31 May 2010

She’s a Guitarist, Fer Sure

Over the years the Muppets have been rightly criticized for not creating enough prominent female characters. The troupe and its writers have tried, sometimes explicitly. Meanwhile, a few female Muppets with strong personalities, such as Miss Piggy and Prairie Dawn, pulled themselves out of the background.

One long-time female character is Janice, lead guitarist in the Muppet Show house band. I read in the Muppet Wiki that the first sketch of this character was actually male (those are Mick Jagger’s lips), and that her Valley Girl speech pattern arrived when a male puppeteer, the late Richard Hunt, performed her in the second year of The Muppet Show.

That said, Janice is an all-too-rare distinctive female in the Muppets gang: a feminine equal within the otherwise male group of Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem.

All the pictures I’ve found of Janice performing show her with her guitar. Sometimes that guitar is upside-down or reversed; most Muppet guitarists play left-handed because their operators are busy using their right hands to talk.

So I was a little dismayed to see that The Treasure of Peg-Leg Wilson, a collection of Muppet Show comics from Roger Langridge and BOOM! Studios, introduces Janice as the band’s tambourine player.

I’m not saying Janice isn’t capable of playing the tambourine. Heck, I’m capable of playing the tambourine. In fact, the Muppet Wiki records that different productions have shown Janice playing seven different instruments, and a tambourine was one of the accessories that came with her action figure. But she’s not Tracy Partridge or Betty Cooper or Davy Jones. She’s a lead guitarist.

In the latest Muppet Show comics collection, parodying Peter Pan, Janice has the role of Wendy. It’s good to read that she’s gaining more visibility. On the other hand, that casting shows the troupe’s shallow female personality pool; once Miss Piggy has seized the role of Tinkerbell, there aren’t many other candidates for the story’s female lead. (Muppets created for Sesame Street and Fraggle Rock come under different licenses.)

Incidentally, Langridge’s Muppet Show comics are a hoot, neatly repackaging the old variety show humor. If only they came with musical numbers. And a guitarist.


nyrdyv said...

Sorry, but I have never heard that the Muppets were ever criticized for not having enough female characters.

I mean, come on, they're puppets!


Steven G. Willis

J. L. Bell said...

Characters can be female or male, regardless of whether they’re brought to life through acting, puppets, or words on a page.

For years people remarked on how few of the prominent Muppets were female, especially on Sesame Street, which was designed to be inclusive for lots of kids. The show’s list of characters includes just one female Muppet dating from the first decade who isn’t the sister, mother, or other equivalent of a more prominent male character. Recognizing that problem, the Sesame Street writers added more females to the mix: Zoe, Rosita, Prairie Dawn, Abby Cadabby.

That pattern persisted in The Muppet Show (which produced Miss Piggy and some female minor characters) and Muppets Tonight (which produced…no female in particular). It wasn’t so obvious in Fraggle Rock or Labyrinth (which had a very strong female lead, but an almost all-male supporting cast).

The creators of the Muppets comics wrestle with that limitation: “a lingering problem with those of us working on the Muppet Classics comics is the alarming lack of female characters to cast.”

lili said...

I always wanted to see a Muppet Lord of the Rings, because janice would make the most awesome Galadriel ever.

(Kermit would play Frodo, of course. Fozzie would play Sam. Gonzo and Rizzo are Merry and Pippin. Piggy is Eowyn throwing herself at Aragorn - played by a special guest star. Sam Eagle is Saruman.)