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Animating Revolt - Envisioning the Alternative

For my scholarly event, I attended a lecture by Jack Halberstam, a transgendered professor of English and Gender Studies at the University of Southern California and a critic of gender representation in the media and their importance to our society. The talk was held in the Nollte Center for Continuing Education on campus on April 26th, and was put together by the Global Sexualities Research Collaborative of the Institute for Advanced Study and the Transgender Commission.
In the talk, Halberstam explained his theory that alternatives to our cultures harmful dichotomies (male vs. female, heterosexual vs. homosexual, family vs. individual) have already been envisioned and are able to be seen in some of our popular media. The media that Halberstam examines for gender alternatives are forms of animation, both in kid’s movies and horror films. Halberstam describes children’s films as alternatives to our dichotomies because children tend to think in terms of the collective instead of the individual like our adult culture encourages. They see themselves as part of a whole and the films targeted towards them, such as ‘Finding Nemo’ and ‘Over the Hedge,’ reflect the inspiring idea of strength in numbers and unity over the individuals.

An example of animation Halberstam used in the talk was the recent film ‘March of the Penguins.’ Although ‘March of the Penguins’ is a live film, Halberstam justifies that it is animation because the footage is carefully constructed to follow the narrator’s story, and therefore becomes a puppet-like tool to the creator. If you have seen or read about ‘March of the Penguins’ you may know that it was widely publicized by the religious right to support traditional family life. It was supported because it showed the power of monogamous relationships and sacrifice for the child. Halberstam argues that although the narrator tells that story, the penguins show a different lifestyle. Halberstam points out that although the penguins are monogamous in raising a chick, they are only so for one year, which in our language is not monogamy at all. The type of childrearing the penguins engage in is also a form would not be encouraged by the religious traditionalists. Parent penguins only care for and protect their young until shortly after they can walk, in which they become responsible for taking care of themselves.
Halberstam also explains that the narration lacks a few key points in the survival and reproduction of penguins. The first of which, is that penguin sex is very hard to distinguish, even for them, which makes penguin sexuality indistinguishable and unimportant. Although the narrator implies that all the paired penguins on the screen are heterosexual, in reality they are probably not, and cases of two penguins of the same sex raising chicks together has been observed and documented. Halberstam also explained the collective actions of the penguins as opposed to the single-family units the narration suggests. Since not all penguins produce or succeed in raising an egg, there seems to be no point in them staying in the frigid, barren breeding grounds under the single-family model. But in reality, if the non-reproducing penguins returned to the ocean and skipped the breeding procedures, there would not be enough penguins to keep warm during the winter or to feed the chicks when they hatched. This shows that penguin reproduction is truly a collective action requiring every able being in the herd instead of the single-family units described by the voice.
The second example of an alternative in an animated feature Jack Halberstam focused on was in ‘Seed of Chucky.’ Halberstam argued that the film portrayed gender as culturally and behaviorally based instead of biologically. He found this in the child that Chucky produced, in which the genitalia was ambiguous and could be viewed as both male and female. By the end of the movie, the child’s gender is established by his actions (killing his father) instead of his anatomy.
I greatly enjoyed Jack Halberstam’s talk and the ideas he presented, and plan to learn more about his theories through his books. I would strongly recommend seeing him and listening to his ideas if you ever get a chance.