Occupy Wall Street, a demonstration movement decrying wealth and income inequality in the United States, has built considerable momentum in its one month of existence. Satellite Occupy protests have cropped up in other major U.S. cities, including a small, fervent following in Austin.
In fewer than 30 days, the grassroots campaign has already become mainstream political thought, at least among native New Yorkers — according to a Quinnipiac University poll released Monday, two-thirds of New York City voters support Occupy Wall Street.
But perhaps as an even truer measure of the movement and its message’s pervasiveness in the culture, ancillary establishments — such as the comical, tongue-in-check Internet meme Occupy Sesame Street — bear credence.
Indeed, while Occupy Sesame Street is primarily a collection of the Muppets digitally inserted into protest photos with Photoshop (one features Grover being detained by police), it does help to legitimize Occupy Wall Street as a fixture of political discourse.
Most of the Twitter messages and Facebook posts related to Occupy Sesame Street are made jokingly and when the first image of the meme — Kermit the Frog yelling, “Skip class! Radiohead is here dawg!” — was created, it wasn’t meant to be anything more than amusing.
Brooklyn-based designer Justin Fines, who drew inspiration from a friend’s involvement with Occupy Wall Street, created that first image of Kermit.
“[My friend] had been tweeting relentlessly about it for several days. And after seeing the #OWS tweets of her’s popping up over and over, I tweeted ‘#occupysesamestreet’ It seemed so obvious, really,” Fines said in an email.
With the Twitter message in mind, Fines drew further inspiration from the 1985 live action “The Muppets Take Manhattan” (where he found the image of Kermit on the phone), a title befitting the moment.
“Once I started to think about it, there was just a treasure trove of things I knew you could connect to the idea,” he said.
After comedian Patton Oswalt picked up on the joke, Occupy Sesame Street gained traction and soon sports and pop culture humor site Tauntr had created its own Muppet-infused images, including one of Elmo pinned to the ground by police as he is being handcuffed.
And a website, occupysesamestreet.org, emerged as an Internet repository for the meme, even selling T-shirts. All the while, Fines was unaware of how his one-off joke had taken off.
“I spent about an hour thinking about it when I made the first few tweets, but then it didn’t cross my mind again until someone sent me a link to articles about it. It’s incredible, really,” he said. “Occupy Sesame Street is innocuous, but it does show the power of social media.”
But according to UT American Studies Associate Professor Randolph Lewis, whose research interests include the relationship between art and politics in the United States, Occupy Sesame Street isn’t necessarily as fleeting as the joke it originated from — the co-opting of “Sesame Street” is an expression of American frustrations with Wall Street.
“We feel nostalgia for ‘Sesame Street’s’ fairness and innocence at a time when this other iconic street, Wall Street, seems inequitable and cynical,” Lewis said in an email message. “They are two opposing visions of America, one a pure fantasy, the other a cruel reality.”
Lewis said that Occupy Sesame Street is not the first time seemingly unrelated pop culture references have intersected with politics.
“The French Situationists in the late 1960s practiced a subversive art technique called ‘detournement’, a kind of ‘turning’ of common images into something provocative or radical,” he said.
For example, Lewis said, these Situationists would satirize kung-fu films by creating Marxist subtitles for them.
“It didn’t make sense with the high-kicking action, but the new work sparked some good publicity for their playful radicalism. Occupy Sesame Street comes out of this satirical tradition,” he said.
Lewis also likens Occupy Sesame Street as a reflection of how deeply intertwined American politics has become with pop culture.
“Instead of Lincoln or Jefferson, we’ve got celebrity politicians speaking in soundbites and posing for television cameras. One side has Big Bird, the other has Sarah Palin,” he said.