BOB GARFIELD: From Dick Van Dyke's dancing partners in Mary Poppins to Tennessee Tuxedo to Batman's waddling nemesis, the penguin has long been anthropomorphized by the media.
But lately, penguins have found extra work as political symbols. As recently as last summer, for instance, penguins were embraced by the Christian right because of their impeccable family values. They can't fly, and they stink of fish, but they also don't divorce or have abortions.
Commenting on the documentary March of the Penguins, worldnetdaily.com, a conservative website, wrote that it, quote, "verified the beauty of life and the rightness of protecting it." Nationally syndicated conservative radio talk show host Michael Medved said, "The movie passionately affirms traditional norms like monogamy, sacrifice and child-rearing."
But then came the penguin's Mary Cheney moment. A new children's book, called And Tango Makes Three, recounts the true story of a pair of male penguins in Central Park Zoo who adopted a fertilized egg and raised the chick as their own. Yes, Chilly Willy has two daddies. The book was recently pulled off some library shelves in Illinois due to the implied celebration of bird-on-bird sinfulness.
And then there's the new animated penguin movie hit, Happy Feet.
[FILM CLIP] [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
PENGUIN CHARACTER I: For all our sake, you must stop this freakin' us with the feet.
PENGUIN CHARACTER II: Don't ask me to change, Pa, 'cause I can't.
PENGUIN CHARACTER I: All you gotta do is sing.
[END FILM CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: This one, with plot lines concerning over-fishing and ocean pollution, puts the penguins smack in the middle of the environmental debate, sort of Erin Brokovich in a cummerbund. Here's director George Miller.
GEORGE MILLER; But you can't tell the story of the penguins and of Antarctica without telling the story of its environmental threat. I mean, it's like the canary in the mine.
BOB GARFIELD: So now comes political backlash from the right, miffed that its mascot, like the Reverend Ted Haggard, has strayed in the direction of the evil other. Here's CNN's Glenn Beck complaining about the hidden political message in Happy Feet.
GLENN BECK: Tell me about it first, okay, so I know I'm walking into propaganda. But with Happy Feet, no, they just couldn't. They couldn't shoehorn that into the marketing. That'd be too tough.
I wonder if it's because they knew that people, you know, wouldn't go see it, or not as many? They may not pull in 42 million dollars if people thought they'd be watching an animated version of An Inconvenient Truth.
BOB GARFIELD: Can't media right-wingers just turn the other beak? No? They cannot. Here's Fox News Channel's Neil Cavuto.
NEIL CAVUTO: I thought it was like an animated Inconvenient Truth. I half expected to see an animated version of Al Gore pop up.
BOB GARFIELD: Interesting metaphor, considering another recent penguin development – Al Gore's Penguin Army, a YouTube video spoof of the anti-global warming documentary, An Inconvenient Truth.
The video was supposed to have been made by a 29-year-old amateur in Beverly Hills, but The Wall Street Journal traced it to a computer registered to a Republican P.R. and lobbying firm in Washington, D.C. Exxon Mobil is one of their largest clients.
Next year, two more penguin movies are slotted for release – a spoof of March of the Penguins, called Farce of the Penguins, and a Sony feature, Surf's Up. Huh! Strange. And just before the presidential election.
"The Day You Come"
"Riding the Nuclear Tiger"
by Ben Allison