There it was. Something truly unexpected, shocking, maybe even offensive on the screen while I was watching The Muppets Take Manhattan with my three year old child. Now I wasn’t exactly offended, but I was a bit shocked, and then as a result of being shocked, I was shocked that I was shocked. Let me explain:
The Muppets Take Manhattan released in 1984 is not quite a high point for the whole Muppet franchise, but that is of little consequence. I made it through about 15 minutes of the flick when I came upon a scene involving about a dozen Muppets and the actor Dabney Coleman playing a duplicitous Broadway producer. The shocking thing about this scene was that Coleman’s character was sitting in his office, accompanied by a gaggle of outrageously cute puppets, and chain smoking like he was at an AA meeting (he was not at an AA meeting, he was in a children’s film). Now, I have a vague recollection of seeing this film before as a child (or at least films like it) and I don’t think the cigarette smoking bothered me a bit. But now, in an age where cigarettes are banished from virtually all forms of media, and especially children’s programming, it is almost startling to see someone casually puffing away in the context of a children’s film.
Not that I have a problem with it necessarily. When I was a boy I had no more than three feet to travel to witness someone smoking on a “lung dart” (as I like to call cigarettes). My father would, if I were being especially well behaved, let me light the cigarette for him and even put it out in the ashtray when he was finished. They were part of my life, part of what I watched, and obviously, part of what I breathed every day.
Things have evidently changed for the better in respect to cigarette smoking. Sure, people still smoke but in far fewer numbers than thirty years ago, and for the most part cigarettes are seen only as a means to electively banish yourself from the fabric of functioning society (my favorite vista points for this banishment are the glass enclosed smoking lounges that can be found in about every airport terminal in the country. The smokers appear like a sullen breed of fire-eaters on display). But cigarettes do occasionally pop up in movies as character props. Most notably was Sigourney Weaver’s, tough as nails, with cigarette in hand, doctor in the recent blockbuster Avatar. Seeing this character in a futuristic epic film like Avatar (admittedly not really a children’s film) casually smoking in a lab made me wonder, “In the technologically evolved future, isn’t there something better to dangle from your lips than a cigarette?”
While I take some comfort in having cigarettes relegated to rarity, or at least novelty, in most films and television (aimed at children at least), I realize there are far worse things for children to witness than someone puffing on a lung dart: Namely gratuitous violence, torture, cruelty, sexual assault, and the glorification of human suffering. These elements and themes are truly shocking and abhorrent, and to overstate the obvious, have no place in children’s entertainment (but you would be surprised). So what is a little puff-puff here and there? For a child that has little or no context for what it means to smoke, is it actually an influence? Are we entitled to be shocked when we see our beloved Muppets associating with smokers? Or are smokers (forgive the pun) a dying breed, along the lines of the electric typewriter, the pager, and Blockbuster Video?