In this tense post-election climate there's a tendency to look for suspicious messages in everything but the stickers on grocery-store produce. That's the only way I can explain a writing assignment that included these instructions: "I need you to go to a movie and find out whether the shark is gay."
Now, sharks have done some memorable things in American movies, but this would be a first. Granted, they're usually engaged in disrupting social norms, but not in the size-twelve-high-heels way. A gay shark doesn't make any sense-except, it seems, in a movie for children.
That's the charge, anyway, and where you pitch your tent on the cultural battlefield will determine whether you see this as a bad or good thing. Most of us who sat through the recent animated feature, "Shark Tale," saw nothing more than a typical Dreamworks Studio offering: an impressive glossy look, big-name voices, plenty of tiresome pop-culture references and potty jokes, and a curiously empty place where its heart should be.
But some reviewers insist they saw more. Ramon Johnson, writing for Gay Life on About.com, says the movie "sends a message of hope to closeted gay men who live their lives feeling different and out of touch." See, Lenny is a shark whose mob-boss dad won't accept him for who he is. He's a gentle soul who doesn't want to kill. He prefers to live among fish, and to avoid terrifying his new friends, disguises himself as a dolphin. Johnson goes on, "The similarities between Lenny and some gay men is even more apparent when he cross-dresses as a dolphin."
You might think this is silly, but stories aimed at children have always aimed to teach, and often to teach morals. (The first talking animals weren't Disney's but Aesop's.) Parents have the responsibility of guiding their children's moral development, and when kids are awash in entertainment day and night, it's a lot to keep track of. The last thing we need is to have the field of kiddie cartoons become the next battleground in the culture war. While there are some classic themes we all agree on ("Do what is right"), there are others we don't ("Gay is OK"). Which is the message of "Shark Tale"?
Rachael Scott, reviewing for the web magazine RainbowNetwork.com, praises the movie for being possibly "the first animated film to portray a `gay' character." Lenny is "a vegetarian-a clear euphemism for being gay." Paul Clinton, reviewing for CNN.com, agrees that "Lenny's `otherness' could very easily be read as being gay" and "his overall demeanor is as subtle as a rainbow flag at a Republican convention."
I don't know. Lenny seems more giddy than gay. He's silly and playful and not terribly bright. He doesn't express attraction to any being, male, female, piscine or mammal, which was still the meaning of "sexual orientation" last time I checked. On the other hand, when he wipes off his dolphin makeup and unbinds the wrap that transforms his shark snout into a bottlenose, I had to wonder if some of the guys at the animation studio weren't having a little fun. Maybe this was just a wink at adults. If their intention was to communicate a pro-gay message to children, they failed; not many reviewers got it, either.
But to Ed Vitagliano of the American Family Association Journal, this wasn't a double-entendre pitched at grownups, but a sneaky attempt to teach children acceptance of homosexuality. In a review provocatively titled "Something's swishy about 'Shark Tale,'" Vitagliano writes that "children should be taught to be accepting of others... Two decades ago, accepting differences meant accepting a person who might have a different skin color, or be from a different ethnic background. Such differences are immutable characteristics, however, and not sexual choices." The movie "comes too close to taking a bite out of traditional moral and spiritual beliefs."
Sharks recognize a good feeding frenzy when they see one, and these comments were red meat to those who love to hate conservatives. Vitagliano has been pilloried widely, a typical comment being Christian Grantham's on Outlet Radio Network. "The way Vitagliano sees it, any cartoon shark that doesn't eat meat is clearly HOMOSEXUAL." Grantham files Vitagliano's review under "W for Wackos."
Meanwhile, another animated feature was being accused of harboring right-wing sympathies. Pixar's "The Incredibles" concerns a family of superheroes forced to retire due to the whiny, litigious resentment of the people they have rescued. "They keep inventing new ways to celebrate mediocrity," says Mr. Incredible. Unable to resist a chance to exercise his true abilities, Bob gets tangled up with an arch-villain, an adventure that eventually involves his wife and children as well.
The main message is that families should stick together, but a secondary one is that people should live up to their best abilities rather than suppress them for a false notion of equality. This has raised some lively discussion of recent leveling practices in schools, for example the abolition of Honor Rolls, or giving all children in a contest a ribbon for "Trying" so that no one feels special or slighted.
David Edelstein, writing for Slate.com, reaped a ton of mail on this issue in the wake of his positive "Incredibles" review. Although some parents said that kids' activities were all too competitive where they lived, other writers expressed frustration over the mush-minded esteem-polishing they'd encountered. A school with a poor performance record had boosted it by giving a party with prizes for the students who made the honor roll. But the idea of an earned treat was lambasted in the local paper, which quoted low-scoring students about how left out this made them feel. The school felt pressured to revise the party, inviting every student and "creating spurious awards for positive attitudes and the like." One of Edelstein's correspondents passed along his kids' term for this: "Good breathing, Billy!"
Since our children are going to have to live in a meritocracy, it would seem that exposure to the hard knocks of competition is indispensable. Yet every child--every human--really is of equal worth to every other, and the things that school and sports can evaluate may have little bearing on what we will do well at in grown-up life. Schools are caught in the double-bind of wanting to spur the gifted on, while not crushing the strugglers. There isn't an easy answer to that problem. But in the end, the two propositions don't conflict with each other: Every human being is of inherent equal value, yet the world is going to reward the ones who persevere (perhaps even more than the merely gifted).
So why is it supposedly right-wing and elitist to be in favor of competition? Everyone living in our economy, even lefties, operates under competitive business rules every day, and we don't hear them whining that it's unfair. On the other hand, Christians support their faith's principle that all humans are of equal value, even the lowest-achieving group of all, unborn children. So where's the left or right in "The Incredibles"?
The somewhat-obscure connection is to a philosophy called Objectivism, espoused by author Ayn Rand. Rand's novels revolve around heroes who are shunned by mediocre people but who triumph because of their natural superiority.
Objectivism isn't conventionally right-wing; it's in favor of capitalism, but thoroughly atheist, "right" but not "religious right." A few reviewers, such as John Anderson in Newsday and A. O. Scott in The New York Times, thought they sniffed a Randian skunk in "The Incredibles." And a reviewer on the Objectivist website, David Kelley, backs up their lefty paranoia by praising the film for defending "the value of talent and achievement against the leveling values of egalitarianism." But Kelley is worried that the superheroes aren't pure in their Objectivism; it appears that they want to help those less fortunate than they are. To an Objectivist, altruism is the slippery slope to thinking all people are equal. Kelley concludes that the Incredibles just want to exercise their super powers because it gives them pleasure.
You know, that doesn't sound all that different from Lenny the Shark. He wants to be a vegetarian; Mr. Incredible wants to defeat bad guys; can't we all get along? Children's entertainment has always embraced one consistent theme, and that's "Be yourself." Do what you think is right, even when others tease you (like Lenny), or sue you (like Mr. Incredible). Maybe we could even allow ol' Ed Vitagliano to be himself, and make room for his opinion without calling him a "wacko." Parents have a right to know what messages movies communicate, but there's no need to superimpose meanings that would completely elude a child. When we get too hysterical about the hidden themes of movies, it makes us sound, well, like children.