‘Camp is a vision of the world in terms of style—but a particular kind of style. It is the love of the exaggerated, the ‘off’’, of things being what-they-are-not.’
(Sontag 1964, s.8)
Gonzo: My name is Charles Dickens.
Rizzo the Rat: And my name is Rizzo the Rat…wait a second! You’re not Charles Dickens!
Gonzo: I am too!
Rizzo the Rat: No! A blue furry Charles Dickens who hangs out with a rat?
I’m going to throw it out there: The Muppet Christmas Carol (MCC), hands down, is not only the finest adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, it is the best Christmas film of all time. The film has barely dated since its release in 1992. If you haven’t seen it, seriously, hold the phone, forget the Christmas shopping, put down the gingerbread: go and fill your life with its merry cheer.
MCC is not only joyous; it is, of course, queer. Everything about it epitomises camp taste. Gay love pairings abound. The Muppets are also inherently queer in the way that they make the familiar strange, appropriating everything into a world of felt and fur, and challenging ordinary boundaries about who counts, what has consciousness, and how friendship and love can cross borders and binaries.
Of course, the true message of Christmas, if holiday movies are anything to go by, is the recuperation of the nuclear family. After a long slog of a year, re-enchantment is needed. Indeed, MCC similarly reinvigorates the family, which we’ll get to. But despite itself, and its inevitable Christmas-family-time orientation, it takes us on a campy journey that blurs boundaries between Muppet, human, animal and object.
Susan Sontag popularised the idea of camp in her 1964 essay, Notes on “Camp”. In this she writes, ‘Camp sees everything in quotation marks. It’s not a lamp, but a “lamp”; not a woman, but a “woman”. To perceive Camp in objects and persons is to understand Being-as-Playing-a-Role. It is the farthest extension, in sensibility, of the metaphor of life as theatre’ (Sontag 1964, s.12). We see this sensibility expressly played out in MCC. The Muppet Gonzo is “Charles Dickens”, through this narrator we meet the characters “Scrooge”, “Bob Cratchit” and so on—each a part of the story we already know so well. Everything is already theatricalised by the very nature of the retelling, but far from offering a simple adaptation, the film is also a musical, which really ramps up the camp stakes.
As queer theorist Katrin Horn suggests ‘Defined by wit, by an awareness of the performativity of the everyday life or “the natural” and by an estimation of the aesthetically appealing over the morally right, camp offer[s] a mode for rejecting middle-class values’ (2010, p.3). We see this clearly in MCC, as Scrooge, the epitome of the higher class, is cloaked in black and grey, but surrounded by a world of colourful camp Muppets challenging his authority. On the night when the spirits of past, present and future visit upon him, Scrooge’s strict rules and thrifty ways are confronted. One of the brightly coloured and extravagant Muppets he encounters is The Ghost of Christmas Present. Large, buoyant and barely containable, this ghost sits in stark contrast to the uptight and financially scrupulous Scrooge.
At the beginning of the film we see the bleak and unrelenting Scrooge asserting his authority above the Muppets that work for him. Though in Muppet world all manner of boundaries are blurred—even cheese and vegetables can have a consciousness—Scrooge sits above, separate from this world, looking down. As change dawns upon Scrooge, he becomes less separate from the Muppet land he inhabits, and so too does his aesthetic change. His new attitude and generosity leads the (some would say incredibly camp) character Beaker to bequeath him a bright red scarf. Quiet and reserved no more, Scrooge bursts into song. He has been enculturated into a camp new world.
There are multiple Muppets for which possible queer pairings seem certainly within the realm of possibility. There are the cruel ghosts of Marley and Marley, who, we might surmise, were lovers. There is also of course the undeniable chemistry between Dr Bunsen Honeydew and Beaker. However the gay love story in MCC that is simply inescapable is that of Rizzo the Rat and Gonzo (“Charles Dickens”).
The movie is punctuated with their flirtation, bringing a lightness that prevents the film from plunging into seriousness. This pair has the banter romantic comedy producers can only dream about. The depth of their relationship is cemented when Rizzo gives Gonzo a small kiss. It is in this brief moment that all walls come down: there is no longer any boundaries between rat and whatever the creature that Gonzo is, they are in this together, and they’re a little bit in love. This only adds more spoonfuls of queer delight to the already overflowing bucket of camp that is MCC.
The Cratchit family—with Bob played by Kermit the Frog and Emily played by Miss Piggy—is also highly camp. For one, the pairing of frog and pig is out of the ordinary (though obviously not for this long-term Muppet couple). With Miss Piggy’s brashness, and her undeniable body positivity, and Kermit’s soft-spoken ways and slim amphibian body, there is certainly a queering of expectations of femininity and masculinity to be found in this couple.
But, this is a Christmas movie, so the camp family doesn’t get off that easily. As Scrooge comes to know in his night of revelations, Bob Cratchit’s son Tiny Tim is very ill. This illness is both a mark of his class—they are unable to afford healthcare—but also of the queer family he sits within, who are fundamentally unable to provide him with the “right” model of masculinity. Here is where Scrooge steps in: he may not have a family of his own, but to avoid the fate of the Marleys he must provide as a father would. Scrooge saves the day as the pseudo-patriarch of the Cratchit family. Miss Piggy melts into a vision of domestic femininity at the very words of Scrooge doubling their household income. Tiny Tim can recover, with some more “normal” masculinity restored to the scene.
Of course, things aren’t entirely ordinary. Tim’s parents are still a dominant pig and a meek frog. And let’s not forget that Scrooge’s savior moment happens just as he finally capitulates to the camp realm. So despite the hints of normativity we’d expect in any Christmas movie, this film can’t help but subvert the dominant paradigm.
Overall what we learn from MCC is that the spirit of Christmas is about giving and loving, singing and dancing. The broader message is that one should be the most fabulous and flamboyant version of oneself one can be, to avoid dying empty and alone, with street urchins rifling through your still-warm sheets.
And while I recommend watching this movie every Christmas, we can learn a lot from the Muppets at any time of the year: love knows no bounds, don’t be afraid to amp up the camp, and even vegetables have opinions so best to be generous in life, rather than a scrooge.
Image: film promotion
Hannah teaches in gender studies at the Australian National University, and recipient of the inaugural ANU Gender Institute scholarship. Her work focuses on the topic of feminine gender expression as explored in feminist writing and queer femme subculture. She has published on The Conversation, in Us Folk Magazine and the Australian Humanities Review. You can visit her blog at binarythis.com or follow her on Twitter @binarythis