Last week, Zac Hart at Bilerico-Indiana wrote about walking out of Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen. Zac's catalogue of summer blockbuster racism and homophobia got me thinking about the other movie at the top of the box office charts, Ice Age 3, which might as well be subtitled "The Crisis of Heterosexual Masculinity."
Manny the mammoth (Ray Romano) and his wife Ellie (Queen Latifah) are expecting a baby. Their descent into solipsistic nesting mode threatens the coherence of the motley interspecies tribe that has been established in previous Ice Age movies. As a result, Sid the sloth (John Leguizamo) and Diego the tiger (Denis Leary)--both single males--decide to go their separate ways. The dissolution of the alternative community/tribe is exacerbated by the male characters' utter inability to express their feelings.
In an attempt to create a compensatory family of his own, Sid appropriates a trio of dinosaur eggs.* Now in nurturing mode, he begins referring to himself as "Mommy" and even--unless I'm much mistaken--using feminine pronouns.
All of this, I know, sounds really queer.
But, like so much pop culture, Ice Age 3 simultaneously subverts and reinforces sex and gender norms. All the stuff it's dredging up from our collective cultural anxiety closet--changing gender roles, the anti-sociality of the nuclear family, alternative communities, homoeroticism--is, I would argue, kept in check by the film's policing of traditional gender roles.
This strategy is exemplified by a moment of homosexual panic. Manny and Diego have reunited to save Sid from the angry dinosaur bio mom, who wants her spawn back. Thrown against Manny in the belly of a flesh-eating prehistoric plant, Diego says, "I feel all tingly."
"Don't say that when you're pressed up against me!" Manny cries in utter horror.
As a spectator, my first thought was for all the gay dads and their kids who would have to endure yet another reminder that intimacy between men is considered repulsive, un-manly, and threatening. Watching this moment of homophobic disavowal brought me back to my own childhood, when "concerned" adults felt bound and determined to let me know that my gay dad's masculinity was not quite right--usually through the kind of snide asides that abound in Ice Age 3.
My second thought was for my son, who was sitting in my lap. At six, he's actively constructing his own gender identity and personal style. Scenes like this one communicate loads about what men aren't supposed to do in our culture: namely, talk about their feelings and touch other men.
But what, you may ask, about the effusive, egg-stealing, gender-bending, baby-nurturing sloth? It's true that Sid, with his trademark lisp, represents an alternative version of masculinity. It's also true that Sid is usually depicted as stupid, tiresome, and ineffective. In Ice Age 3, the other characters don't even seem to like him very much. It's never really clear why they go to such extensive lengths to save him from the dinosaurs.
During the lengthy rescue antics, I had plenty of time to ponder what queer theorist Judith Halberstam would say about Ice Age 3. Halberstam argues that some contemporary animated kids' films eschew heterosexual romance in favor of "intricate stories of collective action, anti-capitalist critique, group bonding and alternative imaginings of community, space, embodiment and responsibility."
It's true that Ice Age 3 elevates the multi-species tribe to at least an equal footing with the nuclear family (a fact which has not escaped the critique of conservative reviewers). At the end of the film, the tribe is reunited in adoration of the newborn mammoth baby. Above her bed, a mobile represents all the members of the extended community. Thus, the myopia of family values has been replaced with what Halberstam might call communitarian values.
The utopian nature of the collective is emphasized by the subplot about heterosexual romance between two squirrels. The female squirrel, a hot femme fatale, repeatedly uses her sexual wiles to part the male squirrel from his nut (pun intended, I'm sure). After battling it out in SM foreplay for most of the movie, the squirrels briefly succumb to sexual bliss before descending into domestic hell.
Once their relationship has been consummated, the castrating female squirrel immediately begins bossing her man around the house, forcing him to move the couch to first one position and then another. "Mama, what are they doing?" my son asks. It's a gag from the Honeymooners era, its gendered assumptions not quite legible to a 21st century boy with queer moms.
Finally, the hen-pecked male squirrel gazes out the window and sees...the discarded nut. In a second, he's out the door, leaving the stultifying domestic sphere behind.
It's tempting to read his escape as resistance to the regime of heterosexual family norms. But something about the gendering of domesticity as feminine sticks in my craw. Does he really have to escape the woman's world of the home in order to get his nuts back? And what does that say about the homosocial world of the tribe, where Ellie presides like a tomboyish maternal presence?
At the end of the movie, when the tribe is happily reunited, Manny tries to share his feelings with Diego, but Diego quickly shuts down the unmanly feeling talk. In Ice Age 3, men can live together outside the confines of the nuclear family--but only if they follow the rules of masculinity.
*I won't comment on the fact that dinosaurs coexist with Ice Age creatures in this
film, except to speculate that this the writers' attempt to appease the Fundie viewers who believe the Earth is only 6000 years old.