Bad ducks, cat ladies, and queer zebras—oh my! On today’s show, we discuss animals in pop culture. We have stories of death, sex, and a cat who can play Frisbee. Scholar and activist Walidah Imarisha joins us to discuss race and Disney films, artist Nicole Georges tells us about animals who exhibit same-sex behavior, and scientific illustrator Katura Reynolds ruminates on how examining insects can make humans more open-minded. From The Jungle Book to Howard the Duck, we consider critters from throughout films and TV. Listen in!
CAT LADIES UNITE
RACE AND DISNEY ANIMALS
THE QUEER ANIMAL KINGDOM
AWKWARD ANIMATED ANIMAL SEX
Cheryl Green of Story Minders transcribed this episode. We're proud to make Popaganda accessible to people with auditory disabilities.
SARAH: Popaganda is brought to you by the team at Bitch Media—a feminist nonprofit independent media outlet. We’re reader (and listener!) supported. So, if you want to help this show exist and grow, head over and donate to our work at BitchMedia.org. We appreciate every single dollar. I mean it. Okay, enjoy the show.
SARAH: This is Popaganda, the feminist response to pop culture podcast. I'm Sarah Mirk.
If you were to stop me on the street when I was seven and ask me who I looked up to in life, I would have answered very quickly. I wouldn’t have said the president. Or my grandpa. Or my teacher. I would almost certainly have said this guy:
♪ [lyrics] Robin Hood and Little John walkin' through the forest,
laughin' back and forth at what the other one has to say.♪
SARAH: Robin Hood. Specifically, the Disney fox version of Robin Hood, because I was obsessed with dogs, and finally, here was a hero who not only stole from the rich and gave to the poor, and boldly broke his friends out of the jail, but was an adorable canine to boot. I was smitten.
♪ [lyrics] Robin Hood and Little John runnin' through the forest,
jumpin' benches, dodgin' trees and tryin' to get away. ♪
SARAH: Here at Bitch we cover all the angles on feminism and pop culture. And why should we restrict ourselves to the human realm? On today’s show, we’re plumbing the depths of our connections to animals in pop culture—examining how we identify with critters and how animals are often used in our culture as stand-ins for people, precisely because we attach to them with an unwavering adoration, like I did to that foxy Robin Hood. On this episode, we have stories of death, sex, and a cat who can play Frisbee. We discuss the racial implications of the “Jungle Book” and ruminate on how queer animals can make humans more open-minded. There are so many good animal stories in this episode, stay tuned.
♪ [lyrics] Bow wow wow, yippee yo yippee yay! [x3]
Just walkin' a dog!
Oh, atomic dog! ♪
SARAH: First, we’ll start with cat ladies. Of course.
SARAH: That purring you hear is a cat named Bonanza Jellybean, and the voice belongs to her human friend, poet and writer Rebecca Jean Olson. Bonanza Jellybean and Becky have lived together for six years. Currently, Jellybean is deeply engaged in a feud with a neighbor cat. They often sit, completely still, staring at each other through Becky’s screen door and making this otherworldly noise.
SARAH: It’s really hard not to laugh at them. They’re so serious!
[cat howling, woman laughing]
SARAH: Despite Bonanza Jellybean’s less-than-convivial attitude with others, recently, Becky immortalized her beloved cat in a tattoo.
BECKY: Yeah, this is my tattoo. It's an old wood carving of Freya, who's a Norse goddess of, she's kind of like a fertility goddess but also kind of like an interesting personality in Norse mythology. And she rides a chariot that is pulled by cats. So she has two big, gray cats that pull her around the sky, and she rides over our Rainbow Bridge into the world with the Gods like, and it's pretty dope.
SARAH: And is your tattoo a cat that you know?
BECKY: I [chuckles] requested that the tattoo artist make the cats look like my two cats that I've had in my adult life, Bonanza Jellybean and Pigeon, who are both tabbies. So she added some stripes cuz I like the striped cats.
SARAH: There’s no two ways about it, Becky loves her cat, and that makes her a part of one of the most familiar stereotypes around: the cat lady. We’ve all heard of cat ladies before, but here’s an excellent summation of the stereotype, thanks to Lisa Simpson, who in this clip, is pretending to be a newscaster reporting on Springfield’s resident cat lady.
LISA SIMPSON: People say she's crazy just because she has a few dozen cats. But can anyone who loves animals that much really be crazy?
CAT LADY: [yells jibberish]
SARAH: So saying someone is a cat lady is a way of making fun of them a bit for being a single woman—a childless single woman—who loves her cats. But saying someone is a cat lady in a derogatory way doesn’t really happen that often. More often, women call themselves cat ladies as a joke, as a positive way to identify.
BECKY: You know, like I guess it kinda depends on the context. Sometimes I will identify as a cat lady if it'll sorta make people laugh, but I don't really know if that is a real thing. I think that the stereotype of a cat lady is that she is a single, older woman who doesn't have a husband or doesn't have a partner and doesn't have children. And so there's a lot of this love that she is trying to put onto a pet instead of a human. And I don't really think there's anything wrong with that, so.
SARAH: Why do you love your cats?
SARAH: I mean, your cats can sometimes–I haven't interacted with them that much, but it seems like sometimes Bonanza Jellybean is kind of a jerk.
BECKY: [sighs] She's definitely a jerk. I actually started a blog that, it never went anywhere, called MyCatsAJerk.com.
BECKY: That was about training my cat cuz I wanted to teach my cat tricks, but it wasn't working. So I shut that down [chuckles]. But I think that just like cat ladies or like the idea of a cat lady is an unfair stereotype, I think that cats get a back rep too. My cat is definitely a jerk sometimes, but people also like to think that women are finicky or they change their minds a lot or they have like mood swings. And a lot of people think that cats are hard to get to know, and they're not that affectionate of creatures, and they can have mood swings and stuff. And I think that that is also a stereotype of when people are like, “Ugh, women.” You know?
SARAH: And so you can identify with the moodiness of a cat.
BECKY: I think I understand, and I know that they're not just being moody for no reason. They just have their own personalities. And so my cat, when she's being a jerk to me, [chuckles] I know that it's because she, you know, might be–I don't wanna personify her too much. I know that she's just an animal and doesn't have the same emotional complexities as a human, but I know that if she's being a jerk to me, it might be because she is mad at me or needs food or has something on her mind.
SARAH: Why do you think there's a stereotype about cat ladies but not cat men?
BECKY: I don't know. I think that there's always been kind of an association between women and cats and kind of like going back to the Middle Ages when cats were seen as witch's familiars and would help witches make pacts with the devil and things like that. I think that cats and women just kinda got wrapped up in each other. And also, cats are kind of a lot of the times they'll stay around the home, and they're more of kind of a domestic animal than a dog that you can take out on the trail, or you can do a lot of active stuff with. So I think that women and cats kind of got tied together in that way.
SARAH: I leave Bonanza Jellybean to her fearsome stand-off and head across town to meet up with Amy Martin. Amy is an accomplished illustrator, art director, children’s book author annnnd cat lady.
AMY: [laughs] I am not sure whether or not I would identify as a cat lady because I think that I have, I think that my relationship with the phrase, I think, is a little bit conflicted. So on my Instagram, it says straight out I'm a cat lady, and probably on my Twitter bio and probably my website that kinda thing too. And I think a big reason for that is because I grew up just being a huge fan of animals in general, and I was raised by a nurse. And she had, in addition to two children, we would have four or five cats at a time growing up, and dogs and bunnies. And whenever my cats would bring home animals in various states of disrepair, she would always fix them up. And then we'd have a squirrel or a chipmunk or a bunny or a bird living with us for a while that we were nursing back to health before we'd release it into the wild. But so for me, being a cat lady always meant that like, you have all this empathy and restorative energy, and you can attach to animals, and you love animals, and you can more or less–I don't wanna necessarily say commune with nature–but like, it's a really great thing. It just means that you're kind. And it was after you contacted me to talk about this that I kind of looked up cat lady stereotype, and I hadn't really considered it before. But I was like, holy shit; this is a pejorative. That hadn't even really occurred to me that it would be like a disparaging thing that you would call someone. And now it makes a ton more sense, the more that I've thought about it, what that stereotype is, and that, I mean I do and I don't relate to. I mean, the stereotype, from what I understand, is a woman who is single, who is so involved with her career that she doesn't have time for human relationships. So I mean, I definitely identify as an artist and a workaholic, and I'm not married, and I don't have children. So in some ways I fit that. But at the same time, I think that that stereotype is like so fucking tedious and ridiculous that I almost don't even wanna give it time. But times that I kind of have heard it used with that tone, it's definitely kind of from dudes who feel entitled to women's time and energy and are pissed off when they don't get it. And I think that that's what the whole witch thing was about, and I think that's what calling women dykes is about. I know that when I've been called a cunt on OKCupid or Match, whatever, that's totally what that's about.
SARAH: On the wall above her sofa, Amy has a collection of photos in a big frame. Many of the photos are of an orange cat. She looks inquisitive. That was Amy’s cat, Kudra. She points out the best pictures.
AMY: Kudra. That's Kudra….That's her. Yeah. I think it was just after my 22nd birthday, I moved from Ann Arbor, where I went to college, to Los Angeles to start a job. And I'd been living in this house in Culver City for maybe two weeks with a friend of mine, and one day I was out in the yard. I think I was attaching a flag or something to the porch, and this pregnant cat came walking up the ladder behind me, talking to me. And I came down, and she was like super skinny. She was really young. She was hugely pregnant, and she was really sweet, and she was just chatting and letting me pet her and flopping around on her back. And two weeks later, she had moved in with me. I was desperately homesick for Michigan when I first moved to California, and within like a month of living there, all the sudden I had this tiny family, which was this cat who I wasn't expecting, and then her four kittens who she had under my house and then raised them in my bedroom. It was really sweet. And so I found homes for all the kittens, and then Kudra stayed with me through several cross-country moves and lots of different jobs and lots of different boyfriends, and she was awesome. She was so great. She was really chatty, she was really sweet, she used to play frisbee with us when we lived in LA. She kinda like would play fetch, and if we were throwing a frisbee around in a circle, she'd chase it around the circle wherever it went. She was a great hunter. She'd go on these really long walks with me through the neighborhood.
SARAH: Can you tell me about taking a walk with Kudra? I don't often see people walking with cats.
AMY: Yeah, I know it's strange, and I've seen people walking with cats on leashes, and even I think that's kinda weird behavior [laughs]. I've never done that. I think she would lose her shit if I tried to put a leash on her. But I mean, she was an indoor-outdoor cat, and when I went outside, she would just come with me, and we would walk to Whole Foods, we'd walk to the Laurelhurts. I mean, I live kinda near the Laurelhurst in Portland. We'd go for miles, and she would just walk a few steps ahead of me, a few steps behind me. She'd stop and sniff stuff. Then she'd catch up with me. And as long as I was singing all the time, she could always find me then. And when she first came to move in with me, I used to sing all the time, and I still do. But that was one of the first things that I remember sitting on the tile roof outside my bedroom window, and I was listening to some Joni Mitchell album or something. And I could hear her singing back. So whenever I would sing, she would always just start right away also.
♪ [Joni Mitchell sings the word “blue”]
AMY: And when I took her to Dove Lewis, they were like, “Oh yeah, your cat, her teeth aren't great.” And I was like, “Yeah.” They're like, “Well, for a cat that's, she's gotta be at least 10 or 12 years old.” And I was like, “No, she's not 10 or 12 years old. She's 22.” But when I took her in to start thyroid treatment for her, and the vet was just like, “Man, your cat. She's lost three pounds since she was here a few days ago, and her heart rate is so low, and her blood pressure is so low. She's dying. We can't do anything for her. We really shouldn't start her on anything at all.” And they're like, “You know, if you're thinking about putting her to sleep, this is the time to make that decision.”
AMY: So I called and made an appointment to have someone come to the apartment the next day and then just laid in bed and pulled her up on my chest and petted her and talked to her. And I was like, I think I had a movie going on in the background, and I could feel her have a heart attack with my hand on her chest. And then this shiver of energy went through her and went through me, and I was like, “Oh my gawd. My cat's dead.” That just happened. And I decided that I was going to see if I could bury her on my friend's farm. So I called my friend, Carson. I was just like, “This is a weird question. You totally don't have to say yes, but my cat is dying. And can I bury her out there?” And she was like, “Yeah, totally. Don't worry about it. Just whenever you need to, just come out, and I'll help you do it.” And then I ended up ultimately calling her 45 minutes after and being like, “Okay, actually, I now have a cat that needs to be buried” [laughing]. And it's like midnight on a Friday night, and I'm in my apartment, and I don't know what to do with this body, essentially. And Carson was rad. She just like had me come out, and we smoked a couple cigarettes, and we drank some wine. I slept over there. We put Kudra in the greenhouse over night, and then the next morning, her husband made us dinner, and Carson helped me bury Kudra under this really pretty apple tree right next to the fire pit where we'd had campfires out there. So she's got this gorgeous grave now on this beautiful farm in Oregon, and it just makes it so much easier to think about, because my life has been so transient. I've moved to several different cities since I had her, but I feel really good about her being there.
AMY: And a week later, I was walking to the Whole Foods at 20th and Burnside to get coffee at like seven in the morning, and I heard this high-pitched crying sound. And there was a woman who was kind of looking. I was like, “Do you hear that?” And she's like, “Yeah, I think it's a baby.” I was like, “That's a kitten. I know that sound for sure.” Cuz it sounded somewhere between a human baby and a bird. So out in the middle of the parking lot, there was a whicker basket, and inside it was a women's camisole t-shirt and one tiny kitten who was about the size of a hamster and only had one eye open, which meant that he was like maybe 10 days old at the very most, like somewhere between 8 and 10. And I grabbed him and tucked him into my sweater and walked over to my vet's office, which is just a couple blocks away. And I was like, “Hey, I just found this kitten. I'm assuming that whoever left it there doesn't want it.” And I mean they'd just seen me crying my eyes out at that same office like a week ago [laughing]. So I think all of them are like, yeah, this is your kitten, of course. This is your kitten. This is probably your last cat. Like this cat was born just as your cat was dying. So yeah, we're gonna take care of that for you. And so, I had this little, tiny kitten who I named Latke, and I had to bottle-feed him for the first two months that he was alive. And for the first couple weeks, I took him to work with me every day, and I just kinda like kept him really close to my chest because he didn't have a mom or litter mates, which he was supposed to have. And I would have to feed him twice every night and give him a bath twice every night cuz he couldn't do any of that for himself. And he's just adorable. He's like this little, tiny orange kitten. He doesn't look anything like Kudra. They're kinda the same color but totally different vibes. But it was great. I felt like this kitten had just kind of was dropped from the sky at the point when I needed one.
SARAH: I tried to get an interview with Latke, but he is a scaredy-cat. He has build a giant nest for himself under Amy’s bed, and he’s not budging.
AMY: It's so gross under here. I apologize in advance. Latke! I see you. Do you wanna come out? [tapping fingers] Come here, buddy. Come here, buddy. I think that he is not interested.
SARAH: I poke my head down under the bed. I don’t see him at first, but then I do: a little orange fuzzball, holed up in the darkness. He’s where he likes to be: safe, in a loving home.
♪ [Lyrics] I got an old tom cat. And when he steps out, all the other cats in the neighborhood, they begin to shout. There goes a ringtail tom.
SARAH: You’re listening to Popaganda, the feminism and pop culture podcast. If you like this show, do us a huge favor—open iTunes and take 30 seconds to rate this show. It’s a super quick way to help other people find Popaganda. Also, one of the best things you can do is share this show. Post a note on your Facebook or Twitter and tell your friends about it. We all know that the best way to find out about podcasts is from people you know. I love hosting this show, and I want everyone to get more feminism and pop culture in their life so—tell the world! Thanks!
♪ [Lyrics] Ringtail tom, come offa that fence.
They start roustin' around.
[“Dumbo” theme music]
SARAH: These days, Disney is one of the most influential media companies in the world. It’s hard to believe that Disney almost went bankrupt right after it got started. In 1940, the studio had sunk $2.3 million into making epic musical work “Fantasia.” The movie was a financial loss, and Disney had exceeded its loan limits. So the studio turned to the simple story of a flying elephant to make some money: Dumbo was born.
In the film, Dumbo is befriended by a group of crows. Maybe you saw Dumbo as a kid and didn’t think too much about it, but listen to again to that crow’s song:
♪ [Lyrics] Ha ha ha. Did you ever see an elephant fly?
Well, I seen a hog fly!
Ah, I seen a dragonfly.
Hee hee, I seen a housefly.
Yeah, I seen all that too! I seen a peanut stand and heard a rubber band.
I seen a needle that winked its eye.
But I did done seen about everything when I see a elephant fly.
What you say, boy?♪
SARAH: These crows are clearly standing in for Black people. Their way of speaking, their clothes, even their name are racial stereotypes: the main bird’s name is Jim Crow, in reference to America’s racial segregation laws. Some of the crows are voiced by Black actors, but Jim Crow himself was portrayed by Cliff Edwards, a white actor and ukulele player better known for voicing Jiminy Cricket.
♪ [Lyrics] When you wish upon a star,
makes no difference who you are. ♪
SARAH: Many people have examined the racial politics of Disney animals over the years. The documentary film “Mickey Mouse Monopoly” explores this issue, along with other critical perspectives on Disney. Here’s a clip from the documentary, which starts with a scene from Tarzan and includes quotes from two media scholars and two small children.
WOMAN: Kids in Africa see it. They see a white man in Africa who's superior, swinging from trees, and they see no Africans. And they see gorillas being the ones they relate to. Is it promoting white supremacy?
KID 1: I never seen any Black people in Disney's movie.
KID 2: I can't think of any on Disney movies that have Black people that are good.
We are Siamese if you please.
We are Siamese if you don't please.♪
WOMAN: Disney has very, very few Asian or Asian-American characters in their children's films. And that's probably why the Siamese cats really stand out for me. The question is: what type of stories get invented, circulated, perpetuated in the public imagination and why?
SARAH: Scholar, writer, and activist Walidah Imarisha is someone who’s been thinking hard about what stories Disney tells and why. She teaches a class on race and Disney films at Portland State University. Her class does a deep read on Disney, looking at the role that animated animals play in defining perceptions of race, class, and gender. You heard Walidah if you listened to our episode on feminism and sci-fi, where she spoke up for the rights of droids in Star Wars. I'm happy to welcome Walidah back to our show. It's always such a thrill to have her on.
So one of the requirements of your class on race and Disney films is for students to write a personal essay about their history with Disney films. So I was hoping you could tell us about your history with Disney. Did you watch a lot of Disney as a kid? And when did you start thinking critically about the way Disney uses animals, with an eye on race specifically?
WALIDAH: Sure. So I mean, I think it's really important for us to acknowledge the kind of ways that Disney has influenced all of us, and I think that I feel like people either love Disney or love to hate Disney and oftentimes aren't thinking about it in a holistic way. And so I think for students coming into the class, it's really hard to critique Disney, right? Because Disney has been part of the vast majority of our lives since before we could remember a time without Disney. And I think it's really important to recognize that that's actually part of Disney's marketing plan, and their goal is to get folks when they're babies, which is why they market products to babies, to get folks before they know that there is such a thing as a world without Disney, and to kind of inculcate themselves in this magical realm and this idea of nostalgia so that they actually don't fall within the realm of critique. Pretty much every term, I'm accused of ruining people's childhoods [chuckles]. And so my goal is to try and find a way to acknowledge that emotional connection while still saying, and that actually means we have to critique it even more, not less.
SARAH: That's funny you point out that, like I personally can't remember a time before I knew about Disney. It's just always a part of your culture and always a part of your life. Disney is such a cultural touchstone for our pop culture. It's where it all begins.
WALIDAH: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think that that can't be overstated, and again, that that is a concerted effort by the Disney corporation to do that, right, and to kind of infuse itself into every part of American culture. The other thing about Disney is that Disney works so hard so people won't think about it as a corporation. And it's been incredibly successful at that, and many of my students have an incredible hard time thinking of Disney as a corporation. And I'll say, “Okay, what is the definition of a corporation?” And we'll go through it. “What is the point of a corporation? To make money for its shareholders.” Students are very clear about it. I'm like, “What is the point of the Disney corporation?” “To make people happy!” Right?! Because Disney has done a phenomenal job of marketing itself in a global context.
SARAH: Right. So let's talk about a film specifically. One of the first films you discuss in your class is the 1967 animated film “The Jungle Book.”
SARAH: This, of course, is a film that’s all about animals. It has Baloo, there's the Bear, there's Bagheera the Panther, there's Shere Khan, who's a tiger who's a villain. Can you talk about how you use “The Jungle Book” to discuss race with your students?
WALIDAH: Absolutely. I mean, I think that “The Jungle Book” is an incredibly important film because it shows the Disney ideology, in many ways, the clearest. So Walt Disney had a very clear framework about how the world should be, and he was very clear and upfront about that. Walt Disney had an incredibly conservative framework. He felt that women should be in the home, he felt that there shouldn't be queer and trans folks in the world, he felt that folks of color should keep to their menial places. He was very clear on this sort of immense, conservative world view. And that world view is infused in all of these Disney films, and I think you can see it, in some ways, most clearly in “The Jungle Book.” “The Jungle Book” is actually the last film that Walt Disney worked on personally before he passed away in 1966. And there are great scholars who really look at it, one of them being Greg Metcalf who has an article really saying that, in many ways, “The Jungle Book” is a complete repudiation by Disney of all of these changing times. The 1960s. What's happening in the 1960s in this country? Well, everything [chuckles]. We have the women's rights movement, women liberation movement, we have the beginnings of gay liberation movements, we obviously have third world, Black, Latino, Asian, Indigenous liberation movements happening here and globally, and that “The Jungle Book” is actually a complete repudiation of all of that. And if you go through, what comes out so clearly when you watch “The Jungle Book” is there is a natural order of things. Things have a natural order. Everyone has their place in a hierarchy, and it is once you step out of that place that everything falls apart. And things cannot come back together, and society can't function unless everyone is in their proper place. And we see that with, especially with the differences between the original book by Kipling and the changes that Disney makes to it, to kind of emphasize this. So in the book, there's a reason that Mowgli can't go to the village for a while, but at the end of the film, Shere Khan is gone. Mowgli tied that burning stick to his tail. He's gone, seemingly we won, there's no more danger. Why can't Mowgli stay in the jungle, right? So that's not the natural order of things. And they reinforce this again and again and again.
SARAH: So let's talk about another film you talk about in your class, which is “The Lion King.” And this film is one of the more recent one that maybe you were talking about watching as an adult. It came out in 1994. Does the message remain the same over those 30 years, that people should stay in their place, defend the status quo, put like with like? Or do you see a radical difference between the way “The Lion King” deals iwth these issues versus “The Jungle Book?”
WALIDAH: Yeah, I think that's a great question, and I think that the idea with Disney–and there's actually an article called this–is that the more things change, the more they stay the same. That one of the things that makes Disney incredibly a brilliant corporation is that it takes the critiques that are being given to it, and it seemingly incorporates those critiques while keeping the same underlying ideology. So “The Little Mermaid” actually was a response to a feminist critique of saying these old Disney princess films with Cinderella and Snow White, and dear God, Sleep Beauty who spends the vast majority of the film either singing, cleaning, or sleeping, these are not appropriate images for young girls to have anymore. So then they gave you “The Little Mermaid” who's this strong, empowered, independent, adventurous young woman until she sees a man, and then she's willing to give up everything for him. So the more things change, the more they stay the same. And we absolutely see this in “The Lion King” because so again, we have the lions being coded as the top of the hierarchy, the ruling monarchy, and so being coded as white. And we have the hyenas who are voiced by two people of color, and really the main two people of color voices that we hear in that. We see the hyenas being coded as people of color, and they are ghettoized. They're given the badlands. They're given the lands where the light doesn't touch, where nothing grows, and they are starving to death in this very clear analogy to folks who are in inner city, over-exploited, under-resourced communities. And when the hyenas leave their segregated community and try and take over with supporting Scar's leadership, that's when everything is destroyed. The land itself rebels against this unnatural order of things. The water dries up, there's no food to eat, like the land itself becomes desolate, the sun goes away. It's just dark, and there's nothign to eat, and everything's terrible because we did not keep to the natural order of things. And it is only when that hierarchy and that segregation is reinstituted that we see the sun immediately comes out, the water begins to flow, the animals are happy, and everything is back to the way it should be. And I think the one other thing about “The Lion King” that's so important is that this film, as you said, came out in 1994. This is the era of the end of legal apartheid in South Africa, that Nelson Mandela came home, that we're seeing the dismantling of the legal apartheid system that people had fought against so hard, which was one of the most brutal forms of segregation the world has ever seen, and let's be clear, modeled on American segregation. And so it is at this time when this country that the whole world has been looking at is dismantling legal segregation, that Disney puts out a film whose whole message is “if you don't segregate people to their proper place, then everything will be destroyed.”
♪ [Lyrics] Oobie doo, I wanna be like you.
I wanna walk like you, talk like you too.
You see, it's true.
An ape like me can learn to be human too.♪
SARAH: Let’s talk about sex. Not like…sexy sex. Like… anthropormorphized animal sex. Filmmakers put all kinds of human attributes onto animals in films. That’s a big reason why we love them. We love dogs playing instruments and mice solving crimes and Parisian cats inheriting large sums of money to raise their aristocratic families. But when the overtones turn sexual, things start to get kind of weird. For example, the new film “Ted 2” is about a vulgar, talking stuffed animal bear who's trying to fight for paternity rights with his human wife. The film—which, by the way, is ironically trying to hew to a civil right storyline while engaging in transphobic and misogynistic jokes—is all about how hliarious it is to see a teddy bear engage in human sexuality.
TED: So I got some big news. Tammy Lynn and I are gonna have a baby.
JOHN: That's awesome! Wait. How do you guys…?
TED: We uh, we need a sperm donor.
SARAH: Can I just note here to say that the first Ted film made over $200 million? I do not understand America. But anyway. I am not the only person, obviously, who feels squicky about human-like animal sex. Probably the most flagrant example of off-the-mark horny animals in films in history is 1986 film “Howard the Duck”—the film produced by George Lucas that’s about a duck named Howard who is somehow shot out of his own Duck-universe and into the human universe, where he immediately rescues a woman from thugs who then invites him back to her house to have sex with him. Yeah, this is the kind of stuff that gives science fiction a bad name. Bitch Media associate editor Amy Lam recently watched “Howard the Duck” for the first time and has this sixty-second rant about it:
AMY: I just watched “Howard the Duck” on TV, and I was excited to watch it because it looked like one of those classic films from the '80s that I just never got a chance to see. And I kinda had high hopes cuz it looked kinda kitchy and fun. But within the opening sequence, I knew I wouldn't like it because Howard the Duck is transported to the human world, he gets zapped out of his duck world through this apartment building. He goes through all these random apartments, and in one of the shots, it shows a female duck in a bathtub taking a bath, and I knew she was a female duck because in the film, she has boobs, like lady boobs with nipples on her duck costume. So I immediately knew that there's something wrong with this movie. I don't know why this female duck needed to have boobies. But I watched it anyway cuz I thought well, maybe that's just a weird thing that's just happening at the beginning. But as I watched it, it was just so bizarre because this duck gets transported to the human world, and it's a live action movie. So there's like this little 3-foot tall duck waddling everywhere, and you get the sense that he meets this character played by Leah Thompson, and they're having this weird sexual chemistry. And one point, she's like on all fours with her backside to the camera, and it just felt so sexual and weird! She was like three seconds away from having sex with this duck before the authorities bust in her. Anatomically, it was bizarre, and the costume itself was not that bad except that his bill was really inflexible, which makes sense cuz buck bills aren't flexible. But she makes out with it, you konw? And it's just like, is this happening to me right now? Am I really watching this? It was just mind boggling!
SARAH: Thanks, Amy. This is actually happening, I’m sorry to say.
HOWARD: I have developed a greater appreciation for the female version of the human anatomy [howls].
BEVERLY: Howard, you really are the worst!
SARAH: So here’s the point where I say that not all onscreen animal sex is bad. In 2009, science illustrator Katura Reynolds wrote an article for Bitch about representations of insect sex onscreen. What can I say? We cover all the angles. I met up with Katura recently outside her workplace, the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, where she now works designing science exhibits.
KATURA: Right this way.
SARAH: Wow, there's nobody here yet. I feel like we could just sneak into the museum.
KATURA: I know. If you wanna like, I don't know, operate the robots sneakily with no one else around, you totally can. I won't tell.
SARAH: Operate the robot?
KATURA: It's not like anyone listens to this podcast, right?
SARAH: You guys have the Science section of The New York Times stuck to the wall.
KATURA: Oh yeah, you bet.
SARAH: Wow. This place is so cool [laughs].
KATURA: It's very fun, yeah.
SARAH: So Katura, you're a scientific illustrator as well as an exhibit designer, and so I am curious. Today we're talking about representations of animal sex onscreen. So I wanted to know about how you feel about sort of animated representations of animal sex, let's say Bugs Bunny cartoons.
KATURA: [chuckles] No, I remember when we were first discussing this concept. Bugs Bunny came to mind originally, and it's not necessarily that Bugs Bunny I've ever seen having graphic sex on TV.
KATURA: That may be out there, but I've never seen it, and I'm not looking for it. But I feel like the representations of gender sort of wrap into this whenever I think about this topic. I go to Bugs Bunny because–and this says a lot about me, I guess–I feel like as a little kid I learned so much about how gender works from Bugs because he's a trickster, he's a cross-dresser, he will dress up as a girl and put on the perfume and what not to lure Elmer Fudd into whatever sort of sneaky trick he's got up his sleeve or whatever. But I feel like the thing about Bugs Bunny that always stuck in my head as a kid is that when Bugs is just sort of presenting male, he's a rabbit, right? You know, he's got ears, he's got a little bunny nose, he's got a tail, he's just a plain gray rabbit. Whenever Bugs is presenting female, he gets into this costume where he's got lipstick and false eyelashes and all of this bling and maybe a little dress or something. And it just always struck me as a really interesting example of how the default is male, and then in order to be female, you have to put on ornamentation. And I thought that as a little kid that really struck me. I've been reading a lot of Sesame Street books with my toddler.
SARAH: How old is your kid?
KATURA: Oh, she will be two in October. She's a little more than one and a half now, and she's just devouring books left and right. And it turns out she likes drawings of Muppets, so that's cool [laughs]. But you konw, there's a whole new wave of Muppets that's come in with Elmo and Zoe and all of these characters that I didn't grow up with. So I'm just trying to sorta get familiar with these characters. And it's interesting how we've got sort of the pair of Elmo as the little red monster, the cute one with the funny voice. And then he's got sort of a companion monster named Zoe who's sort of a yellow-orange who has all of the jewelry. She's got earrings and tiaras and necklaces and things. And I was like, oh, you know, the gendering of little monsters. That's really interesting.
I mean, I think probably what's going on is that the Muppet guys were like, let's have some characters that will appeal to girly girls. And certainly I've got girly girls in the family. Let's welcome them into the world of monsters too. Yay! But it's just sort of interesting looking at that, how that's, through the gendering, becomes like, if you're just a monster or just a rabbit, then you're male. If you're a rabbit or a monster that has sparkly things, then you're female. I always thought that was really interesting.
SARAH: So were the gendered representations of these animals something that you thought about when you were growing up, or is it just since you had kids that you're like, oh geez, this is kinda screwed up? And I can see it now that I'm an adult.
KATURA: I actually was thinking about gender in animals a lot when I was a kid, which is maybe weird [laughs]. I remember when I was probably in 5th or 6th grade, I was like just on the cusp of junior high when everyone starts getting all hormonal and bizarre, right, and bleh. It's a very awkward time. I was a big reader of books. And so I would hang out at the playground on the elementary school and watch all the boys playing their boy games and watch all the girls all, oooh all together and “All the boys are looking at us!” And I would instantly like start doing this analysis of it as if like, oh, well that is the herd of female elk over there, and notice how the males are clashing their horns together to try to get the attention of the females [laughs]. And just the world made more sense to me when it was framed through sort of nature shows, I guess, and trying to understand people's behavior by what animals do.
SARAH: So you were like a 10 year old pretentious anthropologist [laughing] who watched too many nature shows?
KATURA: Absolutely. That's how I dealt with all the awkwardness of middle school, was I just pretended I was Jane Goodall and was taking notes on the monkeys around me.
SARAH: That's really great.
KATURA: But it's interesting now that I've got a kid of my own, just sort of watching how that all plays out through the lens of this tiny new human. Although, I mean she's bigger every day. She's not as tiny as she used to be. Our pediatrician's office, each of the little rooms where you do your check up has a little mirror along the wall. And one of the offices, one of the paintings on the checkup room–what is the name of that? One of the paintings on teh wall in the room where you sit on the little table, and they check your height and weight and all that, is a Noah's Arc painting, which in itself is a little funny cuz it's like, do I want Bible scenes? Hmm. You know, the other ones are fire trucks and the spaceships and what not, but we've got Noah's Arc too. And for the Noah's Arc representations, they've got two snakes, of course. And one of the snakes has big, giant exaggerated eyelashes, and the other one doesn't. So you can say, “Oh, look. That's the boy, and that's teh girl.” And I walked in, and I was like, I don't think I'm going to switch pediatricians just because of that painting, but man that bugs me! I mean, I'm a scientific illustrator. So I'm like, reptiles don't have eyelashes [laughs]!! What are you doing?!
SARAH: Discussing the representations of animal sex onscreen is not new ground for Katura. I dug through the archives of Bitch magazine and found the article that she wrote in 2009—for our “buzz” issue—about an unusual video series that explores the world of insect sexuality. Here she is, reading part of the article, which is called “Wings of Desire.”
KATURA: Houseflies, we can all agree, are pretty gross. They swarm on piles of poo, and then they walk all over your sandwich. They spread disease, and they give birth to maggots—so unattractive. But houseflies are the star of a video made by actress Isabella Rossellini.
ISABELLA: If I were a fly, a common one, a Musca domestica. You would try to swat me [bang. You can't catch me! My eyes see movement 200 times better than human eyes. That newspaper coming at me looked really slow.
KATURA: The video series is called Green Porno. In this video, Rossellini is dressed in a fly costume, and she explains the facts of life for houseflies. Here’s a detail you may not be familiar with: Flies are hunks of burning love.
ISABELLA: I have sex several times a day. Any opportunity, any female.
KATURA: In the video, Rossellini humps a paper cutout of a giant housefly, and she's grinning broadly for the camera while she does it.
The short films in the Green Porno series were written by Rossellini and co-directed with Jody Shapiro. They feature Rossellini acting out the sex lives of flies, praying mantises, earthworms, dragonflies, bees, fireflies, snails, spiders, and more. The films are simultaneously hilarious, scientifically accurate, unrepentantly corny, compellingly sexy, and completely bizarre. But what really caught my attention was the fact that they flaunt established norms of gender and sexuality.
Rossellini came up with the idea for Green Porno when she was invited to make short, flashy films about the environment. She explained: “To me, ‘flashy’ translated into sex. I’ve always been interested in animals and animal behavior….And everybody’s interested in sex, so I figured, let’s go there!”
In some of the films, she plays the role of the male sex partner, which makes her panting and moaning really funny, rather than uncomfortably smutty.
Through genderbending, Rossellini is disarming the viewer.
Being dressed as a giant bug also helps. If these were humans having sex, these acts would really not be allowed to air on television. But the silly costumes and absurd props often distract the audiences from the flagrantly, graphically sexual content. Comedy often serves as a harbor for the unspeakable. By laughing at the silliness of it all, we can disarm the taboo.
Here’s a clip from the video about bees. The dramatic life of the male honey bee is so hammed up, it could easily be a Shakespearean tragedy.
ISABELLA: I would fly after her! I would mate her in flight. It's our nuptial flight, but pulling out from her, [gasps], my penis will break off! It would get stuck in her vagina like a cork in a bottle. But it would prevent other males from mating with her. She will be queen. She would start a new colony with my babies, but I would die. Without my penis, I would bleed to death. Ah.
KATURA: Rossellini’s play-acting puts her squarely in the role of the lusty, thrusting stereotypical male. While popular culture often uses faux-lesbian sex to titillate male viewers, it’s not so often that we get to see the pretty female lead, Rossellini, cast herself in such butch roles.
In the video about Snails, no holds are barred. Rossellini first appears to be entirely naked, but she's wearing a skin-colored bodysuit. It's painted with cartoonish nipples and even pubic hair.
ISABELLA: I can produce darts. I use them to inflict pain on my partners before mating. It turns me on. I love to be hurt too. Awwwww! [sighs, heavy panting, moaning] Sadomasochism excites me.
KATURA: It’s very cartoonish. Two vertical cloth-wrapped human snails are prodding each other with cardboard darts. But it’s also startlingly graphic.
“I wanted people to laugh, but then to leave and say, ‘Wow. I didn’t know about that.’ That was my green intervention,” declares Rossellini. Perhaps—intentionally or not—it can also be seen as another kind of intervention. The characters reflect the more complex and colorful sides of natural sexual realities. By playfully redefining “unnatural” sex acts as common, healthy, and practical, Isabella Rosselini’s snails, flies, and bees are building a fascinating blend of queer, feminist, and scientific animal symbolism.
SARAH: Popaganda: the only podcast unironically dedicated to providing feminist perspectives on insect copulation. Subscribe in iTunes now, and tell all your friends.
Artist Nicole Georges has made a career out of illustrating animals. For years she was a zinester known for her pet portaits and vegan activism. Now, on the heels of her excellent graphic novel memoir, “Calling Dr. Laura,” Nicole is now hard at work on a book called “Fetch: How A Bad Dog Brought Me Home.” It’s about a dog named Beija that Nicole adopted when she lived in Kansas. Beija died recently, and she adopted a new dog, Ponyo.
[barking, playing dog]
I’m in Nicole Georges’ studio, which is covered in amazing art and, yes, full of Ponyo.
I’m here to talk to Nicole about a project she undertook a few years ago: an annual calendar where each month had a drawing of an animal that has same-sex behavior in nature. 12 months of same-sex hedgehogs and giraffes and deer and loving zebras. The Queer Animal Calendar was the first work of Nicole’s I ever saw, and it’s got a special place in my heart. So I visited her studio to talk about the story behind the calendar.
NICHOLE: In 2009, I think, my mom included me on a group email to a bunch of her friends that was sharing a video with a Jeff Foxworthy kind of like redneck musician guy! She's from Kansas, and she's super Christian. So I think that this kind of video was just like in her circuit. And the video was this comedian guy singing like, “Well, two roosters can't make an egg! That's a real head-scratcher. So why would two gay people get together?” And it's basically saying that since it's completely biologically foolish for gay people to get together because we can't make babies. Then, what in the world are we doing? Cuz animals don't do that. He's like, “I was looking at a wedding cake the other day. Then I scratched my head cuz it was two grooms.” So that was the video to a bunch of people. And then I was like, ugh, I think that there's some gay animals. So I Googled it, and there's hundreds of instances of animals being gay. So I responded to my mom with an email that said, “Dear Mom, A lot of animals are gay, including your daughter.” And I put a picture of me and an ex-girlfriend wearing horse masks, and I sent her a list of all these animals that are gay. I was like, “So this video's pretty offensive, and here's some evidence to the contrary that animals actually are gay.” And I sent it to her and all of her friends who she had CCed on the original thing. And then I was looking at the list, and I thought, oh, there's some very cool, interesting looking animals on here. And I like drawing animals every year for a calendar anyway. So I started drawing the ones from the list of queer animals. Also, I just found my script from doing a queer animal puppet show at the National Queer Arts Festival in San Francisco.
SARAH: What was the puppet show?
NICHOLE: And I did one here too. I wore a safari hat and a khaki dress, and I did a puppet show on a overhead projector–like transparencies–and I drew all the different animals. And then my friend, Ally, wrote a script about some of the animals that we had drawn. Like the gay man penguins who were hatching and egg together, and like just dolphins are nasty. They'll ride each other's dorsal fins. Giraffes necking. Ducks are horrible. They're like rapists, they–what was it called?–they're necrophiliacs. Ducks can be a little bit intense when they have sex. But hyenas can be lesbians sometimes, koalas can be lesbians sometimes, seagulls can be lesbians sometimes. That was what we talked about in the queer animal puppet show.
SARAH: What was the reception to the queer animal calendar? I mean, among your mom and her friends as well as just among people that you were selling it to?
NICHOLE: I think my mom said something like, “Oh, Nicki, you're so funny,” but it was in kind of like a barbed, passive-aggressive way. But I thought it was really cool, and I would love to do a book or a traveling puppet show or traveling talks to schools about the queer animal kingdom. Because I think it just you know, people get a little bit hung up sometimes on nurture versus nature with gayness, and so it's nice to say, “Well, here's an example of animals that are not choosing to be gay. They have no cruel gay models telling them it's Okay, and they still are this way. And there's no value judgment on an animal's sexual practices. They just are what they are.”
SARAH: Yeah, I wonder if it's weird for us to be anthropomorphizing animals in that way. I don't know if animals are gay, they just do what they do. There's not really like an identity thing for them.
NICHOLE: Yeah, it just is. But it's the same with humans. It just is, and we have to have an identity around it because we're, you know, marginalized and persecuted. So we have to unite and be like, okay, you are saying this is gross or awful or against the law or an abomination. And so we need to be able to lean on each other and form a support system and network and an amount of pride to say there doesn't need to be a value judgment on this. This is just naturally how I am, and this is just naturally what I'm doing.
SARAH: Alright, we’ve been talking about a lot of serious stuff on today’s show, so let’s end on a fun note: fantasy pets. Bitch’s social media intern Grace Manger put together this story. Before she takes over, shout-out to Grace’s friends at Kalamazoo College in Michigan who would have weekly listening parties for Popaganda. Thanks so much for tuning in, all you Michiganites! Here she is.
GRACE: In movies, so often the character we identify with is not a person but an animal. We love onscreen animals automatically, even if they’re jerks. In a horror film, people can be dying right and left, but if the film kills off a pet, the audience will never forgive it.
Hollywood knows we feel this way. The number one best-selling book on how to write screenplays is called “Save the Cat.” With our strong connection to cinematic critters, I wondered what fictional animals are our favorites. So I decided to pester family, friends, and strangers alike to find out one question: what animal from pop culture would you like to have as a pet? Here are some of their answers.
LAURALIE: My name is Lauralie, and my ideal pet is a Totoro from the Miazaki film because I love things that are gray and have whiskers and are giant cuz I wanna climb on its belly. And also, it has an umbrella, which is really handy.
MAX: So my name is Max, and the fictional animal that I would have is from the His Dark Materials trilogy. Every character in that story has what they call a daemon, and before you hit puberty, the daemon can shift into any animal that you or the animal wants. But then after you hit puberty, the animals settles into whatever fits your personality best. So everybody kinda gets to see based on everybody else's daemon, what kind of person they are.
NAOMI: Hi, my name's Naomi, and I would wanna have Clifford as a pet because he's just a pretty loyal dog, and he's really cool.
EMMAMY: My name is Emma, and there's this anime I used to watch with a Shiba Inu dog that had the personality of a 13 year old school girl, and she was very lazy and funny, but she had a lot of friends, and she got into really cool adventures. So I think if I was a fictional animal, I would be her because all of her friends adored her. She was super fluffy and cute, and she had a great uniform.
ELISE: My name's Elise, and I'd want a Pikachu cuz Pikachu's cool and cute, and you can go like, “Pika!” [giggles]
ELISE: That's my reason.
GRACE: As for me, I think I’m gonna with Buckbeak, the hippogriff from the Harry Potter series.
[light applause, music]
HAGRID: Well done, well done Harry. Well done.
GRACE: Sure, Buckbeak is a very good judge of character, and saves the day at Hogwarts more than once. But if I’m being honest, I have had a long-kept secret desire to fly. Flight is always my superpower of choice when someone asks me during a group ice-breaker activity. I would definitely run into a space issue. Where could I house a hippogriff in my tiny Portland apartment? Not to mention how I don’t know anything about hippogriff healthcare. But still, all I want is to be able to ride on Buckbeak’s back, suspended in the air.
[Harry Potter theme music, yells of joy]
SARAH: Popaganda is produced by the team here at Bitch Media. Bitch is an independent nonprofit feminist media organization. We're entirely funded by our beehive members, subscribers, and like-minded sponsors. So if you liked today's episode of Popaganda, please become a member online at Bitchmedia.org today. Let us know you liked the show in your order comments. Our jingle is by Mucks and Owen Wuerker. Additional music was provided by Blue Dot Sessions. Look up their creative and minimalist sounds by going to Google and typing in Sessions.Blue. And the show is produced by Alex Ward at the studios of XRAY FM, an independent radio station in Portland, Oregon. Thanks for listening.