University of California Irvine Wk 5 Impact of Digital Technology on Cinema Essay


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Week 5 Synthesizing Write-up
Week 5: Digital Technology and Cinema (CGI, Animation, & Marvel’s
In order to demonstrate your knowledge of course materials and your ability to make
connections between the readings, lectures, and film screenings, you will answer three
prompted questions that ask you to synthesize the course materials from the week (or to
connect one week’s course materials to another week’s course materials). For more
details on what is expected, and recommendations for a strong write-up, please see
bullet point list below.

Written clearly, proofread, organized in a clear and effective way (no more than
300 words per question)

Addresses the questions directly and completely (especially, if there are multiple
parts to the question)

Demonstrates (even highlights) knowledge of the course materials, especially by
constructing answers with examples that connect readings, lectures, and films

Integrates quotations from textbook, readings, lecture videos, or films (needs to
be cited correctly, MLA style (Links to an external site.), and appropriately—not too
much quotation, addressed in your own words after citing)

Demonstrates deep analytical and critical thinking (through a cultural studies

Attentive to the political and historical context of the period, film, filmmaker,
movement, etc. being written about

When appropriate, develops a strong argument that is proven through
well-chosen evidence that is vividly described in your answer
1. Make an argument for two different ways in which digital technology has impacted
cinema. In your answer, make sure to clearly define what dimensions of cinema you are
addressing (preproduction, postproduction, film styles and genres, shooting on digital,
distribution, marketing, exhibition, etc.). And, make sure to use specific film examples
from this week (at least 2) to prove your specific argument. Moreover, in order to
demonstrate your knowledge of historical changes over time, please also refer to one
other film or film movement from earlier weeks in the quarter. These earlier films or film
movements should help you prove your argument about the changes and impact (or lack
thereof) of digital technology on cinema.
2. Using both chapters from Halberstam’s reading and the lecture video, please explain
the concept (or genre) of Pixarvolt? What are the dominant narrative themes in this genre?
Make sure to discuss the film Chicken Run, and provide, at least, one other film example
to explain. How does this form of politically revolutionary film differ from others we’ve
seen and discussed this quarter? How does it relate to others we’ve studied? Please
refer to, at least, two specific films from earlier this quarter to construct your answer.
3. Using the Empire Files episode: “The Rise of History’s Biggest Empire”, Bogg’s
chapter, “Media Culture in the Imperial System”, Pardy’s essay, “Selling Marvel’s
Cinematic Superheroes through Militarization,” and our last lecture video, explain what
Bogg’s means when he says ‘the role of media culture is to legitimate empire’. How can
we connect Bogg’s argument about legitimating empire to Pardy’s discussion about
‘militainment’? In other words, how does the imperial ideology of cinema connect to
militainment? In your answer, please use the film The Avengers and, at least, one other
film to make your argument. You can use either a film discussed in lecture or in the
readings, or you can incorporate your own example not discussed in this class (please
just make sure to provide a brief synopsis of the film and how it works as an example).
Finally, somewhere in your answer engage the question about how this militarized media
culture may impact you and your life (as a viewer, as a student, as a citizen of the world,
Files episode: “The Rise of History’s Biggest Empire”:
Lecture Videos
First Lecture Clip: Please watch the entire episode of Empire Files: The Rise of the Biggest Empire
Digital Technology and the Cinema: CGI, Motion Capture, and King Kong Lecture Video
Digital Convergence, Film Form & Style, & Animation Lecture Video
The Hollywood War Machine: Media Culture, Empire, and Marvel’s Militainment
The Queer Art of .p,
Judith Halberstam
Animating Revolt and Revolting –1
The chickens are revolting!
-Mr. Tweedy in Chicken Run
Animated films for children revel in the domain of failure. To
captivate the child audience, an animated film cannot deal only
in the realms ofsuccess and triumph and perfection. Childhood,
as many queers in particular recall, is a long lesson in humility,
awkwardness, limitation, and what Kathryn Bond Stockton has
called ”growing sideways.” Stockton proposes that childhood is
an essentially queer experience in a society that acknowledges
through its extensive training programs for children that hetero­
sexuality is not born but made. If we were all already normative
and heterosexual to begin with in our desires, orientations, and
modes of being, then presumably we would not need such strict
parental guidance to deliver us all to our common destinies of
marriage, child rearing, and hetero-reproduction. If you believe
that children need training, you assume and allow for the fact
that they are always already anarchic and rebellious, out of order
and out of time. Animated films nowadays succeed, I think,
to the extent to which they are able to address the disorderly
child, the child who sees his or her family and parents as the
problem, the child who knows there is a bigger world out there
beyond the family, if only he or she could reach it. Animated
films are for children who believe that “things” (toys, nonhuman
animals, rocks, sponges) are as lively as humans and who can
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“The chickens are organized!”
glimpse other worlds underlying and overwriting this one. Of course this
notion of other worlds has long been a conceit of children’s literature; the
Narnia stories, for example, enchant the child reader by offering access
to a new world through the back of the wardrobe. While much children’s
literature simply offers a new world too closely matched to the old one it
left behind, recent animated films actually revel in innovation and make
ample use of the wonderfully childish territory of revolt.
In the opening sequence in the classic claymation feature Chicken Run
(2000, directed by Peter Lord and Nick Park), Mr. l\veedy, a bumbling
farmer, informs his much more efficient wife that the chickens are “or­
ganized.” Mrs. Tweedy dismisses his outrageous notion and tells him to
focus more on profits, explaining to him that they are not getting enough
out of their chickens and need to move on from egg harvesting to the
chicken potpie industry. As Mrs. Tweedy ponders new modes of produc•
tion, Mr. 1\veedy keeps an eye on the chicken coop, scanning for signs
of activity and escape. The scene is now set for a banle between produc­
tion and labor, human and animal, management and employees, con­
tainment and escape. Chicktn Run and other animated feature films draw
much of their dramatic intensity from the struggle between human and
nonhuman creatures. Most animated features are allegorical in form and
adhere to a fairly formulaic narrative scheme. But as even this short scene
indicates, the allegory and the formula do not simply line up with the con·
ventional generic schemes of Hollywood cinema. Rather animation pits
two groups against each other in senings that closely resemble what used
to be called “class struggle,” and they offer numerous scenarios of revolt
and alternatives to the grim, mechanical, industrial cycles of production
and consumption. In this first clip Mr. lweedy’s intuitive sense that the
chickens on his farm “are organized” competes with Mrs. Tweedy’s asser­
tion that the only thing more stupid than chickens is Mr. lweedy himself.
His paranoid suspicions lose out to her exploitive zeal until the moment
when the two finally agree that “the chickens are revolting.”
What are we to make of this Marxist allegory in the form of a children’s
film, this animal farm narrative of resistance, revolt, and utopia pitted
against new waves of industrialization and featuring claymation birds in
the role of the revolutionary subject? How do neo-anarchistic narrative
forms find their way into children’s entertainment, and what do adult
viewers make of them? More important, what does animation have to do
with revolution? And how do revolutionary themes in animated film con•
nect to queer notions of self ?
I want to offer a thesis about a new genre of animated feature films
that use CG I technology instead of standard linear animation techniques
and that surprisingly foreground the themes of revolution and transfor­
mation. I call this genre “Pixarvolt” in order to link the technology to
the thematic focus. In the new animation films certain topics that would
never appear in adult-themed films are central to the success and emo•
tional impact of these narratives. Furthermore, and perhaps even more
surprisingly, the Pixarvolt films make subtle as well as overt connections
between communitarian revolt and queer embodiment and thereby ar­
ticulate, in ways that theory and popular narrative have not, the some­
times counterintuitive links between queerness and socialist struggle.
While many Marxist scholars have characterized and dismissed queer
politics as “body politics” or as simply superficial, these films recog•
nize that alternative forms of embodiment and desire are central to the
struggle against corporate domination. The queer is not represented as
a singularity but as part of an assemblage of resistant technologies that
include collectivity, imagination, and a kind of situationist commitment
to surprise and shock.
Let’s begin by asking some questions about the process of animation,
itS generic potential, and the ways the Pixarvolts imagine the human and
the nonhuman and rethink embodiment and social relations. Beginning
with Toy Story in 1995 (directed by John Lasseter), animation entered a
new era. As is well known, Toy Story, the first Pixar film, was the first ani­
mation to be wholly generated by a computer; it changed animation from
a two-dimensional set of images to a three-dimensional space within
which point-of-view shots and perspective were rendered with startling
liveness. Telling an archetypal story about a world of toys who awaken
when the children are away, Toy Story managed to engage child audiences
with the fantasy of live toys and adults with the nostalgic narrative of a
cowboy, Woody, whose primacy in the toy kingdom is being challenged
by a new model, the futuristic space doll Buzz Lightyear. While kids de­
lighted in the spectacle of a toy box teeming with life, reminiscent of
“Nutcracker Suite,” adults were treated to a smart drama about toys that
exploit their own toyness and other toys that do not realize they are not
humans. The whole complex narrative about past and present, adult and
child, live and machinic is a metacommentary on the set of narrative pos­
sibilities that this new wave of animation enables and exploits. It also
seemed to establish the parameters of the new genre of CG I: Toy Story
marks the genre as irrevocably male (the boy child and his relation to
the prosthetic and phallic capabilities of his male toys), centered on the
domestic lthe playroom) and unchangeably Oedipal (always father-son
dynamics as the motor or, in a few cases, a mother-daughter rivalry, as in
Coraline}. But the new wave of animated features is also deeply interested
in social hierarchies (parent-child but also owner-owned), quite curi­
ous about the relations between an outside and an inside world (the real
world and the world of the bedroom), and powered by a vigorous desire
for revolution, transformation, and rebellion (toy versus child, toy versus
toy, child versus adult, child versus child). Finally, like many of the films
that followed, Toy Story betrays a high level of self-consciousness about
its own relation to innovation, transformation, and tradition.
Most of the CG I films that followed Toy Story map their dramatic ter­
ritory in remarkably similar ways, and most retain certain key features
(such as the Oedipal theme) while changing the mise-en-scene-from
bedroom to seabed or barnyard, from toys to chickens or rats or fish
or penguins, from the cycle of toy production to other industrial set­
tings. Most remain entranced by the plot of captivity followed by dra­
matic escape and culminating in a utopian dream of freedom. A cynical
critic might find this narrative to be a blueprint for the normative rites
2. Toy Story, directed by John Lasseter, 1995.
uThe first CGI Feature Film for Pixar.”
of passage in the human life cycle, showing the child viewer the jour­
ney from childhood captivity to adolescent escape and adult freedom.
A more radical reading allows the narrative to be utopian, to tell of the
real change that children may still believe is possible and desirable. The
queer reading also refuses to allow the radical thematics ofanimated film
to be dismissed as “childish” by questioning the temporal order that as­
signs dreams of transformation to pre-adulthood and that claims the ac­
commodation of dysfunctional presents as part and parcel of normative
How does Chicken Run, a film about “revolting chickens,” imagine a
utopian alternative? In a meeting in the chicken coop the lead chicken,
Ginger, proposes to her sisterhood that there must be more to life than
sitting around and producing eggs for theTweedys or not producing eggs
and ending up on the chopping block. She then outlines a utopian future
in a green meadow (an image of which appears on an orange crate in the
coop), where there are no farmers and no production schedule and no one
is in charge. The future that Ginger outlines for her claymation friends re­
lies very much on the utopian concept of escape as exodus, conjured vari­
ously by Paolo Virno in A Grammar of tht Multitudt and by Hardt and Negri
in Multitude, but here escape is not the war camp model that most people
project onto Chicktn Run’s narrative. The film is indeed quotingThe Great Es­
cape, Colditz, Stala_g 17, and other films whose setting is the Second World
War, but war is not the mise-en-scene; rather, remarkably, the transi­
tion from feudalism to industrial capitalism frames a life-and-death story
about rising up, flying the coop, and cre:1ting the conditions for escape
from the materials already available. Chicken Run is different from Toy Story
in that the Oedipal falls away as a point of reference in favor of a Grams­
cian structure of counterhegemonyengineered by organic (chicken) intel­
lectuals. In this film an anarchist’s utopia is actually realized as a stateless
place without a farmer, an unfenced territory with no owners, a diverse
(sort of, they are mostly female) collective motivated by survival, plea­
sure, and the control of one’s own labor. ll1e chickens dre:1m up and in­
habit this utopian field, which we glimpse briefly at the film’s conclusion,
and they find their way there by eschewing a “natural” solution to their
imprisonment (flying out of the coop using their wings) and engineer­
ing an ideological one (they must all pull together to power the plane
they build). Chkken Run also rejects the individualistic solution offered
by Rocky the Rooster (voiced by Mel Gibson) in favor of group logics. As
for the queer element, well, they are chickens, and so, at least in Chicken
Run, utopia is a green field full of female birds with just the occasional
rooster strutting around. ll1e revolution in this instance is feminist and
Penguin Love
Building new worlds by accessing new forms of sociality through animals
turns around the usual equation in literature that makes the animal an
allegorical stand-in in a moral fable about human folly (Animal Farm by
Orwell, for example). Most often we project human worlds onto the sup­
posedly blank slate of animality, and then we create the animals we need
in order to locate our own human behaviors in “nature” or “the wild” or
“civilization.” As the Chicken Run example shows, however, animated ani­
mals allow us to explore ideas about humanness, alterity, and alternative
imaginaries in relation to new forms of representation.
But what is the status of the “animal” in animation? Animation, animal
sociality, and biodiversity can be considered in relation to the notion of
transbiology developed by Sarah Franklin and Donna Haraway. For Har­
away, and for Franklin, the transbiological refers to the new conceptions
of the self. the body, nature, and the human within waves of new techno­
logical advancement, such as cloning and cell regeneration. Franklin uses
the history of Dolly the cloned sheep to explore the ways kinship, gene­
alogy, and reproduction are remade, resituated by the birth and death
of the cloned subject. She elaborates a transbiological field by building
on Haraway’s theorization of the cyborg in her infamous “Cyborg Mani­
festo,” and she returns to earlier work by Haraway that concerned itself
with biogenetic extensions of the body and of the experience of embodi­
ment. Franklin explains, “I want to suggest that in the same way that the
cyborg was useful to learn to see an altered landscape of the biological,
the technical, and the informatic, similarly Haraway’s ‘kinding’ semiotics
of trans can help identify features of the postgenomic turn in the bio­
sciences and biomedicine toward the idioms of immortalization, regen­
eration, and totipotency. However, by reversing Haraway’s introduction
of trans- as the exception or rogue element (as in the transuranic elements)
I suggest that transbiolo_gy-a biology that is not only born and bred, or
born and made, but made and born-is indeed today more the norm than
the exception” (2006: 171). The transbiological conjures hybrid entities or
in-between states of being that represent subtle or even glaring shifts in
our understandings of the body and of bodily transformation. The female
cyborg, the transgenic mouse, the cloned sheep that Franklin researches,
in which reproduction is “reassembled and rearranged,” the Tamagotchi
toys studied by Sherrie Tuckie, and the new forms of animation I consider
here, all question and shift the location, the terms, and the meanings of
the artificial boundaries between humans, animals, machines, states of
life and death, animation and reanimation, Jiving, evolving, becoming,
and transforming. They also refuse the idea of human exceptionalism and
place the human firmly within a universe of multiple modes of being.
Human exceptionalism comes in many forms. It might manifest as
a simple belief in the uniqueness and centrality of humanness within
a world shared with other kinds of life, but it might also show itself
through gross and crude forms of anthropomorphism; in this case the
human projects all of his or her uninspired and unexamined conceptions
about life and living onto animals, who may actually foster far more cre­
ative or at least more surprising modes of living and sharing space. For
example, in one of the most popular of the “Modern Love” columns-a
popular weekly column in the New York Times dedicated to charting and
narrating the strange fictions of contemporary desire and romance­
titled “What Shamu Taught Me about a Happy Marriage,” Amy Sutherland
describes how she adapted animal training techniques that she learned at
Sea World for use at home on her husband.1 While the column purports
to offer a location for the diverse musings of postmodern lovers on the
peculiarities of modern love, it is actually a primer for adult heterosexu­
ality. Occasionally a gay man or a lesbian will write about his or her nor­
mative liaison, its ups and downs, and will plea for the right to become
“mature” through marriage, but mostly the column is dedicated to detail·
ing, in mundane and banal intricacy, the roller-coaster ride of bourgeois
heterosexuality and its supposed infinite variety and elasticity. l11e typical
“Modern Love” essay will begin with a complaint, usually and predictably
a female complaint about male implacability, but as we approach the end
of the piece resolution will fall from the sky in the manner of a divine
vision, and the disgruntled partner will quickly see that the very thing that
she found irritating about her partner is also the very thing that makes
him, well, him! l11at is, unique, flawed, human, and lovable.
Sutherland’s essay is true to form. After complaints about her beloved
husband’s execrable domestic habits, she settles on a series of training
techniques by placing him within a male taxonomy: “l11e exotic animal
known as Scott is a loner, but an alpha male. So hierarchy matters, but
being in a group doesn’t so much. He has the balance of a gymnast, but
moves slowly, especially when getting dressed. Skiing comes naturally,
but being on time does not. He’s an omnivore, and what a trainer would
call food-driven.” The resolution of the problem of Scott depends upon
the hilarious scenario within which Sutherland brings her animal train­
ing techniques home and puts them to work on her recalcitrant mate.
Using methods that are effective on exotic animals, she manages her hus­
band with techniques ranging from a reward system for good behavior to
a studied indifference to bad behavior. Amazingly the techniques work,
and, what’s more, she learns along the way that not only is she training
her husband, but her husband, being not only adaptable and malleable
but also intelligent and capable of learning, has started to use animal
training techniques on her. Modern marriage, the essay concludes, in line
with the “modern love” ideology, is an exercise in simultaneous evolu­
tion, each mate adjusting slightly to the quirks and foibles of the other,
never blaming the structure, trying not to turn on each other, and ulti­
mately triumphing by staying together no matter what the cost.
Amusing as Sutherland’s essay may be, it is also a stunning example
of how, as Laura Kipnis puts it in A.9ainst Love, we maneuver around “the
large, festering contradictions at the epicenter of love in our time” (2004:
13). Kipnis argues that we tend to blame each other or ourselves for the
failures of the social structures we inhabit, rather than critiquing the
structures (like marriage) themselves. Indeed so committed are we to
these cumbersome structures and so lazy are we about coming up with
alternatives to them that we bolster our sense of the rightness of hetero­
normative coupledom by drawing on animal narratives in order to place
ourselves back in some primal and “natural” world. Sutherland, for ex­
ample, happily casts herself and Scott as exotic animals in a world of
exotic animals and their trainers; of course the very idea of the exotic,
as we know from all kinds of postcolonial theories of tourism and ori­
entalism, depends upon an increasingly outdated notion of the domes­
tic, the familiar, and the known, all of which come into being by posit­
ing a relation to the foreign, the alien, and the indecipherable. Not only
does Sutherland domesticate the fabulous variation of the animals she
is studying by making common cause with them, but she also exoticizes
the all too banal setting of her own domestic dramas, and in the process
she reimposes the boundary between human and nonhuman. Her humor•
ous adaptation of animal husbandry into husband training might require
a footnote now, given the death in 2010 of a Sea World trainer who was
dragged into deep waters and drowned by the whale she had been training
and working with for years. While Sutherland lavished her regard on the
metaphor of gentle mutual training techniques, the death of the trainer
reminds us of the violence that inheres in all attempts to alter the behav­
ior of another being.
The essay as a whole contributes to the ongoing manic project of the
renaturalization of heterosexuality and the stabilization of relations be­
tween men and women. And yet Sutherland’s piece, humor and all, for
all of its commitments to the human, remains in creative debt to the
intellectually imaginative work of Donna Haraway in Primate Visions. Har­
away reversed the relations of looking between primatologists and the
animals they studied and argued that, first, the primates look back, and
second, the stories we tell are much more about humans than about ani•
mals. She wrote, “Especially western people produce stories about pri­
mates while simultaneously telling stories about the relations of nature
and culture, animal and human, body and mind, origin and future” (1990:
5). Similarly people who write the “Modern Love” column, these vernacu­
lar anthropologists of romance, produce stories about animals in order to
locate heterosexuality in its supposedly natural setting. In Sutherland’s
essay the casting of women and men in the roles of trainers and animals
also refers indirectly to Haraway’s reconceptualization of the relationship
between humans and dogs in her Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People
and Significant Otherness (2003). While the earlier cyborg manifesto produc­
tively questioned the centrality of the notion of a soft and bodily, anti­
technological “womanhood” to an idealized construction of the human,
the later manifesto decentralizes the human altogether in its account of
the relationship between dogs and humans-and refuses to accept the
common wisdom about the dog-human relationship. For Haraway, the
dog is not a representation of something about the human but an equal
player in the drama of evolution and a site of”significant otherness.” The
problem with Haraway’s vivid and original rewriting of the evolution­
ary process from the perspective of the dog is that it seems to reinvest in
the idea of nature per se and leaves certain myths about evolution itself
In fact Haraway herself seems to be invested in the “modern love”
paradigm of seeing animals as either extensions of humans or their moral
superiors. As Heidi J. Nast comments in a polemical call for “critical pet
studies,” a new disposition toward “pet love” has largely gone unnoticed
in social theory and “where pet lives are addressed directly, most studies
shun a critical international perspective, instead charting the cultural his­
tories of pet-human relationships or, like Haraway, showing how true pet
love might invoke a superior ethical stance” (2006: 896). Nast proposes
that we examine the investments we are making in pets and in a pet in­
dustry in the twenty-first century and calls for a “scholarly geographical
elaboration” of who owns pets, where they live, what kinds of affective
and financial investments they have made in pet love, and who lies out­
side the orbit of pet love. She writes, ”Those with no affinity for pets or
those who are afraid of them are today deemed social or psychological
misfits and cranks, while those who love them are situated as morally
and even spiritually superior, such judgments having become hegemonic
in the last two decades” (896). Like adults who choose not to reproduce,
people with no interest in pets occupy a very specific spot in contempo36
rary sexual hierarchies. In her anatomy of pet love Nast asks, “Why, for
example, are women and queers such central purveyors of the language
and institutions of pet love? And why are the most commodified forms
of pet love and the most organized pets-rights movements emanating
primarily out of elite (and in the U.S., Canada and Europe) ‘white’ con­
texts?” (898). Her account of pet love registers the need for new graphs
and pyramids of sexual oppression and privilege, new models to replace
the ones Gayle Rubin produced nearly two decades ago in “Thinking Sex”
to complicate the relations between heterosexual privilege and gay op­
pression. In a postindustrial landscape where the size of white families
has plummeted, where the nuclear family itself has become something
of an anachronism, and where a majority of women live outside of con­
ventional marriages, the elevation of pets to the status of love objects cer­
tainly demands attention. In a recent song by the radical rapper Common,
he asks, “Why white folks focus on dogs and yoga?/ While people on the
low end tryin to ball and get over?” Why indeed? It’s all for modern love.
While the relationship between sexuality and reproduction has never
been much more than a theological fantasy, new technologies of repro­
duction and new rationales for nonreproductive behavior call for new
languages of desire, embodiment, and the social relations between repro­
ductive and nonreproductive bodies. At the very moment of its impend­
ing redundancy, some newly popular animal documentaries seek to map
reproductive heterosexuality onto space; they particularly seek to “dis­
cover” it in nature by telling tales about awesomely creative animal soci­
eties. But a powerfully queer counterdiscourse in areas as diverse as evo­
lutionary biology, avant-garde art productions, animated feature films,
and horror films unwrites resistant strains of heterosexuality and recasts
them in an improbably but persistently queer universe.
So let’s turn to a popular text about the spectacular strangeness of
animals to see how documentary-style features tend to humanize animal
life. While animal documentaries use voice-overs and invisible cameras
to try to provide a God’s-eye view of”nature” and to explain every type of
animal behavior in ways that reduce animals to human-like creatures, we
might think of animation as a way of maintaining the animality of ani­
mal social worlds. I will return to the question of animation later in the
chapter, but here I want to discuss The March of the Pen9uins (2005) as an
egregious form of anthropomorphism on the one hand and the source of
alternative forms of family, parenting, and sociality on the other.
In his absorbing documentary about the astonishing life cycle of AntANIMATING REVOLT
arctica’s emperor penguins, Luc Jacquet framed the spectade of the pen­
guins’ long and brutal journey to their ancestral breeding grounds as
a story about love, survival, resilience, determination, and the hetero­
reproductive family unit. Emperor penguins, for those who missed the
film (or the Christian Right’s perverse readings of it), are the only re­
maining inhabitants of a particularly brutal Antarctic landscape that was
once covered in verdant forests but is now a bleak and icy wilderness.
Due to global warming, however, the ice is melting, and the survival of
the penguins depends on a long trek that they must make once a year, in
March, from the ocean to a plateau seventy miles inland, where the ice is
thick and fast enough to support them through their breeding cycle. l11e
journey out to the breeding grounds is awkward for the penguins, which
swim much faster than they waddle, and yet the trek is only the first leg of
a punishing shuttle they will make in the next few months, back and forth
between the inland nesting area and the ocean, where they feed. This may
not sound like a riveting narrative, but the film was a huge success around
the world.
The film’s success depends upon several factors: first, it plays to a basic
human curiosity about how and why the penguins undertake such a brutal
circuit; second, it provides intimate footage of these animals that seems
almost magical given the unforgiving landscape and that has a titillat­
ing effect given the access the director provides to these creatures; and
third, it cements the visual and the natural with a sticky and sentimental
voice-over (provided by Morgan Freeman in the version released in the
U.S.) about the transcendence of love and the power of family that sup­
posedly motivate the penguins to pursue reproduction in such inhospit­
able conditions. Despite the astonishing footage, the glorious beauty of
the setting and of the birds themselves, The March of the Pen9uins ultimately
trains its attention on only a fraction of the story of penguin communi­
ties because its gaze remains so obstinately trained upon the comforting
spectacle of “the couple,” “the family unit,” “love,” “loss,” heterosexual
reproduction, and the emotional architecture that supposedly welds all
these moving parts together. However, the focus on heterosexual repro­
duction is misleading and mistaken, and ultimately it blots out a far more
compelling story about cooperation, collectivity, and nonheterosexual,
nonreproductive behaviors.
Several skeptical critics remarked that, amazing as the story might be,
this \vas not evidence of romantic love among penguins, and “love” was
targeted as the most telling symptom of the film’s annoying anthropo38
morphism. 2 But heterosexual reproduction, the most insistent framing
device in the film, is never questioned either by the filmmakers or the
critics. Indeed Christian fundamentalists promoted the film as a moving
text about monogamy, sacrifice, and child rearing. And this despite the
fact that the penguins are monogamous for only one year, and that they
promptly abandon all responsibility for their offspring once the small
penguins have survived the first few months of arctic life. While con­
ventional animal documentaries like The March of the Pen9uins continue to
insist on the heterosexuality of nature, the evolutionary biologist Joan
Roughgarden insists that we examine nature anew for evidence of the
odd and nonreproductive and nonheterosexual and non-gender-stable
phenomena that characterize most animal life. Roughgarden’s wonder­
ful study of evolutionary diversity, Evolution’s Rainbow (2004), explains
that most biologists observe “nature” through a narrow and biased lens
of socionormativity and therefore misinterpret all kinds of biodiversity.
And so, although transsexual fish, hermaphroditic hyenas, nonmonoga­
mous birds, and homosexual lizards all play a role in the survival and
evolution of the species, their function has been mostly misunderstood
and folded into rigid and unimaginative hetero-familial schemes of re­
productive zeal and the survival of the fittest. Roughgarden explains that
human observers misread (capitalist) competition into (nonmonetary)
cooperative animal societies and activities; they also misunderstand the
relations between strength and dominance and overestimate the primacy
of reproductive dynamics.
In an essay in the New York Times magazine published in 2010 humor­
ously titled “The Love That Dare Not Squawk Its Name,” Jon Mooallem
asks, “Can animals be gay?” 3 Using the example of mating pairs of alba­
trosses who-were assumed to be paired up in male-female configurations
but actually were mostly female-female bonded pairs, Mooallem inter­
views some biologists about the phenomenon. Noting that the biologists
Marlene Zuk and Lindsay C. Young assiduously avoid using anthropomor­
phizing language about the birds they study, Mooallem reports that when
Young did slip up and call the colony of albatrosses “the largest propor­
tion of-I don’t know what the correct term is: ‘homosexual animaJs’?­
in the world,” the media response was massive. Young found herself in
the middle of a national debate about whether homosexuality among ani­
mals proved the rightness and naturalness of gay and lesbian proclivities
among humans! Predictably North American Christians were outraged
that this is the research their “tax dollars” were funding. Other media
found the story irresistible; on Comedy Central, for example, Stephen
Colbert warned that “albatresbians were threatening American family
values with a Sappho-avian agenda”!
The more interesting story in this essay, however-more interesting
than the discussion of what to call same-sex animal couples, that is­
concerns the blind spots of animal researchers themselves. Mooallem
rightly notes that researchers constantly provide alibis and excuses for
the same-sex sexual behavior they observe, but he also discovers that
most researchers do not actually know the sex of the animal they are ob­
serving, and so they infer sex based on behavior and relational sets. This
has led to all kinds of misreporting on heterosexual courtship because
the sex of the creatures in question is not actually scrutinized, and mixed­
sex couples, as with the albatrosses and certainly with penguins, very
often end up being same-sex couples. In the case of the albatrosses, re­
searchers thought they were finding evidence of a “super-normal clutch”
when they found two eggs in a nest rather than one; it never occurred to
them that the two birds incubating the eggs were both female and each
had an egg.1l1e narrative of male superfertility was more comforting and
appealing. Thus intuitive evidence that contradicts the contorted narra­
tives that scientists put together is ignored because heterosexuality is the
“human” lens through which all animal behavior is studied.
How should we think about so-called homosexual behavior among
animals? Well, as the Netu York Times essay suggests by way of Joan
Roughgarden, anything that falls outside of heterosexual behavior
is not necessarily homosexual, and anything that conforms to human
understandings of heterosexual behavior may not be heterosexual. In
fact Roughgarden prefers to think about animals as creatures who may
“multitask” with their private parts: some of what we call sexual contact
between animals may be basic communication, some of the behavior may
be adaptive, some survival-oriented, some reproductive, much of it im­
Which brings us back to the penguins and their long march into the
snowy, icy, and devastating landscape of Antarctica. It is easy, especially
given the voice-over, to see the penguin world as made up of little heroic
families striving to complete their natural and pregiven need to repro­
duce. The voice-over provides a beautiful but nonsensical narrative that
remains resolutely human and refuses to ever see the “penguin logics”
that structure their frigid quest. When the penguins mass on the ice
to find partners, we are asked to see a school prom with rejected and
spurned partners on the edges of the dance floor and true romance and
soul mates in its center. When the mating rituals begin, we are told of
elegant and balletic dances, though we see awkward, difficult, and undig­
nified couplings. When the female penguin finally produces the ..,.1uable
egg and must now pass the egg from her feet to the male’s feet irl order
to free herself to go and feed, the voice-over reaches hysteria pitch and
sees sorrow and heartbreak in every unsuccessful transfer. We are never
told how many penguins are successful in passing their egg, how many
might decide not to be successful in order to save themselves the effort of
a hard winter, how much of the transfer ritual might be accidental, and so
on. n1e narrative ascribes stigma and envy to nonreproductive penguins,
sacrifice and a Protestant work ethic to the reproducers, and sees a capi­
talist hetero-reproductive family rather than the larger group.
Ultimately the voice-over and the Christian attribution of “intelligent
design” to the penguins’ activity must ignore many inconvenient facts.
The penguins are not monogamous; they mate for one year and then move
on. The partners find each other after returning from feeding by recog­
nizing each other’s call, not by some innate and mysterious coupling in­
stinct. Perhaps most important, the nonreproductive penguins are not
merely extras in the drama of hetero-reproduction; in fact the homo or
nonrepro queer penguins are totally necessary to the temporary reproduc­
tive unit. They provide warmth in the huddle and probably extra food, and
they do not leave for warmer climes but accept a part in the penguin col­
lective in order to enable reproduction and to survive. Survival in this pen­
guin world has little to do with fitness and everything to do with collec­
tive will. And once the reproductive cycle draws to a close, what happens
then? The parent penguins do protect their young in terms of warmth,
but the pare�ts do nothing to stave off attacks by aerial predators; there
the young penguins are on their own. And once the baby penguins reach
the age when they too can take to the water, the parent penguins slip
gratefully into another element with not even a backward glance to see if
the next generation follows. The young penguins now have five years of
freedom, five glorious, nonreproductive, family-free years before they too
must undertake the long march. The long march of the penguins is proof
neither of heterosexuality in nature nor of the reproductive imperative
nor of intelligent design. It is a resolutely animal narrative about coopera­
tion, affiliation, and the anachronism of the homo-hetero divide. The in­
difference in the film to all nonreproductive behaviors obscures the more
complex narratives of penguin life: we learn in the first five minutes of
the film that female penguins far outnumber their male counterparts, and
yet repercussions of this gender ratio are never explored; we see with our
own eyes that only a few of the penguins continue to carry eggs through
the winter, but the film provides no narrative at all for the birds who don’t
carry eggs; we can presume that all kinds of odd and adaptive behaviors
take place in order to enhance the penguins’ chances for survival (for ex­
ample, the adoption of orphaned penguins), but the film tells us nothing
about this. In fact while the visual narrative reveals a wild world of non­
human kinship and affiliation, the voice-over relegates this world to the
realm of the unimaginable and unnatural.
1l1e March of the Penguins has created a whole genre of penguin anima­
tion, beginning with Warner Brothers’ Happy Feet in 2006 1 soon followed
by Sony Pictures’ Surf’s Up and Bob Saget’s animated spoof The Farce of the
Penguins forThinkfilms. The primary appeal of the penguins, based on the
success of Happy Fett anyway, seems to be the heart-rending narratives
of family and survival that contemporary viewers are projecting onto the
austere images of these odd birds. On account ofthe voice-over, however,
we could say that The March of the Penguins is already animated, already an
animated feature film, and in fact in the French and German versions the
penguins are given individual voices rather than narrated by a “voice of
god” trick. Here the animation works not to emphasize the difference be­
tween humans and nonhumans, as it does in so many Pixar features, but
instead makes the penguins into virtual puppets for the drama of human,
modern love that cinema is so eager to tell.
Qum Creatures, Monstrous Animation
May the best monster win!
-Sully in Monsters, Inc.
Pixarvolt films often link the animals to new forms of being and offer us
different ways of thinking about being, relation, reproduction, and ide­
ology. The animation lab grows odd human-like creatures and reimag­
ines the human not as animal but as animation-as a set of selves that
must appeal to human modes of identification not through simple visual
tricks of recognition but through voice cues and facial expressions and
actions. Gromit, in Wallace and Gromit, for example, has no mouth and
does not speak, yet he conveys infinite reservoirs of resourcefulness
and intelligence in his eyes and in the smallest movements of his eyes
3. Monstm, Inc., directed by Pete Doctor and David Silverman,
�May the best monster IYin!”
within his face (which A. 0. Scott in the New York Times compares to the
face of Garbo). Dory, in Finding Nemo, has no memory but represents
a kind of eccentric form of knowing which allows her to swim circles
around the rather tame and conservative Marlin. How do modes of identi•
ficacion with animated creatures work? Does the child viewer actually feel
a kinship with the ahistorical Dory and the speechless Gromit and with
the repetition that characterizes all of the narratives? Why do spectators
(conservative parents, for instance) endorse these queer and monstrous
narratives despite their radical messages, and how does the whimsical
nature of the animated world allow for the smuggling of radical narra­
tives into othenvise cliched interactions about friendship, loyalty, and
family values?
As we saw with Toy Story, the Pixarvolt films often proceed by way of
fairly conventional narratives about individual struggle against the auto­
mated process of innovation, and they often pit an individual, indepen­
dent, and original character against the conformist sensibilities of the
masses. But this summary is somewhat misleading, because more often
than not the individual character actually serves as a gateway to intricate
stories of collective action, anticapitalist critique, group bonding, and
alternative imaginings of community, space, embodiment, and responsi•
bility. Often the animal or creature that stands apart from the community
is not a heroic individual but a symbol of selfishness who must be taught
how to think collectively. For example, in Over the Hed9e (2006, directed
by Tim Johnson) by DreamWorks the film stages a dramatic standoff be­
tween some woodland creatures and their new junk-food-consuming,
pollution-spewing; suv-driving, trash-producing, water-wasting, anti•
environmentalist human neighbors. When the creatures awake from their
winter hibernation they discover that while they were sleeping, a soulless
suburban development stole their woodland space and the humans have
erected a huge partition, a hedge, to fence them out. At first it seems as
if the narrative will be motored by our interest in a plucky raccoon called
RJ, but ultimately RJ must join forces with the other creatures-squirrels,
porcupines, skunks, turtles, and bears-in a cross-species alliance to de·
stroy the colonizers, tear down the partition, and upend the suburban­
ites’ depiction of them as “vermin.” Similarly in Findin_g Nemo the most
valuable lesson that Nemo learns is not to “be himself” or “follow his
dreams,” but, more like Ginger in Chicken Run, he learns to think with
others and to work for a more collective futurity. In Monsters, Inc. (directed
by Pete Doctor and David Silverman, 2001) monsters hired to scare chil­
dren find an affinity with them that wins out over a corporate alliance with
the adults who run the scream factory.
Fairy tales have always occupied the ambiguous territory between
childhood and adulthood, home and away, harm and safety. They also
tend to be as populated by monsters as by “normal” or even ideal people;
in fact the relations between monsters and princesses, dragons and
knights, scary creatures and human saviors open doors to alternative
worlds and allow children to confront archetypal fears, engage in pre•
pubescent fantasy, and indulge infantile desires about being scared,
eaten, chased, and demolished. Monsters, Inc. makes monstrosity into a
commodity and imagines what happens when the child victim of mon­
strous bogeymen speaks back to her demons and in the process both
scares them and creates bonds of affection, affiliation, identification,
and desire between her and the monsters. This bond between child and
monster, as we know from looking at other texts, is unusual because it
allows for the crossing of the divide between the fantasy world and the
human world, but also because it imagines a girl child as the vehicle for
the transgression of boundaries. The human-monster bond is queer in its
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