldn’t the Rich Texan also be a concern that it was mocking a group of people—and not just rich Texans, but perhaps anyone from the Lone Star State?
While we’re on that subject, as for other cultural depictions, shouldn’t we also worry that those from the south might feel as if they’re being mocked by the way Foghorn Leghorn of the Bugs Bunny cartoons talks? The list could go on and on, but it seems that some groups of people are still fair game whilst others are simply culturally insensitive.
Yes, folks need to be sensitive of all cultures and races, and it was never right to make some of the jokes that were made in the past. In this case Disney perhaps did the right thing by adding the disclaimers. But there are still other examples where people could be rightfully offended.
The fact is that instead of Count Von Count being called out for a vile stereotype of Romanians from Transylvania, the character earned praise in 2017 for having an accent! Mona Chalabi, writing for The Guardian, actually suggested Count Von Count was a positive example of an immigrant with an accent—despite the fact that it is played more as a stereotype than authentic. Count Von Count doesn’t sound like actual people from Transylvania but rather is imitating the aforementioned Bela Lugosi! Even the “Von” in the name is wrong as it would be consistent with someone who was German, and therefore not likely of someone from Transylvania.
Personally, I find the depictions of the Rich Texan and other Republicans on The Simpsons far more offensive and insulting than I do of how Eastern Europeans were depicted on Rocky and Bullwinkle or even Count Von Count, but I can see how immigrants from Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria and Russia might feel otherwise.
Shouldn’t their feelings be considered if we’re working to ensure those from the Middle East and Asia aren’t insulted by such culture depictions? It needs to be all or nothing. In other words, if Apu has to go, then the Count’s days on Sesame Street should be numbered too.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.