Food Poisoning: Surplus and Suffering in Contemporary Children's Film

By Sawers, Naarah; Parsons, Elizabeth | Papers: Explorations into Children's Literature, March 2005 | Go to article overview

Food Poisoning: Surplus and Suffering in Contemporary Children's Film


Sawers, Naarah, Parsons, Elizabeth, Papers: Explorations into Children's Literature


It is perhaps unsurprising that the intended viewing audience of mainstream children's films (in the Western world at least) are assumed to be well fed. The opening line of Dreamworks' 2004 hit feature Shark Tale foregrounds this relationship between food and film when an undersea sidekick asks the audience directly. "Have you finished with that popcorn?" An investigation into the traffic of ideas indicated by representations of food and hunger in children's films points to the political consequences of taking for granted that the viewer has an adequately filled stomach. This audience positioning principally enables the punishment of those who are hungry in these narratives by indicating their cultural otherness as non-white, as women, as lower-class citizens and as homosexually aligned subjects. The punishment, typically, is hunger and/or food signalled deprivations that leave these characters as unsatisfied as they are unsatisfying political entities by virtue of their disenfranchised state.

Such deployments of hunger demonstrate that, as a symbolic entity, food principally signifies power, particularly the power to be gained by adhering to hierarchical social structures. When Antonio Negri describes poverty as 'biopolitical' (Negri 2003, p. 194), he provides a neologism equally applicable to hunger as a state of being that is both physical and ideological. As Negri argues, the relationship between the oppressed and oppressive force is consistently more difficult to unpack in the contemporary manifestations of capitalism wherein the poor, which he also defines more generally as 'the exploited, the excluded, the oppressed' (p. 195), are 'inserted into production and are determined by it in turn' (p. 197). In fact, he claims, 'the more they are absorbed within consumption (in contrast to the slave) ... all the greater is the violence they must suffer' (p. 197). Oppressed others are typically co-opted into (and absorbed by) the capitalist hierarchies of the culture which produces the biopolitics of their existence. The majority do not seek to challenge capitalism, patriarchy or exploitative wealth, rather they serve the interests of the dominant group because they aspire to belong to, rather than to deconstruct, the political superstructure of which their oppression is a function.

Analysis of The Lion King (1994), Stuart Little (1999), Shark Tale (2004) and The Incredibles (2004) entails not the reality but the representation of the biopolitical state of hunger; but, by extension, this exposes the (metaphorical and literal) reciprocal arrangements between characters who are consuming or starving as they exist within broader political agendas. However, the bodies marked by hunger in these films generally coincide with oppressive social arrangements underpinning real-world capitalist distributions of wealth, as well as distributions of sexual power between male/female and homosexual/heterosexual characters. This becomes further exacerbated when tracing the distribution of meat and the tensions brought to the fore in representations of the human and non-human. Through a perverse anthropomorphic lens, these texts homogenize material variation and difference under the category of nature. The overarching production of these animations thus work reductively so that 'nature' becomes more universalized while simultaneously encompassing more heterogeneity. As we demonstrate, these animated texts work to polarize differences specific to class, sex, sexuality, race and the non-human, (that is, all the variations of difference in the material world) in order to naturalize a specific body with power.

Negri's articulation of the biopolitical will here be refigured through a close examination of nature as theorized by Donna Haraway. Haraway argues that science, through the method of observation, gave way to the belief that 'competition is the precondition for co-operation' (Haraway 1991, p. 17). The world is constructed as 'an object of knowledge in terms of the appropriation by culture of the resources of nature' (Haraway 1991, p. …

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