With rumors flying around the messy firing of Steve Whitmire, the puppeteer who has voiced Kermit the Frog since Jim Henson’s death in 1990, fans are understandably keen to make sense of the strange falling out. Was Whitmire canned for trying to preserve his own vision of Kermit’s character? Or, as his former employer Disney and the Henson family claim, was he simply a nightmare to work with? Were contract and union disputes to blame? Had this conflict simmered ever since Disney bought the Muppets in 2004?
And most importantly: Who is Kermit, really?
As with many celebrities, it can be hard to separate the performance from the actual amphibian. It’s a line that Kermit likes to blur in his work, typically playing some version of “himself” even when he portrays an investigative reporter in The Great Muppet Caper or Bob Cratchit in The Muppet Christmas Carol. His role as the harried host of The Muppet Show in the late 1970s is perhaps closest to his true self — there he’s the consummate straight man, striving to keep his manic fellow performers in check while keeping a lid on his own bubbling anxieties, prime among them a turbulent relationship with the jealous diva Miss Piggy. But when things finally go well, he’s the kermit we all know and love best: beyond ecstatic, thrashing his limbs, consumed in hype.
Behind the scenes and showmanship, of course, we’ve come to learn that Kermit is a meek, soft-spoken soul, given to melancholy reflection as well as heartfelt idealism. For some, this may seem like a contradiction, but Kermit comes in many shades of green, boasting an emotional range that makes him infinitely relatable. One only need peruse the wealth of memes that bear his image to appreciate his everyman appeal. While essentially decent — he briefly emerged as the liberal antidote to the Nazi version of Pepe the Frog in 2016 — Kermit still drinks tea in the pettiest way when he hears about someone else’s drama; he wrestles with dark urges; he suffers doubt and self-loathing. Even the official Kermit has his demons: Henson’s daughter Cheryl went so far as to argue that Whitmire had lately performed the frog as a “bitter, angry, depressed victim.”
What we must ask ourselves, then, is whether these are enlightening depictions of the one true Kermit or perversions of his fundamental character. Both the Muppet Studios and Whitmire have spoken about how important it is to protect the integrity of Jim Henson’s famous felt creature, though they apparently diverged on what exactly that meant.
The puppeteer, who began working for Henson at age 19, claimed to “have insight into [Disney’s] limitations with respect to how well they know The Muppets” and took issue with plot points in ABC’s adult-targeted, quickly aborted reboot series about the beloved gang. The Hollywood Reporter noted, for example, that he was critical of a script in which Kermit lies to his nephew Robin about breaking up with Miss Piggy: “I don’t think Kermit would lie to him,” Whitmire said. “I think that as Robin came to Kermit, he would say, ‘Things happen, people go their separate ways, but that doesn’t mean we don’t care about you.’ Kermit is too compassionate to lie to him to spare his feelings.”
It’s a noble thought, but with an internet where you can find Kermit doing bath salts, wielding a machine gun and jerking off to 2 Girls 1 Cup, it may be worth acknowledging that nobody has exclusive control over his fate. True, this content is amusing because it cuts against Kermit’s mild-mannered reputation, which seems bulletproof thanks to decades of Henson’s wholesome whimsy. But are these transgressions not also Kermit’s escape from the grave of nostalgia? His favorable legacy is already sealed; he has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and a seat in the Smithsonian.
In a sense, there’s nowhere left for Kermit to go except down, into the depths of our collective depravity. As we become numb to the shocks of the 21st century, a once-innocent frog shall, too.
And you know what? That’s just fine. Because Kermit’s finest enduring quality is his singular faith in a better tomorrow. He’s taken his knocks in love and showbiz but keeps coming back for more. If he can come up from a distant swamp to conquer our imaginations, then anything is possible. We wouldn’t like Kermit if he didn’t struggle — if his humble wisdom weren’t so hard-earned. This is what makes him an aspirational American icon, and it ensures that neither a puppeteer nor an entire movie studio can shake this fact: Whatever lies at the other end of the rainbow, Kermit is here at the start.