Sharlet: On the one hand, there’s something thuggish about attempts by some religious conservative media bigs to press penguins into service for the cause, as reported by Jonathan Miller in yesterday’s Times. There is, after all, nothing conservative about the instinctual behavior on display in March of the Penguins. The values attributed to this behavior — monagamy, self-sacrifice, parental love — are projections, of course, cognates for decisions made by birds whose minds are alien to ours. Moreover, monagamy, self-sacrifice, and parental love are no more conservative than they are liberal. They are acts; conservatives believe they should be valued in one fashion, liberals another. Some liberals eschew monagamy, but then, so do plenty of conservatives. Lust and desire are not partisan impulses.
On the other hand, the conservative, religious reading of March of the Penguins strikes me as good media work — a recognition, after all, of a kind of relativism by which all stories can be interpreted to echo or augment our own. Religious conservatives such as Michael Medved, who proclaims the movie “The Passion of the Penguins,” are playing pretty loosey-goosey with parable and allegory, but by our lights, that’s just fine. Beliefs are built from stories, which make for a wonderfully unstable foundation.
For instance, when I saw the film, I was sure that it would destroy the faith of some religious conservatives who hinge their beliefs on gender. How does one reconcile a commitment to “male headship” of the family with this story in which female penguins are clearly in charge? Perhaps the intelligent designer, in whose image we are made, is a lady penguin?