Saturday, November 19, 2016

The Lion Guard, Defending Anything But Feminism

This analysis was written by a student of Dr. Corey Lee Wrenn who wishes to remain unnamed and was originally published on Vegan Feminist Network.

To the unsuspecting parents desperate to distract their children, The Lion Guard manifests itself as an effective tool. Immediately upon hearing the show’s opening theme song, children will abandon their toys and miscellaneous devices to commit their fullest attention to Kion and his lion guard. Conversely, perhaps it is the subtlety of the program’s most troubling themes that prevents the nostalgic parents from raising their red flags.

The Break-Down: Understanding The Lion King and its Follow-ups

The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride was the seldom-heard-of sequel to The Lion King. In it, Simba had a protagonist daughter named Kiara. As for The Lion Guard, the creators wanted to focus on the time of Kiara’s youth in the second film for the spin-off. However, rather than providing a continuation or addendum to Kiara’s story, she was relegated to a minor role to allow her brother, Kion, (who never existed in any of The Lion King movies) to seize her spotlight as the main character.

As a sidenote, it is also interesting that Kiara is suddenly bereft of her individuality. Here, Kion flaunts the stand-out golden colors associated with Simba, whereas Kiara . . . . . .

Has lost all instances of her distinguished shading tint from The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride (top) and can now hardly ever be recognized amongst her fellow creamy-pelted girl friends in The Lion Guard in any lighting whatsoever (bottom).

Talking About the Main Character: When Retconning Does More Harm Than Good

This wasn’t the only change that was seen in Kiara. In The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride, Kiara makes it very clear toward the end of this video that she doesn’t want to be queen! Yet somehow, in The Lion Guard, this trait is entirely discarded in lieu of a minor female character who wants nothing more than to claim her title of nobility.

The Lion Guard makes the mistake of depicting this Kiara as arrogant, haughty, and quite “bitchy” for being ambitious about the position she was already born into. Kiara is happy essentially remaining home and doing nothing of importance (by apparent virtue of her off-screen “training to be queen”) while her brother becomes the outgoing hero. This is a troubling mentality that Barnett and Rivers remark on in Same Difference:
Women’s brain structures are poorly suited for leadership . . . male brains are created for systemizing--the drive to analyze, explore, and construct a system . . . Women lack the motivation for leadership . . . men are the risk takers . . . jobs are “cheerfully chosen” by women because of their preferences, motivations, and expectations . . . women are just not aggressive enough to succeed . . . In short, these commentators believe that women will never achieve as much as men . . . When men lead, all’s right with the world. When women lead, men are less manly and women are miserable. (Barnett & Rivers, 175-176)
If the “queen-in-training” title is referenced or used as a plot device during an episode, the audience can rest assured that this nagging character will not hold the spotlight, and Kion will soon appear to entertain the children with his rambunctiously boyish antics. This is merely a coded term for “princess,” a trite title that Disney knows they have bestowed upon their female protagonists or side characters in the past. It grants these girls the excuse to eventually become pretty ornaments or damsels to be rescued by the males, all under the false illusion that they are being just as practical as the guys.

Hyenas and Clans: What Do You Mean “Not A Patriarch?”

Furthermore, The Lion Guard is equally reluctant to depict its first villain, a spotted hyena leader named Janja, as the female he really should be. In spotted hyena cackles or clans, there is no question about the dominance of the females, which is established the moment hyena cubs are born. As the video below explains, female hyena cubs have immediate priority over a hyena clan’s oldest male adults, will grow to be larger and stronger than males, and ultimately enforce a matriarch system with their power.

This begs a simple question: why? Why would the creators, who very obviously would have been aware of this research due to their close contact with Disney’s highly convenient Animal Kingdom, decide against this? “Because it’s a cartoon!” Some readers may readily shout, however this isn’t an appropriate time for that excuse; one of The Lion Guard’s main goals, as their producers stated, was to teach kids about animals. This is why they made the choice to ensure that animals aside from lions--a hippo, a honey badger, a cheetah, and even a cattle egret--were in Kion’s Lion Guard. Despite this perfect learning opportunity to add a girl to the outnumbered female character line-up, we are instead treated to a stereotypical gangster-accented punk of a guy hyena.

In fact, he is so attuned to the Guy Code that moments of his feminization (such as a butterfly landing on his head) are occasionally used as gags. This is a character who faces frequent humiliation when he is unable to be tough and intimidating. As the author of Guyland explains this pattern of behaviors:
Violence, or the threat of violence, is a main element of the Guy Code . . . They use violence when necessary to test and prove their manhood, and when others don’t measure up, they make them pay. (Kimmel 57)
This definitely appears to resonate with Janja, who time and time again bullies and antagonizes other animals in his all-male clan of hyenas. Perhaps Disney’s concern was that Janja would’ve come off as a butch lesbian if allowed to be an aggressive female, given the extremely masculine and “Guy Code” nature of true female spotted hyenas.

Damsels In Distress, With Disturbing Implications

Additionally, this male aggression is repeatedly coupled by female victimization. We have a grand maximum of three recurring female characters, and all of them require rescuing: Kiara, Fuli the cheetah, and Jasiri the hyena are those damsels. Many complained about the demonization of hyenas in the first movie, and so when a “good,” supposedly independent female hyena appeared in The Lion Guard, the feedback was generally positive! It was so optimistic, in fact, that audiences very easily ignored that she was anything but a self-reliant female character. In the video below, Jasiri scoffs at Kion for suggesting that she might ever need his help. Of course, seconds later, trouble arrives in the form of Janja and his clan. She defends herself for a bit, but ultimately, it is Kion who chases off the malevolent hyena clan with an awesome roar. Her musical number with Kion, “We’re The Same,” begins to sound void of self-awareness once it is realized that . . . They really aren’t treated the same at all, in fact. As two separate species, they accept each other, and feasibly that is a positive message about appreciating physical differences. Even so, when comparing the sexes, an imbalance is clearly seen in favor of our male hero.

Irritating as this is, it pales in comparison to some of the perverse undertones displayed throughout these damsel cases. The collage below may help to define this persisting theme. It is always predatory or preying groups of males that plan to abduct or ambush the girls. In each case, the girls are helplessly pinned or too are weak to defend themselves.

In the video below, Kiara is lured into the outlands where Janja’s clan awaits to attack. It’s Kion to the rescue once again, and only then does the cackle retreat. [embed][/embed] Even this is rather subtle harassment in contrast to Fuli’s encounter with vultures, and it is worth listening to what the villains’ voice of reason says as his parliament encircles her at 1:13. [embed][/embed]

“Oh, don’t worry my dear, it will all be over soon. After all, we’re not uncivilized.”

What it sounds like is precisely what the distracted parents are likely to miss, and it’s also what the author of Guyland commentates on in uncensored detail:
Whenever men build and give allegiance to a mystical, enduring, all-male social group, the disparagement of women is, invariably, an important ingredient of the mystical bond, and sexual aggression the means by which the bond is renewed. (Kimmel 238)

It’s the sugar-coated conclusions to these twenty-minute-long episodes that obscures an otherwise precarious brand of symbolism. These are metaphors where men are carnivores and women--even if technically meat eaters in this show--are the targets of assault. Even if one chooses to disbelieve that this is very mildly hinted rape culture slipping into children's television, there is still something to be said about the high levels of violence toward women that are being depicted today in children’s television.

Final Thoughts and Reflection

Parents are swift to defend this show with a defensively prepared, “It’s just a cartoon, so what’s the harm? They love it, and they’re learning something from it!”

The sad truth is, they really are learning something from it; and it isn’t what we’d hope they would about animals or friendship. They’re learning about Hollywood-contrived, exaggerated discrepancies between males and females, where few actually exist in reality. They’re learning that they’re watching a “boy’s” show, where mainly boys get to explore. Overall, they’re learning some concepts about general kindness and courage, but it’s a swing and a miss because gender and messages of equality all conjoin in the same ballpark. Positive themes and morals aren’t impossible in children’s television, because dedicated shows with reasonable airing times like Gravity Falls create an entertaining space of equality without shoving ideas down the audience’s throat. Before we begin asking kids to be friendly to each other through media, perhaps we as adults should wonder what we’re making these children think about themselves.

Barnett, Rosalind, and Rivers, Caryl. 2004. “Leading Questions.” Same Difference. New York: Basic Books.
Kimmel, Michael. 2008. “Bros Before Hos”: The Guy Code.” Guyland. New York: Harper.
Kimmel, Michael. 2008. “Predatory Sex and Party Rape.” Guyland. New York: Harper.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Between Entertainment and Education: the Disneynature’s Chimpanzee

by Sebastian Smoliński
Walt Disney Studios are best known for their animated movies, but equally interesting is the history of company’s efforts in the field of wildlife documentaries. Contemporary movies about nature owe a great deal to the patterns developed by Disney associates in the years 1948-1960. It was then when True-Life Adventures were produced – the first such a successful attempt to bring remote nature and animals on screen. Beginning with Seal Island and finishing with Jungle Cat (each movie was directed by the series veteran James Algar), True-Life Adventures won 8 Academy Awards (for best short and full-length documentaries) and were an enormous commercial hit. The series laid the foundations for “blue chip” wildlife films: the subgenre most popular in the United States and Great Britain (with dramatic narrative patterns and omnipresent voice-over).[1]
Walt Disney practically stopped making wildlife films in 1960, but in 2007 the label Disneynature emerged, which continues the studio’s traditions up to this day. One of the features made by Disneynature was Chimpanzee, directed by Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield and released in 2012. The film is my primary focus in this paper, but I would like to describe its treatment of chimpanzees in reference to wildlife films genre in general. There are many cognitive limitations in Disney’s way of telling stories about animals, and it can be argued that they did not change over the decades. Thus, one can look at these “documentaries” (even this seemingly neutral category is problematic) as a compromise between entertainment and education: sometimes beneficial for both, but most often privileging the former. After all, movies produced by Disneynature are an all-family entertainment. They should reach a wide audience; their target is not an exclusive group of biologists and other scientists interested in the lives and habits of rare, endangered animals.
This need to make nature easily digestible influences Disney’s narratives on many levels. First of all, the films must be highly engaging and interesting, that is: “dramatic”. True-Life Adventures are well-known for their rendering of animals’ everyday life. Only the most vivid and striking episodes shot in the wild made it to the final movie. Moreover, despite the urge to present these films as “documentaries” and stories which truthfully portray the life of its non-human heroes, they were often staged and manipulated. The most famous example is the sequence with lemmings from James Algar’s White Wilderness from 1958. The film narrates a shocking episode with lemmings looking for new territory and shows their frenzied journey towards the sea. In the climax lemmings are shown jumping of the cliff into the water, to meet certain death. They behave as mindless, unstoppable creatures. Years later it turned out that the scene was faked; lemmings were thrown off the cliff by filmmakers who nonetheless called their work a True-Life Adventure.
Such treatment of animals is obviously unacceptable in moral terms. The lemmings were used to make the movie more dramatic and horrifying. This sequence from White Wilderness is credited as the chief source of the false myth that lemmings are “by nature” suicidal.[2] Although it may seem a radical example, it gives a good picture of the basic problem with Disney’s (and Disneynature’s) “documentaries”: they strive to be as thrilling as animated and live-action films. In Chimapanzee, the viewer is introduced to the fascinating world of African Great Apes, but the jungle presented is not geographically specific. As all Disney wildlife films, Chimpanzee supposedly takes place in a quasi-mythical rainforest, “barely touched by human kind”, as the narrator suggests (voice-over narration is the main device used by “blue chip” documentaries to construct meaning; it is constantly present and explains all the depicted actions). No sooner than during the end titles we realize that the footage was shot in Ivory Coast and Uganda (in addition, the aerial footage showing the landscape was captured in Gabon). How is it possible, then, that the movie tells a single, coherent story of two chimpanzee groups fighting each other? The manipulation is obvious, but can it be somehow justified?
Chimpanzee was coproduced by Jane Goodall Institute, and Jane Goodall herself is actively promoting the movie.[3] Her authority gives it a well-known expert’s seal of approval. However, this credit may be considered as undeserved, because the real scientific advisor was Christophe Boesch, the figure less recognizable by the popular audience. Yet, the film is far from a scientific exploration. It is a work of talented filmmakers who found breathtaking images and structured them into a partly fictionalized story. By “fiction” I mean the voice-over narration (read by Tim Allen). It transforms the here-and-now of chimpanzees’ contemporary life into a documentary fable. The voice-over is relatively simple and written in a clear manner. It significantly anthropomorphizes the chimpanzees by a way of attributing them human-like thoughts and language. The narrator also pretends to have access to animals’ inner monologues.
In one scene, the older chimpanzee takes a precious stone (used to crack nuts) which belonged to the younger one who went away. As a commentary to this scene, Tim Allen’s voice whispers on behalf of the older, lucky ape: “What an idiot…” Apart from a degree of insult implicit in this line, one may ask if such a commentary is necessary in the first place. I would argue that it is more than obsolete; it is the main way of distorting the representation of chimpanzee lives. The narrator tells a complicated story of two groups of chimpanzees fighting each other, of little Oscar’s mother’s death, and of his adoption by the alpha-male Freddy. The basic plot is perfectly understandable even without the annoying, infantile voice-over. The overabundance of off screen commentary leaves no space for the viewer to think, doubt, or contemplate. He or she is in a way forced to follow the narrator’s logic. The voice-over creates ready-made meanings, framing chimpanzees’ stories in an unscientific, anecdotal manner.
The second way of “fictionalizing” and dramatizing the daily life of Ivory Coast and Uganda’s chimpanzees is editing. The raw footage was, most probably, not as manipulated as in the case of White Wilderness and other True-Life Adventures. Nowadays, ethical standards and discourse on human-animal relations is considerably higher. However, in an editing room everything is possible. In Chimpanzee, pop songs were added to the shots of animals playing, resting, and having fun. Nicholas Hooper wrote the orchestral score which carefully follows animals’ movements, moods, and the film’s rhythm. Most importantly, distinct shots were put next to each other in order to achieve an illusion of a “natural”, true story. The editing helps to shape Chimpanzee’s basic structure. The film constructs the world of good and evil facing each other. Good are chimps close to Freddy, bad are those who stay with the “Scar” (this is the name of an alpha-male from the rival group). The whole conflict is simplified and shown in black-and-white terms. It allows the audience to identify with Freddy’s group and brings to the movie a lot of tension.
The editing and voice over narration are also used to construct controversial storyline. Contrary to the filmmakers’ claim that nothing was “scripted”, huge part of the plot was fabricated. In the article “Rainforest Fiction: Disney ‘Chimpanzee’ Film a Splice of Life”, Jörg Blech described the manipulation invented by the creators in order to present a coherent and touching story.[4] The details were revealed by the film’s scientific consultant, the aforementioned Christophe Boesch from Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. Two main issues he discovered concern the “evil” gang of chimpanzees and the story of Oscar. As it turned out, the rival group was filmed in Uganda while principal photography (the story of “good” chimpanzees) was made in Ivory Coast. The two have never met each other and did not fight; the supposed confrontation was faked and smoothly incorporated into the plot.
The other lie on the filmmakers’ part concerns the adoption process. Freddy, indeed, took care of the orphaned Oscar, but the young chimp died seven months later. As one of the studies showed, this is, unfortunately, a typical fate of infant chimps who lost their parents. In consequence, and in order to preserve the beautiful, moving story, Oscar was played by five different chimpanzees. So, we should rather speak of the “Oscar” – a figure which is a mix of several animals playing the same character.
These two big changes made by Disney filmmakers are problematic, because they were not announced; Disneynature company actually wanted to hide the true story. It is, certainly, another example of a deceptive storyline in the studio’s long tradition of fictionalized wildlife films. However, the filmmakers should have treated both humans and chimpanzees with respect and openly speak about the non-documentary elements in their film. The movie should not be presented as having a “natural”, objective story when it is rather a product of people’s imagination. This undermines the film’s educational value and questions the filmmakers’ honesty.
Voice over narration, editing, and fictionalized story make Chimpanzee look and feel more like one of Disney’s animated movies. However, I would argue that there are several elements in it which deserve an acknowledgment. Firstly, Disney’s strategy of anthropomorphizing is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it suggests that all animals are like humans: they have similar lifestyle, values, and needs – it deprives them of their distinctive character and describes in human-oriented categories. On the other hand, anthropomorphizing does grant animals some important qualities. For example, the narrator speaks of chimpanzees’ “cultural heritage”, describes their use of various tools, and sketches interpersonal relations within a group. In other words, the voice over narration convinces the viewers that chimpanzees have rich and diverse culture. Thus, Chimpanzee can have a noble educational role in informing people around the globe about the uniqueness and specificity of our Great Ape cousins.
Secondly, if the footage used is “real”, then the movie cannot be completely inaccurate. The story similar to that of “Oscar” and “Freddy” (who gave the chimps their names?) has indeed happened. The scientists were surprised that alpha-male adopted a young, orphan male chimp. This kind of behavior is unusual, but its elements were captured by camera and now may be discussed (and questioned) by everyone who watched the movie. Undoubtedly, “Oscar’s” story was framed to fit the narrow patterns of Disney’s “blue chip” wildlife documentaries (emotionally engaging, sentimental story about a suddenly awakened “parenthood”), but genre’s limitations allow the viewer to come closer to the elementary understating of chimpanzees. Watching “Oscar” and “Freddy” building a strong bond with each other, one can look at our close cousins as animals with their own strong emotions, personality, and ways of caring for each other. Under the straightforward surface of Chimpanzee, there lies a mystery of non-human love and commitment.

[1] For the short history of True-Life Adventures, see: Derek Bousé, Wildlife Films (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000), 61-70.

[2] Chris Palmer, Shooting in the Wild: An Insider's Account of Making Movies in the Animal Kingdom (San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books, 2010), 38.
[3] For further information visit Jane Goodall Institute’s site. One of the news about Chimpanzee can be found here:
[4] Jörg Blech, “Rainforest Fiction: Disney ‘Chimpanzee’ Film a Splice of Life”, Spiegel Online International, April 29, 2013,

Friday, August 14, 2015

It's a Man's World for Talking Dogs

Why is it that almost every voice-over for dogs in commercials for flea & tick medication, pet food, or treats is masculine?   

First, animals for whom we do not know the sex or gender we often presume to be male by default. Secondly, canines in particular tend to be masculinized. However, the predominance of masculine voices in media is well documented. Human or nonhuman, it really speaks to the patriarchal dominance of public spaces and experiences.1

Feminine voices only seem to be consistently ascribed to Nonhuman Animals on television in dairy commercials featuring farmed cows. These voices are often matronly, as well, likely in an attempt to frame the product as something that is nurturing, healthful, and familial.  

One exception can be found in the 2015 Yoplait commercial that gives a masculine French voice to an American female-bodied dairy cow. In fact, cows are frequently represented as male despite being female-bodied.2 This not only demonstrates a general ignorance about the American food system, but it also lends evidence to the male-as-default schema.

1. Voice-overs are also white-dominated, with few ethnic intonations represented.
2. Gender and sex are not one in the same of course, but human constructions of gender in the nonhuman world are even less consistent and tend to reflect gender hierarchies.

Ms. Wrenn is the founder of Vegan Feminist Network and also operates The Academic Abolitionist Vegan. She is a Lecturer of Sociology with Monmouth University, a part-time Instructor of Sociology and Ph.D. candidate with Colorado State University, council member with the Animals & Society Section of the American Sociological Association, and an advisory board member with the International Network for Social Studies on Vegetarianism and Veganism with the University of Vienna. In 2015, she was awarded Exemplary Diversity Scholar by the University of Michigan’s National Center for Institutional Diversity. She is the author of A Rational Approach to Animal Rights: Extensions in Abolitionist Theory (2015, Palgrave Macmillan).

Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Sexual Politics of Burger King Chicken Fries

Burger King's 2015 series of commercials for the relaunch of chicken fries depends on powerful stereotypes about women, homosexuality, and race to market their product to privilege: straight, white, masculinity.

In this commercial, a rooster is shown browsing a dating website. After snubbing a number of hens, he comes across BK Chicken Fries and suddenly becomes very excited. Healthy, living chickens are not seen as sexy, but dead, dismembered, disempowered "meat" is sexualized:

In another commercial, BK Chicken Fries are insinuated to be a product of a sexual encounter between hypermasculinized potato fries and a teenage hen. The possibility of his daughter dating the fries sends her rooster father into a rage. Again, powerful gender norms are reinforced in the negotiation of dating and sex, and "meat" is sexualized.

Interestingly, a couple of commercials also present "becoming meat" as a challenge to masculinity, loosely drawing on the "racial threat" in doing so.

In this commercial, a father comes home to his son who is bopping his head to hip hop music with several boxes of fries. Father rooster screams, "You wanna explain to me what these french fries are doing in my house?" His son replies, "Dad, come on they're my boys."  Based on the language and tone, the audience is encouraged to think about the chickens as white-identified and the fries as the non-white thugs. Says the rooster: "Listen, you are a chicken, stop acting like a side dish!" The audience could easily imagine the common trope, "You are white, stop acting Black!" Because "meat" is feminized and exists as a signal of disempowerment, to be meat is to be non-white.

In this ad, a chicken is hanging out on a stoop in an urban setting with some potato fries. His friends catch him in the act, who begin to deride him: "Hey chicken! You gotta lotta nerve for hangin' out with those french fries, man! Maybe you wanna be a french fry, huh?" By placing the chicken in a hyper-maculinized setting (and giving them non-white accents, presumably to increase their "street cred"), we are encouraged to think that there is something emasculating about associating with french fries. In this case, fries seem to represent persons with non-conforming genders or sexualities. The chicken in question must reassert his masculinity and challenges his friends with retorts: maybe he does want to be a french fry. Again, "meat" represents something that is less than masculine, and the rooster's association with it suggests he might be trans or gay. When his friends realize that he might actually want to be a french fry, they become very uncomfortable.

Noticeably, in none of the commercials are the chickens concerned in the slightest with being killed and eaten. Their reactions range from arousal or anger at threats to gender, race, and sexuality norms. So, while chickens are anthropomorphized and the audience is invited to view them as persons, the political imagination is immediately stifled when the systemic violence imposed on chickens becomes a joke.

Vegan feminists have theorized that "meat" is a highly masculinized product, as it entails extreme violence and requires the support of strong ideologies of patriarchal dominance. Advertisers often pull on these ideologies in order to appeal to a hierarchical society that values masculinity and devalues all that is feminized (including women, homosexuals, trans persons, people of color, and other animals). The Burger King chicken fries series is one of several fast food commercials that frame the consumption of their product as a "manly" act that will define privilege for the consumer.

Friday, February 13, 2015

35 Years Later, Infamous Flop Still Bad

This year marks the 35th anniversary of "Heaven's Gate," the infamous cinematic flop that bankrupted the United Artists studio. While there seems to be a growing urge among critics to rehabilitate the film's reputation, I must reluctantly side with the original consensus. Director Michael Chimino's vision of class struggle on the American West is an absolute snoozefest, despite increasingly topical subject matter. Moreover, animal abuse involved in production has been completely lost in discussion of the movie's legacy. Meanwhile, the film's narrative highlights the historic entanglement of violence against humans and animals.

It's hard to overemphasize what a critical and commercial disaster "Heaven's Gate" was upon its release in 1980. The film was initially provided a $12-million budget, but this grew to a then-astronomic total of $44 million, due to Cimino's endless retakes and insistence on historical authenticity, among other things. In the end, "Heaven's Gate" recouped a mere $3.4 million at the box office, while receiving a critical drubbing. In the New York Times, Vincent Canby likened it to a "forced four-hour walking tour of one's own living room."

As mentioned, in recent years there has been a noticeable trend among critics to reevaluate the film more favorably. For instance, in 2011, Time Out London staff named it the 12th greatest western of all time. The following year, in the New York Times, Dennis Lim argued that "present-day viewers may well find that time has been kind to 'Heaven’s Gate,'" describing the film as an "elegiac rethinking of the myths of the West and the western." Writing for the Guardian in 2013, Peter Bradshaw called it a "spectacular western epic," both "colossally ambitious and mysteriously moving." Despite my sincere desire to join this positive reassessment, I can't honestly do so. Admittedly, I haven't seen Cimino's most recent, 216-minute cut, which the 2012 Venice Film director called an "absolute masterpiece." But if it's anything like the 219-minute version available on Amazon, I can say that though the movie is beautifully shot, it remains tremendously boring and overlong.

Further, the allegations of animal cruelty perpetrated during its production should not be forgotten or ignored. According to the American Humane Society's review of "Heaven's Gate," the movie "includes an actual cockfight, several horse trips, and a horse being blown up with a rider on its back. People who worked on the set verified more animal abuse, such as chickens being decapitated and steer being bled in order to use their blood to smear on the actors instead of using stage blood." Ultimately, this led the actors' guild and the producers' association to authorize the American Humane Society to monitor all animal use in film. But as a recent expose in the Hollywood Reporter demonstrated, the oversight is far from adequate. One hopes that if "Heaven's Gate" were made now it would rely solely on CGI animals.

What the film does offer is an illustration of how violence against humans and animals has historically overlapped. As sociologist David Nibert put it, "harms that humans have done to other animals — especially that harm generated by pastoralist and ranching practices that have culminated in contemporary factory-farming practices — have been a precondition for and have engendered large-scale violence against and injury to devalued humans." Primarily Nibert traces European colonization, showing how violence against indigenous populations was often made possible and motivated by animal exploitation. "Heaven's Gate," set in 1890s Wyoming and loosely based on the Johnson County War, follows a similar pattern, though the human victims in this case are European immigrants. In Cimino's film, rich cattle barons, whose wealth is generated through the murder of cows, kill those impoverished settlers who threaten their herds.

But this unintentional representation of a historic phenomenon is not nearly enough to save "Heaven's Gate." Thirty-five years after its release, don't fall for the revisionist hype. Because it's still a bad movie — purely on artistic terms. Worse than that, the production involved willful torture of animals. 

By Jon Hochschartner