Just as the day after Thanksgiving traditionally marks the beginning of the Christmas season, Time's annual coronation of a Person of the Year begins the season of year-end wrapup articles, when the nation's scribes pull out their platitudes and reduce the past 12 months to a series of clichés. This week Time set us off by giving its award to George W. Bush, "for sticking to his guns (literally and figuratively), for reshaping the rules of politics to fit his ten-gallon-hat leadership style and for persuading a majority of voters this time around that he deserved to be in the White House for another four years." There are no surprises there, except perhaps the revelation that Bush is "literally" stuck to a gun.
For me, the defining moment of the year came when the Motion Picture Association of America required Trey Parker and Matt Stone to trim a few seconds from a sex scene in their marionette movie Team America: World Police. Even in its reduced state, the sequence probably set a record for explicit puppet-on-puppet sex.
So did 2004.
While Team America was showing at the Cineplex, Broadway fans were descending on Avenue Q, this year's Tony Award winner for Best Musical. The play, best described as a post-collegiate Sesame Street, stars a mixed cast of people and puppets. It too includes a scene of puppet sex, and while it isn't as explicit as Team America's, it broke a social barrier of sorts by pairing a human character with a monster.
She was, to be sure, a cuddly muppet monster, not the kind that kills people. For that sort of pairing, you have to turn to Seed of Chucky, the underrated horror-comedy in which a homicidal doll impregnates a live, human Jennifer Tilly. The doll also has a kid, who works as a ventriloquist's dummy before it takes up cross-dressing.
This was also the year that muppeteer Frank Oz directed a remake of The Stepford Wives, in which lady robots—basically high-end mechanical puppets—replace real women not just in the bedroom but in the entire domestic sphere. Throw in the continued existence of Crank Yankers, a two-year-old show on Comedy Central where puppets have been known to expose themselves and to make obscene phone calls, and the trend becomes too obvious to ignore. Say farewell to the days when Punch and Judy stuck to kissing. 2004 was the year of puppet sex.
Alas: When you're writing a year-end wrapup article, it's not enough to observe something—you also have to pontificate on what it means. Since I have no idea what any of this means, I called Victoria Nelson, author of the wonderful 2002 book The Secret Life of Puppets. Despite the title, Secret Life doesn't actually have anything to do with puppet sex: It's about the return of the supernatural in art and entertainment, especially as manifested by puppets and other simulacra, from the homunculus to the cyborg. But Nelson was the only expert I could think of.
She did not disappoint. First Nelson told me that the ur-Puppet Sex Movie was Peter Jackson's Meet the Feebles, a Muppet Show parody drenched with sex, drugs, and violence and released way back in 1989. Then she mentioned another recent interview she'd done, in which a "young filmmaker told me that it was going to be a documentary on 'female cyborgs.' Then it transpired, as the crew came up here and I found out a little more about it, it was actually mostly a film about adult sex dolls."
Sex dolls! I had completely forgotten about those. Like any good hack, my first thought was to see if there was any way I could use them to advance my thesis. They've certainly been a presence this year—why, just a few weeks ago a shoe store in Sydney raised a ruckus by putting 23 blow-up gals in its window. (They were arranged to resemble Christmas carolers. When the display is finished, a storekeeper told The Daily Telegraph, "each of the carollers is supposed to have a name tag which says 'Carol.'") 2004 was also the year a Michigan man may have made legal history by presenting what could be—not that I've checked—the first puppet-sex defense. According to The Jackson Citizen-Patriot, Mr. Timothy Horton was charged with videotaping a nine-year-old girl "placed in sexual poses while sleeping on a couch." In his defense, Horton claimed that the girl was actually an inflatable sex doll. After much deliberation, including testimony from an expert on such products, the judge ruled that it was a girl after all.
Back to Nelson. Before the early twentieth century, she was telling me, puppetry was a disreputable, low-status art—"the absolute rock bottom of popular entertainment." Over the twentieth century, "puppets began to be replaced in popular culture by their technologically more sophisticated upgrades—robots and cyborgs and androids and avatars and so on. And cartoons. Animated cartoons really took the slot that puppets used to occupy." The creatures were relegated to children's entertainment until Jim Henson and some others brought them a little closer to the mainstream, paving the way for more adult treatments of the medium. "It was only a matter of time before the more 'fast lane' pop-culture people picked it up," she concluded.
"The other place puppets were popping up this year," I commented, "was the election." John Kerry, like Al Gore before him, was widely seen as wooden, not unlike a marionette; he was also compared frequently to another sort of simulacrum, Baron Frankenstein's monster—or, sometimes, to Frankenstein's twentieth-century descendent Lurch. Bush, meanwhile, was often caricatured as a ventriloquist's dummy. (Indeed, Great Lakes Science and Novelty has made an actual Bush dummy, the ideal gift for liberals in vaudeville.) "Granted," I conceded rather lamely, "people always like to portray politicians as puppets of one sort or another..."
"That metaphor has been around a really long time," Nelson agrees. And then, helpfully: "You might want to write about the bulge in Bush's suit."
Of course: How could I have forgotten the bulge? The mysterious lump on the president's back had the blogosphere buzzing for weeks; I know people who are still convinced that Bush's handlers were feeding him lines during the debates through an electronic device on his spine. The Secret Service did eventually offer an official explanation, declaring the bulge was part of a bullet-proof vest. But even if that's true, this notion that Bush really was a ventriloquist's dummy of sorts was a live topic for about a month in the fall, as much a part of pop culture as anything in Team America or Seed of Chucky.
If power, as Henry Kissinger said, is the ultimate aphrodisiac, then in the days of puppet sex the simulacrum of the year would have to be George W. Bush, the puppet with the sticky gun. Give credit to Time: They called it first.