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Babe and bbq

Before Jamie and I went golfing yesterday, we had a serious talk.  It wasn’t on the agenda; it just happened.

We were dining at one of our favorite lunch stops, Fat Jack’s Barbeque.  Suffice it to say that we don’t go there for the decor or the ambience.  We go there to chow down on some serious meat (he takes the pulled pork, I do the brisket) doused with Mississippi Mud bbq sauce.  This time, Jamie brought along the quite wonderful animal encyclopedia he bought last year at the AAUW booksale (he went with Janet and picked it out himself).  It consists of a looseleaf binder full of information about various animals—their habitats, their diets, their mating practices, and so forth.  While we waited for our animals to arrive on plates, Jamie asked me to go over some of the animals in his book, and I insisted on reading some of the fine print of the entries.  Jamie usually resists this, but I managed to convince him that some of the fun facts on display were really kind of fun: who knew, for example, that the nine-banded armadillo is the only species of armadillo that can swim?  or that they always have babies in litters of four?  Jamie understands the difference between animals that lay eggs and animals that have live babies, and knows that it marks the distinction between most mammals and most reptiles/ birds.  He also knows the difference between animals that have litters and animals that usually give birth to babies one at a time.

But after we’d discussed the Bengal tiger, the gorilla, the African elephant, and the nine-banded armadillo, it was the vampire bat that really got things going.  I explained what the book meant by saying that the vampire bat is a “threat to cattle” because it can “infect them with the deadly disease of rabies.” Jamie has heard of rabies before, and because we fought to have him included in regular seventh-grade science class last year (and because his science teacher was so receptive, and so inventive in finding ways to adapt his tests to his skill level, so that, for example, he was responsible for knowing only about half the components of a plant cell), he knows what a virus is.  So he understood when I told him that rabies is a dangerous virus that can make an animal go crazy and die, and that you can treat it if you catch it early (or vaccinate against it) but that there is no cure once it reaches an advanced stage.  And that’s why we take dogs to the veterinarian to make sure they have their rabies shots.  Why, I said, even Lucy the Dog has had a rabies shot.

“Like in Babe,” Jamie said.

Babe?” I replied.  “I don’t think there’s any rabies in Babe.”

“No, the doctor says, ‘it can’t be rabies.’ He says to Mr. Hoggett.”

“Oh!  You mean when Rex bites Mr. Hoggett!”

“Right, exactly.”

Right, exactly: in Babe, Rex the sheepdog has become increasingly furious with his partner Fly, whom he sees as complicit in Hoggett’s heretical scheme to train Babe to become a sheep-herding pig.  Finally, when Fly approaches Rex to try to convince him that there’s no need for all this trouble just because Babe is helping the boss, Rex calls her a “traitorous wretch” and attacks her.  When Hoggett runs out to break up the fighting dogs, Rex bites him on the hand.

“No, not the hand,” Jamie corrected me.  “On the wrist.”

Right, on the wrist.  So, then.  Why would Rex bite Mr. Hoggett when he knows perfectly well that the dogs are never, ever allowed to bite Mr. and Mrs. Hoggett?

“Why?” Jamie asked.  “You tell.”

“Well,” I said.  “You know he is very angry at Babe, and very angry at Fly for helping Babe.”


“Because Rex thinks that only dogs should herd the sheep.  He thinks it is wrong for a pig to do the job, and he thinks—as Fly says to her puppies at the beginning of the movie—that pigs are definitely stupid.  He doesn’t want Babe to do the job that he, Rex, is supposed to do.”

Jamie and I have been over this ground before, usually when he asks, “what does Ferdinand say about Rosanna?” For when he asks what Ferdinand says about Rosanna, he’s referring to the scene in which the farm animals watch the Hoggett family as they carve up a duck for Christmas holiday dinner.  When Ferdinand joins the onlookers, the cow remarks, “if you’re out here, then who’s that in there?”—to which Ferdinand replies, “her name is Rosanna.  She had such a beautiful nature.”

About the eating of Rosanna, our routine goes like this: Jamie asks me what Ferdinand is feeling, and we take turns enumerating the emotions.  Angry.  Confused.  Sad.  Frustrated.  Worried.  Ferdinand is consumed (you might say) by the belief that he will not be eaten if he simply demonstrates that he is “indispensable,” as he mistakenly explains to Babe upon enlisting Babe in the project of stealing the Hoggetts’ alarm clock so that Ferdinand can go back to crowing at the dawn—one of the two activities, besides having sex with chickens, that keep roosters from being eaten.  Or so Ferdinand thinks.  “I tried it with the hens, it didn’t work,” he sighs.  “But I begin to crow, and I discover my gift!” Upon witnessing the family dig into Rosanna, however, Ferdinand is beside himself.  “It’s too much for a duck,” he cries.  “It eats away at the soul!” “The only way you’ll find happiness,” replies the cow, languidly, “is to accept that the way things are is the way things are.” “Well, the way things are stinks!” snaps Ferdinand, and he vows to run away.  Which he does, leaving Babe to overturn the way things are by demonstrating that a clever and compassionate animal need not succumb to the forces of animal destiny.

So Jamie and I have had numerous discussions about the eating of animals.  (You might recall that we’ve also had a talk or two about whether animals can think, as well.) We acknowledge that poor Ferdinand is driven to distraction by the realization that humans eat ducks, and we admit that it is unjust for poor Rosanna, who had such a beautiful nature, to become Christmas holiday dinner.  “But Jamie,” I point out, “you love to eat ham and pork chops and sausages and bacon, and all of that comes from pigs.” “And hamburgers and steak that come from cows,” he remarks.  “Right,” I say.  “And chicken,” he adds, conscientiously.  “Right, chicken too.  So you know there are some people who think it is wrong to eat any animal, and they eat only vegetables and fruits.  Some eat fish and some don’t.  Some people won’t eat milk or cheese, either.” “From cows and goats,” Jamie says.  We have reached a tentative conclusion about this:  we will continue to be omnivores.  But we would prefer that the animals we eat not spend their entire lives in factories being shot up with antibiotics (which is, you’ll recall, precisely where Babe opens).

Anyway, this shouldn’t be very surprising.  Ten years ago, if memory serves, there were indeed reports that Babe had led some children to rethink their love of hot juicy strips of bacon.  Instead, what was notable about Jamie’s invocation of Babe this time was that he’d remembered—with that amazing memory of his—the film’s one mention of rabies.

Now, back to Rex.  It just so happens that one of the reasons Rex hates sheep is that they are the cause of his disability, and his disability, in turn, has prevented him from becoming a champion sheepdog.  You see (as Fly explains to Babe), one night during a terrible storm, Rex tried to save a bunch of sheep from a flood, but the sheep were “too stupid” to follow his directions.  The sheep perished, but Rex, faithful hound, stayed with them all night—and became terribly ill as a result, permanently losing much of his hearing.  (Narrative twists like this are what make me argue that disability is ubiquitous in film, even if only as plot device, as in the premise of Garden State.  Really.  Go check:  why does Zach Braff’s character return home in the first place?) Jamie and I have discussed Rex’s deafness as well as his anger at Babe, and the deft way these come together at the end of the film, when Rex decides to help Babe by asking the Hoggett sheep for the secret sheep password “baa-ram-ewe”—a scene in which he not only has to speak nicely to sheep for the first time in his life, but also has to admit to them that he’s “a little deaf.” All so that Babe can speak to the foreign sheep, guide them through the sheepdog trials, and take Rex’s rightful place as a champion sheepdogpig.

So after Rex bites Hoggett, the vet rules out rabies.  “Hormones,” Jamie says.  “What?” I ask.  “Mrs. Hoggett says ‘hormones,’” Jamie replies.  Ah, right, exactly.  Again with the memory!  I ask Jamie if he remembers about hormones from seventh grade, when we talked about his pituitary gland and how hormones work in the body.  “And remember when the doctor says, ‘I could always snip, snip’?” I ask.  “Right,” Jamie says.  “And does Hoggett want to do that?” “No,” Jamie says.  “Because he says Rex is a breeding dog.”

Well, I’ll be damned.  I knew that Jamie had seen the movie dozens of times, and has replayed scenes (especially the ones involving Ferdinand) hundreds of times, but I didn’t realize how deeply he’d thought about things like this.  “That’s right, Jamie,” I explained.  “The doctor is wondering why Rex would be so mean and aggressive, and it can’t be rabies, so maybe, he thinks, it is testosterone, and maybe he should snip, snip Rex’s testes with surgery.”

At this point the owner of Fat Jack’s is giving us a puzzled look.

“But then Rex couldn’t have any more babies, and you remember that Mr. Hoggett sold Fly’s children—with that sign ‘pups for sale, by Rex, out of Fly’—to people who wanted sheepdog puppies.  So Mr. Hoggett might want to sell more puppies, and keep Rex as a breeding dog.” And yes, Jamie and I have already discussed the moment at which Babe, seeing how depressed Fly has become by the sale of those puppies, goes over to Fly and asks her if he can call her “mom.” Jamie knows that’s one of the reasons Fly likes Babe so much—because he knows when and why other animals are sad, and he tries to help them.  (See also the vastly underrated and widely misunderstood sequel, Babe: Pig in the City, especially the pivotal scene in which Babe saves the life of the pit bull who’d been trying to kill him.  Back in 1998, this scene was the first thing in Jamie’s life, to my knowledge, that led him to think about why we need to breathe to stay alive, and why it is good to save someone from dying—as Babe does later with the much less problematic goldfish whose bowl has been broken by careless animal-control police.)

“Sometimes doctors do surgery so that animals cannot have babies.  Think of Lucy.  Before we got her at the pound, doctors removed Lucy’s ovaries, and that’s why she cannot have babies—because the doctors were afraid that maybe she’d have babies and she would have no place to live and no place to take care of her puppies.  But with Rex, the doctor thinks that maybe he has hormones that are making him too angry, that his testosterone made him bite Mr. Hoggett.  They don’t understand that Rex is really angry at Fly and Babe because he doesn’t want Babe to herd the sheep.”

“Ohh,” Jamie said.  ”That’s why they give Rex a shot.”

See, the thing about the classics—like Babe—is that you can go back to them time and again, and keep rereading them with fresh eyes, so to speak.  You can look at Judith Halberstam’s queer reading of Babe, in which Babe and Ferdinand demonstrate the fluidity of categories of identity, or you can listen in on me and Jamie as we discuss how Rex’s deafness deepens his disdain for sheep and fuels one aspect of his opposition to Hoggett’s training of Babe (only one aspect, because although he and Fly disagree about Babe as sheep-pig, they agree, on anti-Habermasian grounds, that dogs should not speak to sheep in a way that invites reciprocal recognition).  Most of the time, when Jamie and I talk about Babe we talk about whether animals have feelings, and whether one animal can behave like another, and whether it’s OK to eat some animals (and if so, which ones and why).  But this time, the bit about the vampire bat had led us back to Babe to talk about rabies and Rex and deafness and hormones and “neutering.”

What a great movie.  What a rich text about what it means to be human.  Jamie and I will talk about it for years to come, I’m sure.

And then our pulled pork and beef brisket arrived!  It was delicious.

Posted by on 11/28 at 03:47 PM
  1. Well then, this news story from today, reporting on some of the latest researches on our cetacean friends, ought to provide new fodder for the discussion.  Would it be that Babe knew more about human life than the dogs did??
    Humpback whales have “human” brain cells: study

    WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Humpback whales have a type of brain cell seen only in humans, the great apes, and other cetaceans such as dolphins, U.S. researchers reported on Monday.

    This might mean such whales are more intelligent than they have been given credit for, and suggests the basis for complex brains either evolved more than once, or has gone unused by most species of animals, the researchers said.

    The finding may help explain some of the behaviors seen in whales, such as intricate communication skills, the formation of alliances, cooperation, cultural transmission and tool usage, the researchers report in The Anatomical Record.

    Posted by  on  11/28  at  06:31 PM
  2. Oh, and having been gifted the new Beatles album, and “new” is the operative term here, i look forward to reading about Jamie’s critique of what Martin & Son have created.  I am clearly in the camp of being amazed and thrilled by it, while others i know (most of whom were not part of that same generation as the Beatles) seem perturbed and dismayed by the remixing and remastering and stunning recombinations.  But then we live in an era of genetic engineering.

    Posted by  on  11/28  at  06:37 PM
  3. And then our pulled pork and beef brisket arrived!  It was delicious.

    You bastard.

    Posted by Heraclitus  on  11/28  at  06:58 PM
  4. Bastard with mustard is also very nice.

    About the new Beatles, I don’t know yet.

    Posted by Michael  on  11/28  at  07:00 PM
  5. Your epitaph will be the greatest, Michael. It need only say: He was a pretty good Dad.

    The little things you notice are the spectacular hallmarks of a good heart, helping to offset your peculiar penchant for that odd Scandinavian skating game.

    Posted by Kevin Hayden  on  11/28  at  08:14 PM
  6. I was 27 when I saw Babe one night randomly on HBO.  I was home alone, it crushed me, and I haven’t eaten pork since.  I’m not implying other folks should give it up after watching it, just noting that it wasn’t just kids who found the movie moving in ways that made them question their eating habits.

    Posted by Kenneth Rufo  on  11/28  at  09:27 PM
  7. Have you heard that “Babe” was a series of pigs who were replaced when they got too big for the part? And presumably slaughtered? I don’t know any more how I came by this information, but pigs do grow fast, so I figure this is true.
    I believe an expose is in order. Shameless!

    Posted by Hattie  on  11/28  at  09:43 PM
  8. Hattie, I hear the replaced pigs were deee-licious.  With a little Mississippi Mud sauce for seasoning, of course.

    But I will say this much:  since I can’t talk Jamie out of eating pork, Ken, I have talked to him about those factory farms.

    And Kevin, thanks so much!  Coming from a wonderful dad like you . . . but just remember, it’s a Canadian sport.  The Scandinavians are all about ice fishing and the biathlon.

    Posted by Michael  on  11/28  at  09:53 PM
  9. Would it be wrong to have eaten pork while I watched Babe?

    I understand how people feel about it though. I don’t eat vegetables for the same reasons. Their silent screams haunt me still.

    Posted by Central Content Publisher  on  11/28  at  10:15 PM
  10. We raised our 5-year-old triplets as vegetarians, so we have interesting conversations somewhat different than yours.  Now that they are in Kindgergarden, we have a lot less control over what they are given to eat.  We got into a long discussion about gelatin and Rice Krispy Treats last week--Nicholas (an obsessive reader) now scans the ingredients of the various snacks he is given.

    The weird thing is, we aren’t particularly militant about it or anything, but the kids are.  I sometimes feel like if I had let them go on eating gelatin without telling them it was technically non-vegetarian (being made from hides and hooves and all), they’d have been really pissed at me when they found out.  My wife Jill just ordered some veggie marshmellows, though, so we’re making Veggie Krispie Treats for The Holidays.

    Posted by  on  11/28  at  11:13 PM
  11. Very nice.  How are you going to help Jamie and the rest of us understand Richard Powers’ Gain?

    Posted by  on  11/28  at  11:46 PM
  12. Wow. That’s a beautiful essay.

    I just saw “Borat” tonight so I could get innoculated for the real holiday masterpiece, “Happy Feet,” made by George Miller, the Australian director responsible for “The Road Warrior,” the “Babe” films (you’re right, both films are masterpieces), and the latest three-d animated musical about penguins, among other accomplishments. He’s extraordinary.

    Posted by sfmike  on  11/29  at  02:27 AM
  13. “No, not the hand,” Jamie corrected me.  “On the wrist.”

    I love how Jamie corrects your omniscient narration. Cracks me up.

    Posted by  on  11/29  at  03:08 AM
  14. The funny thing is that he really did correct me, Pat.  Where I’ve placed my synopsis of the fight between Rex and Fly, I actually said to Jamie something like, “and Mr. Hoggett comes out to see what’s wrong and tries to stop the fight, and Rex bites him on the hand.” To which he replied, “not the hand.  The wrist.”

    sfmike, isn’t Happy Feet liberal propaganda of some kind?  Perhaps a leftist response to the feel-good family values smash of 2005, March of the Heterosexual Penguins?

    Would it be wrong to have eaten pork while I watched Babe?

    It all depends on the sauce, I think.  You have to go with tangy over sweet for Babe.

    Hi, Shawn!  Hmmmmm, hides and hooves.  What can’t they do?  And Dr. BDH, think of Gain as an American Buddenbrooks with soap.  That’s a good place to start.

    Posted by Michael  on  11/29  at  08:59 AM
  15. I have a friend who declares, in disgust, that all children’s films are vegetarian propaganda: all that cuteness in those herding pigs, wise-cracking chickens, lovable cows makes them inedible.

    I’m not one to respond to this (my kids don’t eat meat, but not because they’re afraid it was once computer animated and singing merry songs), but it does seem to me that no child has ever hesitated over gobbling down a chicken nugget because of, say, “Chicken Run” or “Chicken Little.”

    Though I have noticed a decline in penguin consumption after “Happy Feet.” ...

    Posted by J J Cohen  on  11/29  at  09:38 AM
  16. I’d like to interrupt this Babe-fest for official WAAGNFNP business. The GnF BoMbrZ have been hard at work building up the Party’s street cred. Here’s an example of their recent work:


    Bill Benzon
    Minister of Visual Propaganda

    Posted by Bill Benzon  on  11/29  at  09:59 AM
  17. Great shit!  Hey, can we get Trotsky in there somewhere?  I’ve always wanted to be photographed with Leon.

    Posted by  on  11/29  at  10:15 AM
  18. The Ministry of Justice recommends that this fine book be read by all potential MoJ workers. (3Tops gave it “Three Horns Up!")

    Image Hosted by ImageShack.us

    Oaktown Girl
    Minister of Justice

    Posted by Oaktown Girl  on  11/29  at  10:32 AM
  19. Trotsky, Schmotsky! He didn’t even know what a touch-down was, much less how to score one:


    Bill Benzon
    Minister of Visual Propaganda

    Posted by Bill Benzon  on  11/29  at  10:54 AM
  20. Although I am the resident anti-Babe II: The Reckoning troll here, I find that I just don’t have the heart. After hearing the interpretive insights Jamie brought to the pit-bull-rescuing scene, I have to give up the fight. I lay down my club. Kum by ya, my Lord, kum by ya. Put these guns in the ground; I can shoot them anymore. I may even someday watch that movie again, all the way through this time.

    Well, no. Life is short. But I give up the Babe II: Revenge of the Sith-hatin’.

    Posted by  on  11/29  at  11:02 AM
  21. can’t, not can. Darn typos

    Posted by  on  11/29  at  11:05 AM
  22. Glad to hear it, rm.  See, one of the brilliant things about Babe II:  Babe Harder is precisely that it refuses the most obvious followup—to wit, “plucky little pig from the unspoiled countryside brings nice gemeinschafty values to the faceless big city.” That’s what lots of people were expecting after the first film’s eye-watering finale, and that’s certainly what Disney would have given you.  Instead we got Babe Meets Tim Burton, a story in which (after a disarming series of narrative miscues in the first half hour) only a couple of bizarre, eccentric humans appear as backdrop to the story of how, yet again, animal hierarchies (this time with the orangutan on top) have to be overthrown in order for everyone to survive in the end.

    Two more nicely subtle touches:  everyone in the city, save for the small handful of people who are actively helpful to animals, is wearing variations on black and white.  And in the circus-like climax, that pyramid of champagne glasses never falls—and the camera never goes back to them to make the “duh” point, “whew!  the pyramid of champagne glasses never fell!  how about that!?”

    Posted by Michael  on  11/29  at  11:22 AM
  23. I have to agree with whoeveritwas who summarised “Babe” more or less like this:

    “The farm animals are intelligent. They talk to each other. They are desperate to make themselves useful to the farmer so he won’t kill and eat them. This is the sort of children’s movie Roman Polanski would have made.”

    Posted by  on  11/29  at  11:24 AM
  24. About the delicious replacement pigs. I’m pretty sure I read somewhere that all the replacement pigs (all the pigs, that would be) were sent to a Full Lifespan for Pigs facility of some kind, precisely to avoid cruel jokes about how delicious they were.

    Posted by Ophelia Benson  on  11/29  at  01:52 PM
  25. Though I have noticed a decline in penguin consumption after “Happy Feet.” ...

    Yes, it appears that the endearing animation finally broke through to the Leopard Seals, where countless nature documentaries had failed in the past; and they are now exploring alternative means of sustenance.

    All we are saying is give peas a chance.

    ... and for a great look at our relationship to what we eat take a look at Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

    Posted by  on  11/29  at  04:14 PM
  26. The funny thing is that he really did correct me, Pat.

    I didn’t doubt it. I just thought the presentation was funny in a Stranger-Than-Fiction Will-Ferrell-rails-against-the-Narrator sort of way. I have to stop being dry in comments.

    Posted by  on  11/29  at  09:56 PM
  27. Ajay, you’re right. I’m sure you’ll agree that’s what makes Babe I: A Pig For All Seasons such a classic. All great children’s stories acknowledge darkness: evil, or death, or the fallen-ness of the world. It’s hard to do that well, in a child-appropriate way. When it’s done well it’s great.

    I gave up the B2-hatin’, so I can no longer expound on why I thought Babe II: 2Fast2Furious didn’t do the darkness well, but I personally didn’t think it was the same treatment.

    Speaking of pigs on the dark side, I love the opening scene of Charlotte’s Web (the novel; I don’t know if it’s in either movie) which initiates the plot: the daughter tells her father that to kill the runt of the litter is “the biggest injustice I’ve ever heard of” (quoted approximately). This is ten years or so after the Holocaust. The father’s eyes fill with tears and he can’t kill Wilbur. So, yes, darkness—not just meat-eating, but a bigger darkness lies behind that story.

    Posted by  on  11/29  at  10:23 PM
  28. Glad to hear it, rm.  See, one of the brilliant things about Babe II:  Babe Harder is precisely that it refuses the most obvious followup—to wit, “plucky little pig from the unspoiled countryside brings nice gemeinschafty values to the faceless big city.” That’s what lots of people were expecting after the first film’s eye-watering finale, and that’s certainly what Disney would have given you.  Instead we got Babe Meets Tim Burton, a story in which (after a disarming series of narrative miscues in the first half hour) only a couple of bizarre, eccentric humans appear as backdrop to the story of how, yet again, animal hierarchies (this time with the orangutan on top) have to be overthrown in order for everyone to survive in the end.

    Plus, it has the scrumtrulescent Zootie who says at one point, “But Thelonius, you’re an orangathingie.”


    Posted by  on  11/30  at  12:54 AM
  29. What a fascinating story! I love the way our kids correct us when we alter details of their beloved texts. My daughter is capable of complete recall of any song or movie dialogue after the second viewing. She’s on Monty Python now, which is a welcome break from the complete score of Phantom of the Opera.

    My nephew to my mother: “Grandma, do you eat duck?”
    His grandma: “Why, yes, sometimes.”
    Nephew (horrified) “you mean, like...DONALD DUCK?”
    Refuses to eat meat (except for hot dogs) for next several years.

    Posted by Joanna  on  11/30  at  07:57 PM
  30. another fabulous jamie story!  you are very right about classic stories, and going back again and again to see them in different ways.  jamie has a really fabulous gift for details—he seems to store so many of them away, unearthing them unexpectedly and using them to discover something new.  you are both very lucky to have one another.

    Posted by  on  11/30  at  09:18 PM
  31. About that caricature: can’t be absolutely certain, because of the tiny repro at the link, but that looks like Steve Brodner’s work, and when Steve has done you, you have arrived, weird ears or not. Just so you know.

    Posted by  on  12/05  at  05:50 PM

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