By Shaun Randol
I can't remember how the conversation began, but it was at least six months ago when I shared The Muppet Show's "Mahna Mahna and the Snowths" (November 30, 1969) video with a good friend of mine. I found the tune to be catchy and the video to be amusing. It's hard not to sing along and let out a chuckle while watching the skit:
But EG, my friend, surprised me with his response. He saw something in the clip that I hadn't even considered: a metaphor for the battle between conformity and individuality.
It's so obvious.
The trio begins collaboratively, alternating between catchy soprano and gravelly singsong. At 0:16, however, the first sign of trouble appears. The male lead (Mahna Mahna) takes off on a spontaneous riff only to be quickly returned to order by the Snowths. The merry singing resumes, until again (0:39) he can't help himself. Immediately, however, his tangent is reduced to a comedic outburst. The pattern repeats until, frustrated, at the 1:50 mark the bushy man saunters to the background and lets his frustration out against the empty sky. Muted again by the pink conformists, he begins acting out by singing more loudly, quickly, and zipping erratically around the set, until - out of options - he kamikazes into the camera.
Is this Muppet Show skit an accidental parable of individualism acting out in a conformist society? The pink sisters - thought police? - discourage the creativity of the shaggy man - the rebel? - with looks of condescension and silent admonishment. Their stares are cool, and with each muted rebuke, the rebel is silenced before cantering away.
To consider the skit as an implicit endorsement of conformity, though, we need much more information than what is provided. For one, conforming to what? In order for one to conform, she must conform to a set of norms. In "Mahna Mahna," those norms are not obvious, but they do linger like a dark cloud.
As such, maybe I don't need to stretch this as far as bringing up scary ideas of "thought police," which puts me in the mind of Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four or, more recently, Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad Love Story, stories in which conformity to expectations (political and materialist, respectively) are passively and actively encouraged, with combinations of subtlety and force.
Still, I can't help but think of the American consumerist culture that constantly bombards my senses and pounds away at my soul, looking for any breach in which to infect its materialist virus. I want to immediately turn to "Mad Men" and the advertising industry for which the program is a glamorous stand-in,1 an industry that often force-feeds products we don't need (or want?) - both tangible (iPads and Snuggies) and intangible (body image or social status). (Some may proffer a chicken and egg argument, though, claiming that advertisers only sell products that consumers want or need. Such discussions can be circuitous and non-productive, however.)
To be clear, I don't mind being pitched to from time to time - how else would I know about products and services that genuinely interest me: eco-friendly bath products, the newest releases from The New Press, the next Werner Herzog film, or of a unique restaurant newly opened on the far side of my neighborhood, for example.
It's not advertising per se with which I quibble. (Heck, even this website needs to get the word out!) The pressure to conform to a particular mold, a mode of existence, a lifestyle, a totality of commonality is what grates. That these conformities are gained through manipulation as much as they are through any kind of force stings. At least by the threat of imprisonment (a kind of force) for nonconformity we can see how our interests are acted against. Manipulation, however, is of the mind, and therefore a whole different game.
In one episode of "Mad Men," Don Draper, the main character, sells not the product (tobacco, in this case), but his very business:
"Advertising is based on one thing: happiness. And do you know what happiness is? It's the smell of a new car. It's freedom from fear. It's a billboard on the side of the road that screams reassurance that whatever you're doing is okay. You are okay."
Do we really need product advertising to remind us that we are okay? I would make the case that advertising often has the reverse effect - of making us feel inferior for not having whatever is being sold. Advertising, despite Draper’s claims, often induces anxiety.
Times Square in New York City is overwhelmed by Snowths disguised as advertisements.
Walking through New York City, it's impossible to avoid the constant bombardment of advertising. The very heartbeat of this great city, Times Square, is a veritable Mecca of sloganeering. Make no mistake: the pitches are not for the betterment of humanity (Save Energy! End Famine! Cooperate!), but for product placement and materialist ends. Hustling through the city I can't help but feel like hundreds of Snowths are attacking my very conscience (and exhausting) effort to maintain my own identity.
1. Judging on the commentary I hear and the critiques I read, I can only presume "Mad Men" glamorizes the marketing industry (at least of yore). I have yet to actually watch an episode.
Follow Shaun on Twitter @shaunrandol