ARTICLE / LONG READ
IN ANTZ (Eric Darnell and Tim Johnson 1998), Z (voiced by Woody Allen) is an individualistic ant whose actions spur the working class to revolt and eventually overthrow the colony’s totalitarian society. In A BUG’S LIFE (John Lasseter and Andrew Stanton 1998) the revolutionist Flik (voiced by Dave Foley) stands up against
the oppressive feudalism that grasshoppers impose on ants. In BEE MOVIE (Simon J Smith and Steve Hickner 2007), nonconformist Barry B Benson (voiced by Jerry Seinfeld) discovers the exploitation of the proletariat bees by the bourgeoisie humans.
From these select examples, it is clear to see that animated films have an underlying purpose, beyond entertainment, that comments on class structure. Have major film studios been capitalising on the popularity of animated films amongst children to represent their ideological view of class, masking pedagogy with innocent entertainment? In today’s society of rapid entertainment consumption, much of what
children learn about the world is illustrated in such entertainment in depictions that reflect historical and contemporary societies in relation to class, educating children about class structure and planting the seed of which one is considered ideal.
In his 2013 research paper “Fantasy at Work: Representations of Labour and Economy in Children’s Animated Films”, labour studies scholar Navjeet Sidhu examines popular media targeted towards children as “agents of socialization” that
contribute to children’s ideologies. He suggests that films aimed at children, through the use of narratives and characters that convey messages about their society and social class, are taking on an ever-present and important role in teaching them how society functions. Sidhu proposes that the messages transmitted by films targeted at
children are favourable to a capitalist society in representing the working class as being blissfully happy, contributing to society with hard work and validating the power and position bosses have over workers in the class structure of capitalism. However, because capitalism is the hegemonic class structure present in most contemporary societies, the ideologies presented in children’s films may well be commentaries on or reflections of those societies.
HAVE MAJOR FILM STUDIOS BEEN CAPITALISING ON THE POPULARITY OF ANIMATED FILMS TO REPRESENT THEIR IDEOLOGICAL VIEWS OF CLASS?
BEE MOVIE is a prime example of children’s animation that provides commentary about various class structures. The film begins in a beehive located in New York’s Central Park. Protagonist Barry B Benson and his friend Adam (voiced by Matthew Broderick) have just graduated from university and are thrust into the hive at Honex Industries, a large corporation and honey production facility that is an exaggeration
of and commentary on contemporary capitalist societies. During a tour of the production facility, the bees are shown to be enjoying their position as workers and are content with their work conditions and environment, which look like a fun, colourful theme park. Sidhu points this out as “a tool often used by employers to make their workplaces seem more enjoyable, and as a means to boost morale and productivity so that their employees have less reason to take time off work”. This tool is clearly used to great effect in the beehive society, with the worker bees happy and content about having to work every day.
In his 1995 work AN INTRODUCTION TO THEORIES OF POPULAR CULTURE, sociologist Dominic Strinati summarises discussions of ideology by revolutionary socialist Karl Marx in his 1932 work THE GERMAN IDEOLOGY, which argues that “the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas”. The predominant
ideas common to a capitalist society, including its popular culture, are those of the ruling class. This argument suggests that film, as a product produced in a capitalist society, must mirror and represent that society positively, produced and advanced by the ruling class. Such representation is portrayed in the capitalist society of the
beehive, which is exclusively portrayed as positive. Adam goes so far as to state: “We’re the most perfectly functioning society on Earth”. However, Barry provides an oppositional view of their society: “the same job for the rest of your life? … So you’ll just work us to death”. This is the beginning of a Marxist narrative whereby social
change is brought about by a class struggle between the ruling class and working class. Specifically, Barry's comment relates to Marx’s theory of revolution where labour and the working class become a commodity. The questions posed by Barry are his verbal declaration of alienation towards the jobs available to him and his lack of choice in changing jobs. Due to this alienation, Barry decides to no longer conform to the hive’s society and ventures outside the hive, where the Marxist narrative becomes more pronounced.
During his exploration of life outside the hive, Barry befriends a human florist Vanessa (voiced by Renée Zellweger). While at a grocery store with Vanessa, Barry discovers that humans are appropriating the product of the bees labour for their own benefit. “Bees don’t know about this!” he proclaims, “This is stealing! A lot of stealing. You’ve taken our homes, our schools, our hospitals! This is all we have!” This furthers the Marxist narrative and correlates to Marx’s exploitation theory. In AN INTRODUCTION
TO THE THREE VOLUMES OF KARL MARX’S CAPITAL, political scientist Michael Heinrich explains: “‘exploitation’ only means in the first instance that the dominated class not only produces its own subsistence, but also that of the ruling class”. This clearly relates to Barry’s discovery as the humans - the ruling class - are appropriating the surplus labour produced by the bees - the dominated class. Appalled by the exploitation of bees, Barry investigates how the humans are stealing the bees honey.
Upon tracking down a source of the humans’ honey production - Honey Farms - with artificial hives depicted as concentration camps, Barry begins questioning a bee about whether he knows that they are in fake hives and how they all got there. The bee responds: “Our queen was moved here. We had no choice”. This follows
another aspect of the exploitation theory. In KARL MARX’S THEORY OF IDEAS, sociologist John Torrance states that “command over labour can be used for the purpose of exploitation as long as there are workers with no choice but to submit
to it”. Because the humans have “command over labour” through the use of artificial hives and the relocation of the Queen, they are able to exploit the bees. These conditions offer no other choice but to submit to it. Honey Farms is essentially represented as a feudal society, which in contemporary times is viewed as an
unjust society, with bees as the serfs and humans as the masters. This fuels Barry’s outrage and consequent revolution.
THE IDEOLOGIES PRESENTED IN CHILDREN'S FILMS MAY WELL BE COMMENTARIES ON OR REFLECTIONS OF THOSE SOCIETIES.
After successfully overthrowing the oppressive, exploitative and inequitable society portrayed at Honey Farms, the bees gain the means of production and reclaim all the honey that was stolen from them. With an abundance of honey, the bees decide they no longer need to produce it. “So what do we do now?”, remarks a bee as they shut down production, to which the answer is to leisurely enjoy themselves. In line with Marx’s political treatise THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO, with “the abolition of private property, all work will cease, and universal laziness will overtake us”.
What follows is societal and worldwide disaster. As Vanessa explains to Barry, the lack of pollination negatively impacts flowers and produce, which in turn impacts the entire animal kingdom and the world. Barry realises that “if there’s no more pollination, it could all just go south here”, urging him to rally the bee population and use the last remaining flowers on Earth to re-pollinate and save the world. This is a lesson to children about the importance of every job, the benefits of labour, and money as an incentive for labour. Sidhu states that this spreads a clear message
that “if people had everything they needed to live on and did not have to work, this would result in potentially disastrous consequences for society as a whole”. This is further propelled when the bees reach a compromise with the humans that allows them to sell the product of the bees’ labour and provide better incentives for bees to work, including improved ethical treatment of bees. It is, in the terms of another Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci, consensual hegemony. This explains the re-established relationship of exploitation that the bees consent to. Thus, the culmination of the revolution presents capitalism as the ideal class structure.
It is easy to understand Sidhu’s argument of how such an indication and representation of capitalism as the ideal class structure may “legitimise the capitalist economic system”. However, an important context of the representation of class structure in children’s animation is that they are manifestations of the ideologies imbued by the society they were produced in. They are about more than legitimising
or challenging that society's class structures; they are commentaries that provide insight, praise and critique of that society. Viewing culture and ideology as hegemony is to view them in an absolutist way that applies a binary to popular culture as either favouring the working class or favouring the ruling class. And, in doing so, it neglects the facets of representation in children’s animation, children’s individual character and the consequential autonomy of interpretation of that representation. Due to children’s freedom to form an individual ideology, the representation of class structure in children’s animation serves primarily as an educational tool, making it essential to discuss relevant representation of contemporary capitalist society.