Media

The Penguin Wars

From multiple mates to gay tolerance to untraditional marriage roles, these birds are not at all the role models the Christian Right would make them out to be.  
We live in a world where Bill O'Reilly can use footage of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina as a lesson to the nation's schoolchildren: "If you don't get educated, if you don't develop a skill, and force yourself to work hard, you'll most likely be poor."

So, it should come as no surprise that members of the religious right have found a way to co-opt the hit documentary, March of the Penguins, claiming it as an argument for, among other things, intelligent design and family values. The New York Times reported earlier this week that Christian groups are jumping to claim the movie's "message" as their own. Michael Medved even went so far as to call it an endorsement of "traditional norms like monogamy, sacrifice and child-rearing."

Monogamy? As Scott Lamb pointed out in Salon, these penguins get around. They switch mates with each new mating season, which makes for some pretty slutty birds -- and change the operative question from "What Would Jesus Do?" to "Who would Jesus Do?" (And an earlier Salon article, which tells the incredible true story of two male penguins in love, adds another twist.)

This is the most cynical misappropriation of someone else's messages since the Republicans started pumping their fists in the air to Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA." (Or, for that matter, since Reagan decided to name his space program Star Wars, a move George Lucas resents to this day.) In all, conservatives' embrace of March of the Penguins is pretty ironic, coming from a nexus of religious groups that justify backburnering environmental issues because with the Rapture at hand, we don't need to worry about the next generation's planet anyway.

As long as we're looking to the animal kingdom for inspiring visions of God's plan, may we suggest a few more documentary topics: dolphins who go for gang rape; bonobo monkeys who exchange sexual favors for food; dry humping gay cows; and orally fixated male guppies. And when all else fails, we could always use a few more shots of those perpetually onanistic chimpanzees. A real exploration of animal sex puts the "wild" back in Wild Kingdom, and would knock nature programming off the family rotation for good.

Still, it's not fair to base our argument on all that nature porn on Discovery Channel. What about the tuxedo-clad charmers themselves?

What can we take from those penguins -- that is, if global warming and erosion of their natural habitat aren't taking enough? From the movie, we know that nature makes sure they don't give birth to more offspring than they can feed. Mostly we know -- from this supposedly family-values oriented documentary -- that male and female penguins split responsibility for child-rearing right down the middle: The male becomes a stay-at-home dad, warming the egg and being ready on hand with a tiny bit of food he stores in his beak; he waits to the point of starvation for his mate to return from her arduous trek to the waters edge to bring food. When mom comes back, they switch places, with no time to spend together.

It's the ultimate commuter marriage. Probably not the kind of family values Those Who Speak Directly to God had in mind, unless we missed the part where fighting for paid paternity leave moved up a few items on the right-wing agenda.

So we have sex with up to 20 partners in a lifetime, tolerance toward gay couplings, and males who take "Go ahead and work late, honey, I'll watch the kids" to a whole a new level. Again, we'd bet these aren't the family values the Christian Right had in mind. But paid paternity leave? We'll take it.
Sheerly Avni is a San Francisco-based writer.
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