Ethics Quiz: Peeps Ethics

peeps winner

I collect sentences that can safely be said to have never been uttered before in the history of mankind, and encountered one this morning in a letter of complaint to the Washington Post. It read…

“To take a sacred and historic event in our nation’s history and depict it using marshmallow candy is highly insulting and offensive to the legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and to all those who worked, and continue to work, for racial justice in this country.”

Like all of the sentences in my collection, my favorite being my sister’s immortal, “That fish looks so good, from now on I think I’ll wear my bra on my head,” this one requires some context. The Post holds an annual contest for its readers around Easter, challenging them to submit the best diorama of a scene, using marshmallow peeps. This year’s winner was created by Matthew McFeeley, Mary Clare Peate, and Alex Baker, and involved meticulously painting the colorful bunny stand-ins for King and his throng  at the 1963 March on Washingtonian eight shades of gray to evoke the black-and-white photographs of the event.

Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz, in the sadly neglected field of peeps ethics, is…

Is it unethical to use marshmallow candy as a medium to portray serious, solemn, or other events that many feel deserve respect and reverence?

I know my answer, but this time, I’ll hold my fire until I hear from readers. I’d also be interested in whether any events—Gettysburg…JFK’s assassination…the Lindbergh baby kidnapping…the Crucifixion…Pearl Harbor…9-11…  are ethically off-limits for peeps creativity as inherently offensive, or if this is just  an unappetizing mixture of “ick,” art, humor, and candy.

43 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: Peeps Ethics

  1. Unethical? No. Perhaps in poor taste*? Absolutely.

    And the letter writer should get a life. A fast google search suggested the strong possibility that she’s a classic leftie suffering from white guilt.

    *then again, good taste and Peeps is kind of oxymoronic from the get go. Those things taste nasty.

  2. Full disclosure: I identify as a freethinker, which in my case means my opinions are informed by this idea: “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” –Aristotle (or so the Internet tells me)

    With that in mind, offhand I’d say anyone who can’t handle the juxtaposition of a serious scene with a cutesy or comical medium is not emotionally mature enough to be trusted to react appropriately in today’s complex and nuanced culture, and their reverence is likely to be taken to unhealthy levels. I think it is not only ethical, but a requirement for intellectual health to be able to entertain different perspectives and styles of presenting even the most serious subjects. Before someone asks, yes, that includes depictions of the prophet Muhammad, along with all other historical figures on pedestals. I think taboos are unhealthy for a society because they limit critical thinking and creative free thought, both of which are necessary (yet seldom employed) to resolve social issues and differences in perspective.

    Bad taste is still a valid concept, but it is context-dependent. It is possible that a subject is not appropriate for most contexts because it leads people to feel bad, but it is imperative that there be some place where it can be discussed, even if it is only under the Jester’s Privilege. My subjective judgment rules that depicting the Civil Rights Movement with marshmallows in this case is not intended with disrespect: the contest stipulated that the medium be marshmallows, and the artist chose a powerful scene without regard for the medium, as is the artist’s prerogative. I personally think the marshmallow scene is quite dignified, but then I am a bit out of sync with humanity as to what I take at face value and what I don’t. I form opinions of peeps by their actions, not by their countenance. It’s unethical for an artist to deliberately spread misconceptions about history, and it may be unethical for an artist to deliberately show disrespect to powerful agents of good. Disrespect is usually unethical because it causes so many problems. However, I’m not sure a sincerely respectful artist can be unethical in their art, unless they simply fail to do the research on the facts they depict and the cultural context for showing respect.

    If depicting scenes from the Civil Rights Movement with marshmallows (and putting a good deal of effort into it) is wrong, though, what else is wrong? Crayon drawings by kids? Macaroni? Charcoal? Embroidery? Spray paint? Etch-A-Sketch? Is anything that looks insufficiently grandiose for depicting humanity’s legendary heroes an affront upon their memories? Are scenes of historical importance off-limits to mediocre artists, for fear the general public will lose respect for heroes drawn with funny expressions and ridiculous poses? What if an artist is deliberately depicting a heroic person comically, but without telling lies? Why can’t we be mature, and tell the history with respect while artists do their best in sincerity or spite? Why not simply say, “Well, it’s nice, but it really doesn’t do it justice,” and walk away?

    P.S. Also, in the second rare sentence you mentioned, did you mean “from now on…”?

  3. I think the context definitely matters, Making it as a tribute to the original event… I see no problem with that. If it was used as some sort of statement about how politics is getting soft like marshmallow or some crap, obviously that’s permissible, but… where is the line to making the message unethical? Is it when the message becomes contrary to the spirit of the original? I’ve heard the Annie musical was very different in spirit to the original comic strip, but the musical’s probably the only reason anyone born after 1980 know it at all.

    I’ve got no problem with this unless the message it was trying to portray was in itself unethical. It could even be unintentionally unethical. Say all the peeps were the same color except the one representing MLK. What would that be trying to say?

    But again… we all know which side of my bread is buttered, so we knew what side I was gonna come down on this.

  4. Seriously, if this thing is enough to offend someone, that person needs to just lock all the doors and windows, curl up in a corner, and wait for the sweet, merciful release of death.

  5. A. The peep art was NOT unethical.
    I see it in the same light as I would a depiction of another historical event.
    I also think that most historical events are fair game except in the case of a death or multiple deaths.
    Example: No one should ever make a Peep depiction about Sandy Hook.
    Or the flag-draped coffins coming in from Iraq. Or Gettysburg (battle).

    B. People REALLY need to stop putting their personal info online.
    Arthur wasn’t the only one Googling.
    In less than five minutes, without even trying, I had every personal detail on a commenter (not one of us), including a picture of their house and its value.
    This is not only stupid but dangerous as well.
    Esp. when one makes a habit of posting controversial opinions online.

    • After reading your comments, I am going to expand my tasteless subjects to include rapes and torture.
      The peep artists are free to make whatever they want, but, in my opinion, killings, rapes and torture are likely in poor taste.
      It really might be something you have to decide on a case by case basis.
      Americans were extremely sensitive in the early days following 9/11.
      Imagine seeing a display of peeps flying to skyscrapers back then.

  6. Nothing more than a personal anecdote, but the image provoked me into thinking seriously about matters of equality before I stopped to check what the corresponding post was about. Are they all not marshmallow fluff on the inside? If you microwave them, do they not puff up? Rather than seeing a mockery of serious events, I thought it cast the very denial of rights in an absurd light.

    That’s just me, of course, but I was surprised that the topic was about what it is.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not the sort to believe that all art has to be blindly accepted without taking offense; that’s the intellectually-dishonest recourse of artists who make a living through causing offense. However, I do not believe that the injection of a little lighthearted humor is sufficient for denouncing a work as disrespectful. There should be some room allowed for humor to provide fresh perspectives and insight even where the darkest of human events are concerned.

  7. As you know, Jack, I am a cradle Catholic. I am also, as you call me, a “bleeding heart liberal.” This attitude extends into my faith life as well. And so, it should be no surprise to find that I am not at all offended by The Brick Bible (, which depicts scenes from the Bible in Lego blocks. Of course, *I* have a sense of humor. Now, if you go to the link I included and scroll down to the bottom of the page, you will find an ad for their the producers’ latest endeavor: “Assassination! The Brick Chronicle of Attempts on the Lives of Twelve US Presidents.” Bad taste? Knowing a couple of grown up Lego enthusiasts — one of whom is a lawyer — I know that these guys definitely do NOT see these Lego dioramas as anything insulting or mocking or derogatory, nor would they use them as a means of satire or parody or ridicule.

    I couldn’t help but think of the first episode of “The Vicar of Dibley,” when Alice, the ditzy Verger, is showing the new vicar around the sacristy and proudly shows off her portrait of Jesus made out of macaroni, hanging on the wall in a place of honor.

    As texagg04 noted above, “A lot of art is ick.” I think of Chris Ofili’s “The Holy Virgin Mary” and Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ.” Am I interested in these “art” works? No, but not only because of the apparent jabs at the Catholic faith. Just not my cup of artistic tea. I also don’t like rap music, both for its musical attributes and for the common denominator of misogyny. Some people tell me that there is art in it. Eh?

    Me? I like peeps. I like to eat them, and I enjoy seeing the creativity displayed by the participants in the annual peeps diorama contest. I haven’t seen all of them every year, but I would bet that there has been a peeps Easter morning scene with “the empty tomb.” Crucifixion? Maybe not. But even if there were, I can imagine that it would be a very interesting attempt, and likely not meant as mockery. In any case, I believe that God, as I imagine God to be, has a great sense of humor (see: proboscis monkey, giraffe-necked weevil, and my personal favorites, crabs, seahorses, and praying mantises). (You can call it evolution if you like, but I can’t help but think “What are the odds?”)

  8. I agree that representations of violence can tread over that fine line between tribute and exploitation. This depiction is an amazing depiction. The material is only fleeting. Peeps are a rainbow, but like green aliens or elves, they can stand in for talking about racial issues without kneejerk reactions. Personally, I suspect many of the people who had been there would laugh and approve. Believing in a cause should not sugically remove your sense of humor.

  9. I think all of the events named that portray serious, solemn, or other events that many feel deserve respect and reverence that you named are off limits. I think guy suffers from the “clever jerk” syndrome and his mommy should have spanked him more often. This website is about on the same level as those morons that spray paint their graffiti in the alleys of their communities.

  10. The entire concept of using marshmallow figurines as an art depiction (by adults, anyway!) is nothing short of silly to begin with. How can a grown person literally play with his food and have the gall to pass it along as an achievement to be noted, much less respected? Someone who either has no clear goals in life or one who senses the existence of a large market of nitwits who’ll proclaim him.

    Am I making too big a thing of this? Probably! According to Sturgeon’s Law, 90% of everything in the culture is trash. I can accept that and endure all the moronicity with a stoic mien. However, when I sense that the remaining 10% is being impinged on (as with this) I feel inclined to roast some marshmallow people.

    • Impinged upon how? Is there anything less aggressive than a marshmallow rabbit?

      I’ve pretty much dropped the concept of calling art “bad” in favor of “it doesn’t please my tastes, but I acknowledge the effort that went into it.” Of course, I can still comment on the level of the artist’s skills in doing what I think they intend, or my estimate of the number of people who will like the piece. I try to be accurate and precise with my opinions. It tends to make disagreements go better.

      Lastly, what goal would you prescribe a person? Nietzche said there is no greater purpose but what we create for ourselves, even if we create it out of marshmallows [citation needed]. Self-expression and hobbies are an important way of exercising one’s consciousness, because the “goals” you think are important don’t float everyone’s boat. The artistic spirit is a greater wonder than anything it leads a person to create, and a spirit has to start somewhere; it might as well start “playing with food.” Using the term “food” loosely, of course.

      • I hadn’t intended to start an argument over what constitutes “art”, E.C. Personally, I think the concept hit rock bottom long ago… but whatever you like! The idea here was just to present this whole subject as silly at its basis. If you want to think that marshmallow is the new marble, go ahead. Certainly, “silly art” is preferable to the perversity that largely passes for art today.

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