Screens Nasty, brutish, and short 

One irate reviewer takes a hatchet to the Religious Right's penguin snow job

The Far Right has found a most unlikely ally in Emperor Penguins. Media moguls from The New York Times to the Chicago Tribune and Agence France-Presse to the editor of the National Review are chiming in on the subject, joining a chorus of conservative organizations such as the 153 House Churches Network that are, well, organizing efforts to rechristen March of the Penguins a documentary about Christian values. Conservative film critic Michael Medved even called it "The Passion of the Penguins" for this summer's devout Christian moviegoers.

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The latest pawns in the culture wars, Emperor Penguins (seen here in scenes from the hit documentary March of the Penguins), do their best to live up to Christian preconceptions about coupling and parenthood, aspirations that appear to collapse under the pressure of Arctic life, writes Cole Haddon.

The only problem is, none of the ideologues championing March as an act of God have seen the movie - or at least that's what their pronouncements suggest. Maybe they saw a movie about penguins - MGM's animated The Pebble and the Penguin perhaps? - but they didn't see this one. If they had, they would have realized that the film's narration, performed by Morgan Freeman, refutes every one of their attempts to anthropomorphize the Emperor Penguin into a church-going avian species favored by the Almighty.

The story: Once a year, the Emperor Penguin leaves the shores of the Antarctic ice shelf and waddles 70 miles to an icy patch of nothingness where rock walls offer some respite from winds that can reach 100 mph, where the ice is thick enough to survive the summer months, and where - more than a year after the last time they got some - the Emperors get laid. The impetus for all this is the penguins' drive to reproduce smack dab in the middle of our planet's harshest climate. Luckily, they've developed bizarre and unique adaptations to pull off this miracle. After the long hike, after the mother gives birth, after a juggling act that leaves Dad in charge of the egg for two months while the mother goes to feed, a chick is born and (RISE CHORUS) the circle of life continues. This process has, for reasons that defy common sense, been interpreted by conservatives as evidence of nature's affinity for monogamy, the sanctity of life, heterosexual coupling, and, because it's a linchpin in this year's evolution debates, "intelligent design."

Yet, despite what you may have heard, Emperor Penguins are not monogamous.

You heard me, Rich Lowry: Penguins are sluts. The editor of the National Review recently told a gathering of young conservatives, "You have to check out March of the Penguins. It is an amazing movie and, I have to say, penguins are the really ideal example of monogamy." Too bad Freeman points out early in the documentary that Emperor penguins mate for one season only, "which means every new season, all bets are off."

And, despite the Religious Right's best efforts at a snow job, Emperor Penguins are a different kind of pro-life.

On her blog, anti-abortion hero Julie Stanek - whose thoughts on this subject have been quoted extensively in recent days - wrote: "I juxtaposed the willingness of penguins to freeze and starve to death for their babies to the unwillingness of humans to forfeit any indulgence whatsoever for their babies."

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Here's the problem with this train of thought: Emperors do not freeze and starve to death for their babies. They freeze and starve to death because they grossly miscalculate their ability to withstand these pressures. Go back and watch the scene again where, as a father nestles his chick, Freeman explains, "If his mate" - that is, the female penguin he got to bang once before next year's flavor - "does not return soon, he will be forced to abandon his child, to return to the sea to feed himself." In other words, he commits infanticide. Then, as if to rub salt into the wound, Freeman adds, "He will have no choice." The poor bird has no choice because, simply put, he has a responsibility to reproduce viable offspring. If he dies, his chick dies. If he dies, he will never have more children. There is no sacrifice here, except for the species. He chooses life: his own. He chooses to desert (call it abort) his chick, plain and simple, because he would be incapable of guaranteeing it a future.

As this desparate scenario might suggest, there is nothing intelligent about the design of the Emperor Penguins' lives.

The Christian publication World Magazine recently published Andrew Coffin's thoughts on March: "That any one of these eggs survives is a remarkable feat - and, some might suppose, a strong case for intelligent design."

Apparently Coffin missed some of the documentary's opening narration. "For millions of years, `the Emperors` have made `Antarctica` their home," Freeman says. He explains that the continent was a lush rainforest before continental drift turned it into the backdrop for John Carpenter's scary-as-all-hell The Thing. Now, let's not mince words here. For folks such as Coffin and Stanek, "intelligent design" is the antithesis of evolution. And evolution is like cooties to an 8-year-old boy. Coffin writes that, "talk of evolution `in the film` is minimal," as further evidence of the penguins' role in God's creation. But how the hell did he miss the bits about "millions of years" and continental drift, both of which are obvious endorsements of the evolutionary apparatus of this world? Coffin and his ilk cherry pick the vignettes that support their interpretation and ignore the bulk of the film. Then again, that's what they have been doing with the Bible for hundreds of years, so we shouldn't be terribly surprised.

Nonetheless, I will admit that March of the Penguins left me with one burning religious question: What kind of creator would hatch flightless birds that swim and spend nine months of the year struggling to produce a new generation in the middle of a frozen hell? Sounds more like ignorant design to me.

By Cole Haddon


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