Babe: A tale for the ages. Babe: An affectionate and adorable polemic against constricting stereotypes and lack of flexibility in throwing off externally-determined roles and prejudices (e.g. sheep are stupid—according to the sheepdogs; sheepdogs are ignorant—according to the sheep). Babe: A little pig with a good heart–who triumphed!
But first! A protracted personal note to undergird my understanding of this timeless tale…
On one hand: I can reliably be counted upon to get all mushy around mother-child themes in movies. On another hand: I can reliably be counted upon to emotively respond to ALL instances that replicate the qualities I associate with the mother-child bond e.g. friendship (like Red and Andy Dufresne!) and eager, respectful, nonjudgmental care (like… the friendship of Red and Andy Dufresne!). In other words, ‘mother-child’ bonds move me, but not because either mothers or children or the bond they (can, theoretically) share are sacred, but because the unconditional encouragement and goodwill that I have personally experienced and learned to associate with the mother-child bond contains elements that are by no means limited to mothers and children. (disclosure: the rest of my life isn’t so blessed by kindly mentors though, I swear)
So, sure, for me personally, moms + offspring have a special, positive valence! However, I recognize this is not the case for those whose mother-child relationships are different from my own. In this movie, for example, Babe is continually assisted and supported by various (male and female, human and animal) surrogate ‘mothers.’ One one hand, this heartens me for the idea of ‘mothers’ to me is a positive one. Mothers, best friends, camp and freedom! These kinds of relationships have always been (more) good (than bad) for me and I’m thankful for them. However, on the other hand, why do we as a society continue to focus on mothers as the sole source of care and compassion for children and not fathers? Why is ‘mothering’ associated with care and ‘fathering’ with inseminating and scramming or reprimanding?
Attempted answer! The ‘role’ society generally heaps on women is that of motherhood, whereas men’s roles have always been more roomy: Adventurer, worker, personality!… and father on the side. This is unfortunate because I really like my mom and really want to be a mom! But no woman wants ONLY to be a mom.
So! To clarify, my affection for motherhood, based on my sole experience of my relationship with my ma, does not preclude the (positive) Power of Fathers (which I have heard–and believe, ’cause my experience isn’t the only one–exists) nor does it necessitate and mandate motherhood for women.
I think I can understand the Cult of the Mother for people who do and don’t have good mothers, how they can lead people to believe that women who don’t mother well or refuse to mother tear at the fabric of Our Great American society! My argument against this is: All people can “mother.” Anyone loving and kind can perform “mothering” functions. I can’t wait to procreate, but that’s just me. Some people do, some don’t. The issue isn’t bad (non-“feminine”) feminists refusing to be mothers, resulting in scoundrel children roaming the dangerous (“masculine”) streets! It’s people (men, women, everyone) who want to love, work, live and die on their own terms, forming their own relationships and loving the way they choose to love (following the patterns set up by good parents or surrogate parental figures, or acting in opposition to bad parents and surrogate parental figures).
Farmer Hoggett, in this movie, is a wonderful example of a good ’mother’ (i.e. parent) in this film, as is Fly, a sheepdog and Babe’s non-biological mother.
A great rejoinder, in fact, to the fallacy that feminism is only for women is the character of Farmer Hoggett, a great feminist hero indeed. While his wife is a never-fully-sketched-out caricature, Farmer Hoggett is kind and attentive, where his wife is oblivious. Likewise, Fly the female dog is sympathetic where her partner, Rex the male patriarchal dog is cruel and stuck in his ways. There are both good AND less-than-good males and females in this film, both animal and human. Feminism (to my mind) manifests itself in this movie by the challenging of harmful conventions and ultimate respect of choice.
The movie starts off with a slaughterhouse scene of innumerable little piggies minding their business, canooding with their offspring and siblings. However, soon Babe is removed from this not-so-Edenic Eden, taken to a Guess the Weight booth at a county fair, before eventually arriving at Hoggett farm.
Lonely and confused, Babe is taken under the wing of Fly, a female sheepdog who ostensibly follows the rules set by The Local Patriarch, male sheepdog Rex: Pigs are stupid, it’s just the way things are, don’t upset tradition, worship the patriarch, blah blah blah. In reality, Fly is much more flexible and easily attuned to the sorrow and feelings of other creatures. Hence her empathy for Babe.
Slowly, differentiating prejudices are replaced by tentative alliances as pig (Babe) and sheepdog (Fly) show love and affection. Slowly, elemental kindness overrules long-held beliefs about ‘stupid or smart’ character and ‘immutable’ differences.
Interesting in this movie is the use of the term ‘stupid’—who is stupid? What does it mean to call someone ‘stupid’? Is the ‘stupid’ party always someone else or do we all have the capacity to be ‘stupid or smart’ given the circumstances? The sheepdogs say pigs are stupid, but Babe isn’t stupid. Plus, the sheepdogs like Babe.
Interjection! Is Babe male or female? Does it matter? I like the idea of Babe not having a gender. The assumption is usually that Babe is male and towards the end of the movie, I do admittedly start hearing some male pronouns, but the actor who voices Babe is female and finally, what is the basis for that assumption? I think the answer is always that male is the default. We assume male until proven otherwise. Babe is awkward and gawky. We’ve been taught to associate everyday weirdness with males, so Babe must be male! But Babe is also sweet and humanitarian and we associate care with females, so is Babe female? All these characteristics-linked-to-genders are our superimposed prejudices, not reality! I see Babe as a kind and hardy little gender-neutral pig.
As in the world at large, the ‘enemy’ is always… The Patriarch: that person (or animal) whose power rests on the enforced powerlessness of others! Rex, male sheepdog and mate of Fly, fulfills this role. Rex is the take-no-prisoners leader (much more a function of his unasked-for position as male sheepdog than any personal attitude or “innate” genius), who arrogantly asserts:
“To each creature its own destiny, every animal in its proper place.” Of course, it’s easy for the master animal to uphold ‘the rules’ if the rules justify the current hierarchy e.g. KKK members vouching for the rectitude of white people and scientists advocating for the superiority of science and me saying cats are the best animals because I personally think cats are the best!). After an incident with Babe and the duck (who crows like a rooster because roosters don’t get eaten–a pretty understandable survival scheme), Rex pontificates: “As for the fugitive duck, when he shows himself, let him know this: Being a duck, he must behave as a duck. No more of this crowing and nonsense. He should accept what he is and be thankful for it. That goes for all of us.”
Of course, accepting who you are is one thing; limiting yourself to the made-up rules surrounding your ‘natural’ ‘place’ is quite another. I can accept my physical weaknesses and short stature without buying into the lies that, I don’t know, short people have deficient moral compasses and females are intrinsically made out of wheat flour, hence their inability to control their emotions and straight middle-class white men who don’t think critically are the best, rah rah rah!
Rex’s arrogance, we will learn, is bred of vulnerability and past failures. Rex, the lead male dog, must assert his dominance! Or he’ll feel like the failure he once was! (Wow, what a world it would be if we all had the GUTS to acknowledge vulnerability and the unavoidability of failure; what a much more realistic and thoughtful place it would be, where kindness and strength were EARNED and BORN of hardship and misery, instead of superciliously asserted over the needs and desires of other people; people who ALSO want to be as important and loved as you! Which is fine ‘cause there’s not a finite supply of love and respect!)
Babe, not wanting to be undervalued and dismissed as stupid, as well as just being a spunky, good-natured little imp—defies his/her “station” by fulfilling the social role of a sheepdog. That is, Babe joins the dogs when they go off to herd the sheep and is friendly with Fly and her pups. This commingling between animals angers (i.e. threatens) Rex, the Patriarch, who would rather that his ilk (sheepdogs) be singular and superior. And that’s how it goes: Women don’t want to be dismissed, men (who have unfortunately been taught and buy into the myth that their worth rests on their superiority—as opposed to their ethicality) freak out when their unearned privilege is challenged. How unfortunate that people believe there is a limited amount of people who can be considered “special” in this world, hence their need to continually assert their dominance over ‘non-special’ people, unaware that specialness is relative, we all have talents and can “dominate” our own points of interest without dominating other people trying to live their own damn lives; and to take it even a step further, why don’t we see the need for “dominance” for what it is: An obviously insecure crutch, the exact opposite of confidence. My easy-peasy solution: Let’s all work together! We can all be “on top” in our own ways. We all want to be special, all want to “dominate,” but we can actually channel and explore ourselves instead of squashing out the lives of others. Sub in race, class, age, geography, sexual orientation, religion etc. for gender and you have the same dynamic that absurdly repeats itself throughout the ages: People “on top” don’t want to give up their privileges. Who would? But the thing is, in giving up something you never truly earned but have been given by accident of birth, you GAIN integrity—and friends! People you thought were your inferiors become your equals and co-challengers to the corrupt system that artificially divided you in the first place!
When Fly’s pups are put up for sale, Rex stoically and “masculinely” (because stoicism and coldness are not inherently masculine, they are artificially associated with it) ignores her but Babe stays with her, aware of and respectful of her sense of loss. “Fly, may I call you mom?” Thus, the alliance is forged in love, not dominated by rules of ‘the way things are.’
If this movie is nothing else, it is a playful, poignant repudiation to the fatalistic constancy of ‘the way things are’! So you say a pig can’t perform the same functions as a sheepdog, a duck can’t crow in the way a rooster crows? Says who? Who’s invested in preserving the hierarchy, and why? No one wants to be at the bottom. Says Ma the ewe, “I’ll not be a common sheep, thank you kindly. I’m a Border Leicester ewe. The name’s Ma.” Everyone, it seems, wants a PLACE where they feels safe and loved and that place is never at the bottom. The issue is not to strip away or belittle that desire for upward mobility, as anti-feminists seem to think women want to do to The Glorious American Way or whatever, but to destabilize and challenge the hardness and rigidity of ‘place,’ of a vertical schema that necessitates a top and a bottom at all. We can, in fact, have separate and equal interests, work together sometimes; we don’t need to separate into discrete and warring tribes. We can be separate but respectful and love who we love, not just whom we’re supposed to love…
What’s wonderful about the proxy parent-child relationship between Fly and Babe is the flexibility and respect. Babe dutifully listens to Fly’s kind, well-intentioned advice but isn’t strangulated by it. In other words: Fly’s words provide a helpful template, not a command.
For example, Fly teaches Babe how to manage the sheep (based on her general prejudices that sheep are stupid and specific experiences with sheep in her past), but Babe ultimately chooses to discard her advice because Babe has a different relationship with the sheep and because Babe recognizes it isn’t humane to bite and abuse them. Instead of cruelty, Babe uses kindness. Hence, the same effect (herding the sheep) is reached through better means. Fly gives Babe the confidence, which enables Babe to improve upon the original framework of sheep-herding. Fly is very tough and very kind, and Babe is the better for her.
The first time Babe takes Fly’s advice point-blank and unsuccessfully herds the sheep via cruelty, Babe trots back to Fly, confessing:
“This is ridiculous, mom”
“Nonsense, it’s only your first try. But you’re treating them like equals. They’re sheep, they’re inferior.”
“Oh, no, they’re not.”
“Of course they are! We are their masters, Babe. Let them doubt it for a second and they’ll walk all over you!”
Babe then bites a sheep. For this, Babe is chastised by the sheep and feels remorse. When talking to them, Babe says:
“I’m sorry I bit you, are you alright?”
“Well, I wouldn’t call that a bite myself. You got teeth in that floppy mouth a’ yours?”
“You see, ladies, a heart of gold.”
In chorus: “A heart of gold.”
“No need for all this wolf nonsense, young’un. All a nice little pig like you need do is ask.”
And so! Babe herds the sheep by asking, not biting. Man, I LOVE these triumph-of-the-underdog movies. Because I’ve always felt like an underdog. As a woman, I always will be! As a white person, I never will! As a frequently-injured person (I fell in a ditch: sprained toes and bruised ribs), perhaps I frequently am! As an educated sort, I’m not! And on and on. I guess the important thing is to recognize strengths and weaknesses, externally and internally defined. And be kind; remember you’re not the only one…
Soon after learning to herd the sheep, however, Babe is beset by existential anguish when he discovers a pig’s ‘role’ is to be eaten. The heartwarming care and simple kindness Fly shows in confirming this rumor is… beautiful to witness! Unlike Fly, Rex’s intense pride shuts him out from such complicated, beautiful encounters. Rex’s overwhelming sense of superiority and specialness breeds such lonely self-importance that he is always alone, always nursing his fragile ego by stuffing it up.
Babe is soon re-invigorated by the kindness of Fly and Farmer Hoggett and continues on the path towards not being dismissed or eaten!
And Babe continues, along with the help of Fly, the Farmer, the other animals (including, finally, Rex) to flout the ‘roles’ and rules by not honoring them. Yes indeed. That’s something staggering I learned in my early twenties: that it’s UNETHICAL to follow corrupt rules e.g. Women are only as valuable as their virginity, men are only as valuable as their aggression-bullying-sadism.
No matter how stately the disseminator of these rules, no matter how aged and hence “respectable,” no matter how timeworn and long-held, a bad rule is a BAD RULE. Tradition doesn’t make something good!
When Farmer Hoggett brings Babe to compete in the local sheepdog competition, he too is ridiculed and berated (obvious guises for threatened parties, otherwise why should they care?) for flouting “the historic conventions that have long ruled our sport.” This is in all ways a movie that celebrates the flouting of conventions, if they are bad or unnecessary.
Babe, like the best children’s movies, is deceptively emotionally and intellectually aware. Offering as it does its sweet and scary challenge to prejudice-laden hierarchies and mythologies of ‘stupidity’ and ‘natural’ roles that divide classes of the same species against each other, Babe is very much a story of how separate clans and demographics can and should be questioned. Unconditional affection and encouragement, born of empathy and basic putting-yourself-in-someone-else’s-shoes, conquers long-taught belittlement.
As Anaïs Nin once said, “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” I mention this because… plenty of people root for underdogs (in movies, in sports, in real life, etc.) but what happens when the underdog is a woman, or a pig? Does an underdog not count if they don’t look like the underdogs in Chariots of Fire? Who determines who counts, and why?
I love Babe because its parallels are so obvious and excellent. Babe is the disavowed underdog (or, underpig) who–with the help of multifarious allies–triumphs! Lots of breeds of human are likewise oppressed and belittled. Can’t we band together against rigid traditions and unquestioned rules?
Can we not?!
When speaking to the sheep, the sardonic narrator says:
“Fly spoke very slowly, for it was a cold fact of nature that sheep were stupid and nothing would convince her otherwise.”
Likewise, the sardonic narrator continues:
“The sheep spoke very slowly, for it was a cold fact of nature that dogs were ignorant and nothing would convince them otherwise”
We can do it! We can be the change we want to see!
Finally: A few, peripherally awesome things about this movie: 1) the sassy singing mice; 2) the totally weird timescape. In terms of clothing, accents and behaviors, this movie is half Technicolor 1950s, half modern-day Middle America-by-way-of-Australia. Very weird/awesome. 3) Did you know? The beautiful, soothing voice of Fly is voiced by Miriam Margolys aka The Nurse in Romeo and Juliet?