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March of the Penguins: Some Perspectives

This discussion of feminist and non-feminist perspectives on the film
"March of the Penguins" took place on WMST-L in August 2005.   Also discussed
were some ways of using the film in a Women's Studies course.  For more
WMST-L files now available on the Web, see the WMST-L File Collection.
Date: Fri, 19 Aug 2005 16:50:57 -0400
From: Janell Hobson <jhobson AT ALBANY.EDU>
Subject: March of the Penguins
Hello Everyone,

I was wondering if anyone knew of any existing feminist critiques of this
season's summer hit, "March of the Penguins"?

Also, has anyone ever used "nature" films to discuss gender constructions
in the context of women's studies classes?

I ask because "March of the Penguins" was one of the few movies that I've
seen this summer and that I've fallen in love with, but I am absolutely
annoyed by the many endorsements and mainstream reviews of this film as
some type of "family values" movie and, hence, the reason for its success
at the box office.

True, the movie follows a certain script about male-female mating, search
for love, reproduction, and family units (very much a "birds and the bees"
type education film).

However, while our androcentric views--coupled with Morgan Freeman's
pre-determined authorial voice-over--can force these scripts on the
activities of these most resourceful of birds, I believe a subversive
script could also be applied.

Anything from female leadership to gender-bending to full gender equality
in the bearing and rearing of the young to homerotic and same-sex bonding.
Yes, even in the context of a heterosexist, nuclear-family orientation of
the film narrative-and, yes, even with that lovely erotic little love
scene (sex scene?) between two penguins (they all look alike and so rely
on their voices to communicate and recognize their chosen mates)--is a
story of a species that spends the majority of its existence bonding with
members of the same sex: most obviously in the all-male group who huddle
together in the most intimate moments to protect themselves and their eggs
in the harshest winter season just to generate body heat.

In other words, just as we can read this nature film in terms of "family
values" endorsement, it could also be read as a film that offers, through
the example of biology, a vision of feminist revolution!  More than once,
I found myself remarking upon their gender relations (albeit in the most
androcentric fashion), "Now, THERE'S a Man!  And THAT'S a Father!"

But, I'm not hearing any feminist discourse about it and wondered if
anyone has or if anyone has strategies on using "nature" films to counter
conservative, right-wing rhetoric, especially sexist, homophobic discourse
that tries to use "nature" and "biological determinism" to set the
political agenda?

Janell Hobson
jhobson  AT  albany.edu
Date: Fri, 19 Aug 2005 17:15:53 -0400
From: Barbara R. Bergmann <bbergman AT WAM.UMD.EDU>
Subject: Re: March of the Penguins
The family values exhibited by birds, penguins included, ain't the same 
ones exhibited by the Christian right.  Birds share nurturing the young 
pretty equally between both parents. Male and female birds lead very 
similar lives. The Christian right favors radically different roles for 
each sex. Incidentally, some birds mate for life, but genetic tests have 
shown that there is a lot of  extra-curricular sex.
Barbara R. Bergmann    bbergman  AT  wam.umd.edu
Professor Emerita of Economics, 
American University and University of Maryland
Tel 202-537-3036     Fax 202 686-3456(call first)
Mailing address: 5430 41 Place NW, DC 20015
Date: Fri, 19 Aug 2005 16:44:58 -0500
From: Audrey Crawford <acrawford2 AT PDQ.NET>
Subject: Re: March of the Penguins
For an example of an alternative to the nuclear-family idea, I've always
loved films about lion prides. Lion prides are formed and managed by
females. The strength of the pride depends on the relations among the
females, who do most of the work for the pride and "keep" a couple of males
in the group for obvious reasons. Documentaries about lion prides often
focus on the males in the pride, creating an opportunity for discussions
about the skew between the data presented and the interpretation offered, as
well as about alternative family styles. Sorry, I have no experience using
such a film for a women's studies course.
Best regards,
Audrey Crawford
acrawford2  AT  pdq.net
Date: Fri, 19 Aug 2005 17:53:08 -0400
From: Jeannie Ludlow <jludlow AT BGNET.BGSU.EDU>
Subject: Re: March of the Penguins
I, too, really enjoyed *March of the Penguins* although the 
voice-over was incredibly anthropocentric (and often androcentric), 
for all the reasons Janell has already outlined. Of course, as 
Barbara has pointed out, the penguins' behavior is not really the 
issue, in terms of gender construction. Rather, it's the voice-over 
that does that cultural work in the film.

Janell's post makes me think: it might be fruitful to play segments 
of the film with the sound off and then play those same segments with 
the voice-over, in order to see how the voiced text directs our 
reading of the visual text.

Also, didn't I read in several reviews that the voice-over text of 
the US version is quite different from the French version (which came 
first)? I'd be very interested in knowing if this is true; if it is, 
that difference might also be fruitful for a discussion of the ways 
gender identity is constructed within the context of culture.

Jeannie Ludlow, Ph.D.		jludlow  AT  bgnet.bgsu.edu
Undergraduate Advisor
Women's Studies
228 East Hall
Bowling Green State U
Bowling Green OH 43403
Date: Fri, 19 Aug 2005 19:17:16 -0400
From: Karen Weekes <kew16 AT PSU.EDU>
Subject: Re: March of the Penguins
Interestingly, "March of the Penguins" is the only film I've ever seen the 
art theater in downtown Philadelphia put age restrictions on:  No children 
under 6, and children aged 6-16 must be accompanied by a parent.  I was 
shocked by this--there's a tragic scene of a parent losing its chick, but 
nothing worse than Disney's "Brothers" starting w/ the death of the cubs' 
parents.  Or "Bambi," for that matter (not to mention the violence in many 
other G and PG rated films, of course).  And in both of those cases, the 
deaths are man-made, wh/ apparently is preferable to nature's 
course.  Perhaps we don't want to give impressionable kids the idea that 
gender roles ARE flexible and nurturing can cut across genders--god knows 
where that could lead.


Dr. Karen Weekes
Asst. Prof., English & Women's Studies
Penn State University, Abington College
kweekes  AT  psu.edu

The limits of my language are the limits of my world.
Date: Sat, 20 Aug 2005 11:42:38 +1000
From: Bronwyn Winter <bronwyn.winter AT ARTS.USYD.EDU.AU>
Subject: Re: March of the Penguins
hello janell & others

personally i'd be very very wary of appeals to 'nature' to 
explain/encourage reflection on human 'norms', even to challenge them 
from a feminist point of view.  while it is perfectly true that in 
animal and bird worlds a whole spectrum of sexual, reproductive, 
friendship, mateship, kinship and nurturing behaviours can be found, it 
is equally true that the human world is markedly different from any 
animal or bird world.  not only do we respond to, and abstract from, our 
environment in much more significant ways, we also intervene in our 
environment (including the intellectual and symbolic construction of the 
'natural') in ways that no animal or bird society or individual does.

i suppose the use of this or other 'nature' films in WS studies would 
thus be to point out the above, and point out the dangers in 
anthropomorphising, as per another listmember's cautionary words (sorry 
for not acknowledging name, doing this in a hurry). 

we are not penguins, they are not humans.  apples are not oranges.  
comparing different human societies would be more interesting and 
illuminating of ranges of human behaviours and customs (even if one 
would be looking at variations on the theme of male domination in most 
if not all cases), than using march of the penguins or any other 
'nature' film.  (although i would also discourage the use of 'marvellous 
human tapestry' films such as baraka, which had a bit of a cult 
following at the time, but personally i loathed.)

on the issue of translation:  whether the french original voiceover is 
different (it no doubt probably is) is relatively immaterial in relation 
to the above points, as it goes more to issues of translation which is a 
whole different topic (and on that, it would be far more interesting and 
illuminating to look at the *only* english translation of beauvoir's the 
second sex, which is some 300 pages shorter than the original, and as 
scholars such as elizabeth fallaize have pointed out, deforms the 
original meaning in some sections - see fallaize's contribution to the 
english version of the proceedings of the 1999 paris conference for the 
50th anniversary of the second sex.  sorry no publisher details, i only 
have the french version, in which i have a piece as well, although there 
is a longer version of it in the journal nouvelles questions fTministes 
20:4, if anyone is interested).


Dr Bronwyn Winter
Senior Lecturer
Dept of French Studies 
School of Languages and Cultures
Mungo McCallum Building A17
University of Sydney  NSW 2006

email: bronwyn.winter  AT  arts.usyd.edu.au

Date: Fri, 19 Aug 2005 23:06:47 -0400
From: Janell Hobson <jhobson AT ALBANY.EDU>
Subject: Re: March of the Penguins
Bronwyn wrote:
> we are not penguins, they are not humans.  apples are not oranges.
comparing different human societies would be more interesting and
illuminating of ranges of human behaviours and customs (even if one would
be looking at variations on the theme of male domination in most if not
all cases), than using march of the penguins or any other
'nature' film.

I absolutely agree that it's inappropriate to compare the behaviors of
humans/penguins (and perhaps to some extent comparing and thus reinforcing
"difference" among diverse human societies as if our communities aren't
impacted by the same global political forces - then again, there is
something to be said about the impact of these same forces on global
warming in Antarctica and, thus, affecting the penguins' life strategies
...not always about biological determinism, which the film manages to

Of course, ecofeminism can expand on these assumptions.

However, when I raise the issue of how we talk about "nature" and gender
constructions (whether this concerns animals, plant life, earth, etc.) in
women's studies, I am interested in how feminist discourse produces

While humans and penguins are incompatible, the documentary constructs a
narrative for that very purpose.  And when it, in turn, gets coopted in a
certain political language, I am concerned and curious as to how
counter-narratives can be drawn.

The story of "March of the Penguins" is very much a fable, in the way that
Aesop constructed his.  It's designed to teach us some moral lesson about
what WE, as humans, need to be doing, and locating that lesson within the
rhetoric of "nature."

Thanks, Jeannie, for the suggestion of showing the film without the
voice-over so that we are made aware of certain narratives in place.

As for the other suggestion that lions are another good model for gender
roles, I'm a bit in disagreement.  While penguins share in full equality,
male lions remind me of "pimps" (tongue-in-cheek humor here); they
contribute absolutely NOTHING to the pride other than their sex! :)

jhobson  AT  albany.edu
Date: Sat, 20 Aug 2005 09:09:21 -0400
From: Daphne Patai <daphne.patai AT SPANPORT.UMASS.EDU>
Subject: Re: March of the Penguins
Certainly we are not penguins (they seem to have more dignity), but how far 
would one want to go in disconnecting us from the animal world?  As far as 

Apples are not oranges, but both can be meaningfully compared: in terms of 
the category fruit, in terms of shape, color, degree of sweetness, texture, 
uses, etc.  The possibilities are numerous and in fact interesting. All of 
that without saying one IS the other.

Date: Sat, 20 Aug 2005 09:43:45 -0400
From: "Oboler, Regina" <roboler AT URSINUS.EDU>
Subject: Re: March of the Penguins
On this whole topic of using biological data from the animal realm to
illustrate our (cultural) assumptions about gender:  There is an excellent
article, called something like "The Mask of Culture and the Face of Nature."
It's in an early edition of the Sheila Ruth Women's Studies Reader ISSUES IN
FEMINISM, and unfortunately I'm blanking on the names of the authors.  It
reviews three ornithological field studies, in which the researchers'
cultural assumptions about gender prevented them from seeing aspects of what
was going on among the birds.  This was a great eye-opener for my WS
students, especially bio majors, who previously weren't quite convinced that
WS had anything to do with their field.

  -- Gina
Date: Sat, 20 Aug 2005 10:52:36 -0400
From: D.Uras <duras AT TRENTU.CA>
Subject: Penguins, Coward article
I recall an article by Rosalind Coward (I think in "Female Desires", 
1985) about nature films' narration superimposing sexist human beliefs 
onto animal behaviour. It might make a good companion to the film for 
students -- they could analyze whether Coward's 1985 concepts apply to 
this present day film... and what an alternative script might say.

Daphne Uras
Date: Sat, 20 Aug 2005 12:24:24 -0400
From: Hagolem <hagolem AT C4.NET>
Subject: Re: March of the Penguins
I don't think the family values people really want to pursue birds' sex 
lives as sterling examples. Cowbirds mate promiscuously and then lay their 
eggs in other birds' nests for them to raise, often knocking the rightful 
eggs on the ground.

Many birds like sparrows mate in orgies.  Red winged blackbird females 
choose their mates for plumage and also for sociability -- they want other 
males to help protect and often mate with them.  Some birds are polygamous, 
some with many females mates and some with many male mates. There are 
species of birds where the male sits on the nest.  Chickadees live in 
groups where the top pair get to reproduce, the beta pair usually also and 
everybody else is not allowed to reproduce but helps with the nestlings of 
the top pairs.

I don't think any of these patterns are what the family values people had 
in mind.  [It helps to know something about birds to knock out these 
ridiculous paradigms.]

And as for lions, domestic housecats have the same social structure in 
feral colonies -- sororities allowing certain males to live with them -- 
but unlike lions, they also generally have a nonalpha male on the side who 
doesn't live with the colony but comes in and makes it with one or more of 
them on a regular basis.

The more you look at other animals and birds, the more you realize how 
diverse are the mating patterns that exist and how little it resembles mama 
daddy baby families.

marge piercy
Date: Sat, 20 Aug 2005 14:36:27 -0400
From: Bette Tallen <btallen AT MAIL.UCF.EDU>
Subject: Re: March of the Penguins
I have been following the discussion of this film with a fair amount
of interest.  My original thought about the movie is that it should
have been subtitled-what men could learn from penguins. The sacrifices
made by the male penguins in the raising of the children stands in
stark contrast to what is too often common behavior among humans (the
same can also be said of the female penguins).  The fact that there
are fewer male emperor penguins than females struck me as
interesting-since the ideology of Social Darwinism has often been used
as part of the rationale of male supremacy (that males are unfettered
by the burdens of childbirth and are therefore more eqiuiped to
survivie) It seems to me that part of the lesson from the film that
can be used positively in women's studies is not only the wide range
of parenting relationships and the structuring of gender arrangements
but also as a clear critique of social darwinism..

The other interesting lesson I took from the film had less to do with
women's studies but a lot to do with the current debate about
intelligent design versus evolution (which to me also has an
interesting feminist subtext).  I pointed out to the women I saw the
film with, most of whom are devout Christians (I was the only Jew at
the table), that the film did not support the concept of intelligent
design-but rather that the penguins alone had survived these harsh
conditions just because they had developed this very arcane and
difficult struggle to reproduce-if every female penguin would produce
a live chick every year-it is quite likelly the whole species would
have died because the population would have outstripped the food
supply.  They would therefore have suffered the fate of all the other
species that used to live in the anarctic.

I was not nearly annoyed with the narration or the anthromorpism of
the penguins as I was intrigued by an interesting society where female
and males share in the parenting and apparently the males suffer more
in terms of loss of life as a result.  To me it suggests a number of
creative responses to the current debates about what constitutes a
family and the issue of gay marriage.

Just a few thoughts.
Bette Tale 
Date: Sun, 21 Aug 2005 08:43:29 -0400
From: "Rothenberg, Paula" <RothenbergP AT WPUNJ.EDU>
Subject: Re: March of the Penguins
This morning my local paper, the Star Ledger, includes an article
titled "The Very Picture of Motherhood " about Mei Xiang, the giant
panda at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. who gave birth to a cub
4 weeks ago.  Evidently, web cams have been broadcasting the
interactions between Mei Xiang and her cub 24/7 since the birth. This
article reports on the reaction of a number of women who view the cam
on a regular basis and "relive" the early days of their own motherhood
while watching the pandas.

Although I have not see March of the Penguins, both the discussion of
this film on WMST-L and this morning's news feature, remind us that
people usually "see" what they expect to see.  And this in turn should
remind us why it is essential that the curriculum as a whole teaches
students to think critically and offers them a perspective on the
world that disrupts the ways in which education and popular culture so
often normalize gender, race, and class hierarchy and in this way
insure that what students "see" around them reinforces and
rationalizes the current distribution of power and privilege. The
question all of us who teach need to grapple with is how can we
empower our students to think critically!


Paula Rothenberg, Director

The New Jersey Project on Inclusive
Scholarship, Curriculum & Teaching
William Paterson University
300 Pompton Road
Wayne, NJ 07470
rothenbergp  AT  wpunj.edu
Date: Mon, 22 Aug 2005 10:19:37 -0500
From: Sandra Block <sblock AT CCCNEB.EDU>
Subject: March of the Penguins
In reference to Karen Weekes's  comments about children, I saw March of
the Penguins in a suburban Denver theater, where 2/3 of the audience was
grade school aged children.  What astonished us was the attentiveness of
the children; they were quiet throughout the movie, and, as the credits
ran at the end, no one in the audience, including the children, left
their seats.  I don't believe I have ever seen that phenomenon before.

Dr. Sandra Block
Central Community College
Box 1024
Hastings, NE 68902
sblock  AT  cccneb.edu

Let us be grateful to people who make us happy; they are the charming
gardeners who make our souls blossom.

Marcel Proust

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