In December, Fox News spent seven whole minutes blasting the new Disney movie The Muppets for being dangerous socialist propaganda that brainwashes children. Although few would think of Disney as a “liberal” corporation, Fox targeted all Hollywood as promoting a liberal agenda and asked why Disney did not produce children’s movies that blamed President Obama for the financial crisis. It even suggested that movies like The Muppets are responsible for the Occupy Wall Street movement. Fox’s attack of the Muppets seemed laughable to many, and so Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart [here] immediately responded with his usual parody, and a couple of weeks later someone created a mock interview on YouTube where muppets Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy talk about what Fox News said. The scenario, I think, illustrates several points raised by Stanley Fish about “interpretive communities” in his classic essay, “How to Recognize a Poem When You See One,” included in his book Is There a Text in this Class? In that essay, and in other of his essays, Fish argues that people learn very specific strategies for “reading” texts, and that they learn these strategies in different public contexts, and so, depending on where one is (e.g., in a classroom, in a bar, on Fox television, in Congress), there are different norms and expectations for the reader and for the text.
First, let’s watch the trailer for the The Muppets, and quickly review its plot.
The movie focuses on the deep friendship between a man and a muppet from a small town who go to Hollywood to tour the Muppet Show theater. Their relationship is complicated because the man has grown up and recently married, but still feels responsible for the muppet’s well-being. After they arrive, they soon discover that the theater is falling apart and that the cast from the original movie and television show (produced in the late 1970s) has scattered across the world. A greedy oil baron Tex Richman plans to buy the theater, tear it down, and drill for oil. The muppet cast is reunited to raise money to buy back the theater by producing a telethon show. There are several themes in the movie, including friendship, working together to pursue one’s dreams, and a deep nostalgia for the old show and for our childhood innocence. The timing of the movie’s production is not surprising, since all of the people who watched the original show as children in the late 1970s now have children of their own.
Fox News focuses on the fact that the villain is a rich oil baron. Here is its interpretation of the movie:
There is no denying that Fox is correct that the evil character is both rich and an oil executive. Instead of demonizing oil companies and CEOs, the Fox News show says it wishes the movie would celebrate rich characters for achieving wealth through hard work. Ironically, Fox News fails to notice that Kermit and Miss Piggy are rich characters who achieved wealth through hard work. In contrast, the villain Tex Richman achieved wealth through intimidation and deceit. One could interpret the movie to be celebrating the honest pursuit of the American dream against the dishonest pursuit of money simply for the sake of more money, but Fox instead asserts a more paranoid interpretation.
In response, the mock interview with Kermit and Miss Piggy reject the assertion that the movie is dangerous propaganda by pointing out other plot elements in the movie and by questioning the ethos of Fox News. See here:
In particular, Miss Piggy suggests that Fox News is not even “news,” which raises a question about news that is similar to Stanley Fish’s question about poetry: how to recognize “real” news or “real” propoganda when you see it. Kermit immediately agonizes over how Miss Piggy’s comment will get “interpreted” on the internet. Although Fox may say that their program is “news,” Miss Piggy is suggesting that it isn’t — that perhaps the Fox network doesn’t follow the journalistic standards set by the Society of Professional Journalists, as the controversial documentary movie Outfoxed has claimed. Ironically, the reason why many doubt the content of Fox News is exactly the same reason that Fox News claims to doubt the content of Hollywood movies: political bias and content that is more ideological than factual. Hence, when many “read” (or watch) Fox News, they do so with an interpretive strategy that assumes Fox’s intention (the sort of “authorial intention” questioned by both New Critics and post-structuralists such as Roland Barthes) is political.
The highly politicized context in which Fox News interpreted the movie and in which Jon Stewart and Miss Piggy interpret Fox News is something they all acknowledge themselves: the fact that recently questions have been raised about the special tax breaks the oil companies receive at the same time that the cost of gasoline goes up for consumers and the companies make record profits. It appears that the interpretive framework through which they interpret media is the zero-sum game of power politics. Fish’s point about “interpretive communities” seems a somewhat useful concept for understanding all this absurdity. Fox is not objectively wrong that the movie’s villain is an oil executive, but what others may not see in (or “read into”) the movie is how this particular villain is a “representative” of all oil executives or anyone “real” at all. Indeed, very few people think the muppets are real, and the movie self-consciously makes fun of its own unreality and ridiculousness. Why does Fox News miss that? Towards an answer to those questions, think about Stanley Fish’s anecdote with which he begins the essay “How to Recognize a Poem When You See One” about students in a classroom on seventeenth-century poetry who were able to find meaning in something that wasn’t even a poem just because they were told it was a seventeenth-century religious poem. In other words, if one assumes that a given sentence must contain metaphor and religious symbolism, then one will look for it. Likewise, if Fox assumes a zero-sum political game where all public media is either for or against its political position, then its interpretive framework will lead them to “read” something along those lines.
So, we can see how “interpretive communities” and context guides the reading of a text, but Fish goes on to explain that the relationship between text and interpretive community is even more complicated than that, because not only do readers make meaning, but also meaning makes readers. What does this mean? If we agree that reading is something we learn to do, then it’s easy to see how we become different sorts of people the more we learn to read, and the most obvious example of a community of people centered on the practice of reading and interpreting a text in a particular sort of way is the Church and its Bible. Likewise, in the case of the Muppets and Fox, we can see that communities are formed around the practice of reading and interpreting the world in particular ways. However, it is also true that different texts encourage different sorts of reading practices, and here we might turn the tables on Fox and confidently say that it is not The Muppets that is “dangerous” (a movie that wants us to laugh and cry and wonder about the world), but Fox News that is (a program that wants us to be angry and to see the world in terms of winners and losers.) Bing!
There is, however, something missing from Stanley Fish’s analysis of interpretive communities, and this is something that Michel Foucault explains in his essay “What is an Author?” and his book Discipline and Punish — and that is power. My own problem with Fish’s “interpretive communities” concept is that it assumes an equal playing field where communities just happen to form themselves. Fish’s own example of the classroom (a somewhat unconvincing anecdotal example, in my opinion) fails to acknowledge his own position of power as the professor of the class. The students have to go along with his silly exercise whether they believe it or not. Likewise, Fox and Disney are both powerful corporations who are themselves sponsored by other powerful corporate interests (i.e., the oil companies.) So, what about power? How does that work?