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Is Denise the Muppet pig Asian? and other burning questions: Why we went all-in on the puppet show gossip

The rebooted show is promoting its characters as if they are people—and we're hard-wired to fall for it

Paula Young Lee
September 4, 2015 6:50PM (UTC)

By now, the world knows that Kermit and Miss Piggy broke up after forty years of togetherness. The couple had lasted longer than Homer and Marge Simpson, and that’s saying something about invented characters who have no privacy because they’re figments of somebody’s imagination.

The original "man behind the frog" was Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets, who developed these characters along with puppeteer Frank Oz. So, two bearded white guys were true faces of Miss Piggy and Kermit--the creative geniuses writing their lines, giving them voice, and making them move. Today, it's an entire Disney studio pulling the strings.


It's the studio that supplied Kermit with a new Muppet girlfriend, named her Denise, and decided that she, too, will be a pig. A younger pig who wears vintage DVF and favors muted, tasteful makeup. Haters are calling her a hogwrecker, though it seems a tad unfair to lay the onus on her, given that she's an inanimate object.

An inanimate object whose contours are not only disturbingly svelte but seem vaguely ... Asian. At least they seem that way to Asian people on Twitter. At first eyeball, Denise not only appears to be younger but also a different kind of pig than Miss Piggy. Is Denise a potbellied pig from Vietnam? Or is she a teacup pig from Europe? Perhaps she is she “Swinese, Viet-ham-ese or Pignoy,” asks Jeff Yang, tongue firmly in cheek. Elsewhere, “Hapa Mama” blogger Grace Hwang Lynch suggested that Denise is a “racially ambiguous Hapa who passes for white.” To me, Denise basically looks like every member of the K-pop group 2NE1. #IsDeniseAsian?

Somebody has to design these things, and when the publicity stakes are this high, you can be sure that every choice is calculated. Yet an inside source confides that Denise was “not supposed to be anything ethnic.” On a pragmatic level, the specifics of her appearance can be understood as an attempt to create a Muppet who was in the pig family but clearly not Miss Piggy. So: dark eyes in place of blue, red hair in place of blonde, smaller snout, peach-fuzzier skin, tiny waist, and demure instead of flamboyant. It is unlikely that Franglais will appear in Denise's vocabulary. Perhaps Konglish will be tossed in instead.


Fascinatingly, non-Asian Twitter seems to think that Denise is the spitting image of Natalie Dormer or Olivia Wilde but mostly Emma Stone, otherwise known as The Hapa from “Aloha” ... which brings us back to "Asian" (well ...) again. Could Denise be half potbellied, half teacup? Can you even ask these questions about a molded piece of felt?

You can, precisely because Muppets are not people — they’re precursors to cyborg technologies steadily making simulated life as convincing as the biological version. Studies have shown that humans will ascribe agency to just about any object that seems to be moving in a purposeful fashion, even when they don’t resemble biological life in the slightest. We’ll project agency onto cyborgs, sure, but also talking clocks in Disney films and even the movements of geometric figures such as triangles. Heck, we spot the face of Jesus in potato chips and see aliens in moving pieces of crud. In spite of ourselves, in short, we’re suckers for the idea that man-made objects have souls.

Our tendency to see Denise as Asian, as Emma Stone, or even as hogwrecker (#TeamPiggy), functions in much the same way as pareidolia, which is a fancy way of admitting that you've seen Elvis on a piece of toast.  On the emotional plane, these lovable characters have been so deeply inscribed into the structural pathways of social relations that we "see" them as autonomous beings with feelings and fetishes, even as their avatars on social media are briskly blurring the operational lines between Muppets (as pieces of felt), and “Muppets” (as celebrities). Which is why it is worth remembering that Denise is neither pig nor human but a confection of felt, foam, and a creative team of puppeteers and writers. Kermit doesn't have an pig fetish. But perhaps some writer does.



'The Muppets' Releases First Photo of Kermit With Denise

Paula Young Lee

Paula Young Lee is the author of "Deer Hunting in Paris," winner of the 2014 Lowell Thomas "Best Book" award of the Society of American Travel Writers. She is currently writing outdoor adventure books for middle grade and young adults. Follow her on Twitter @paulayounglee

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