In human psychology, there’s a term for using comedic performance to repress inner pain. It’s called the sad clown paradox. Yet a new wildlife show by Netflix has unintentionally demonstrated that we may now need a further term – the sad penguin paradox – to describe the surreal cognitive dissonance we feel about our destruction of the natural world.
Mr and Mrs Bougainvilleas, Mr and Mrs Culvert, and Mrs Wheelbarrow (among others) are real-world penguin inhabitants of coastal Simon’s Town in South Africa. These names, of course, are the invention of the cheery script, which packages up the information that they are an “endangered” species alongside descriptions of their “newly-wed” bliss, their move to the “suburbs”, and their escape from “bad guys” (mongeese).
Much like the opening episodes of a recent Disney+ production, WandaVision – about a grieving superhero who creates an alternate reality based on retro sitcoms – Penguin Town oozes light-hearted soap opera. Yes, there may be existential danger ahead, but it’s OK: the gimmicky voiceover and the twinkly music promises to pull you back safely from the brink of any troublesome emotions.
Unlike in Wandavision, however, the bubble of this bizarre escapist fiction is never burst. When a penguin tumbles out of sight down a crack in the tarmac, the beat of the music tells me I’m meant to laugh. And yet I can’t, because I’m stupefied with horror.
Where the show sees a wobbly, waddling creature failing to navigate an easy obstacle, I see a species that’s about to fall into oblivion because we have quite literally paved over their paradise. (Not only are global wildlife habitats in steep decline, but, more directly, the proximity to Simon Town’s streets means its penguins frequently risk becoming roadkill.) Have we really stooped so low that lightly mocking an endangered species is justifiable entertainment?
It would be one thing if the series was clearly indicated, similar to a children’s book, as most suitable for ages 5-6. And yet, even then, I’d expect a level of mindfulness that this narration lacks. In the opening of episode two we’re told that a young, underdeveloped penguin called Junior who has been rescued by local conservationists has “no idea how close he is to death; that he’s even endangered!”. Just moments later, the voiceover then informs viewers that the entire colony’s mission is “to mate their way off the endangered species list”. Do penguins have an awareness of their existential crisis or not?
I want to believe that animals can adapt to living alongside the humans who’ve overrun their planet. Most of us aren’t that bad after all and, as the show sweetly documents, “Seabird Rangers” from the Simon’s Town Penguin and Seabird Ranger Project dedicate their lives to these creatures’ protection.
But the wider reasons why such interventions are necessary are largely left unexplored. Between the late 1970s and 2015, the number of breeding pairs of penguins in South Africa fell from around 70,000 to less than 20,000. Behind that perilous decline is a long list of man-made attrition: oil spills, plastic pollution, and fishing lines all plague the species, and so too now does climate change and industrial fishing – by depleting the fish stocks on which their survival depends.
As Bruce Robertson told CarbonBrief, penguins are falling into an “ecological trap”. This means they’re returning to places like Boulders Bay in Simon’s Town where sardines and anchovies were once abundant but are now scarce. The issue particularly affects the young, who are “excluded” from the foraging groups that seek out new feeding grounds.
Looking at two tuxedo-suited creatures standing at a roadside, I fear that what’s in their minds is not a care-free, bright-side attitude to life but a level of anxiety we cannot begin to comprehend.
I’m very much not against anthropomorphised portraits of animals. As films like My Octopus Teacher and BlackFish reveal, there are depths to animal sentience and emotion we have probably only scratched the surface of understanding. And, as many people’s own personal relationships with animals will also attest, animals certainly have personalities.
But anthropomorphising creatures to make them seem simpler and sweeter (if also not more ridiculous) also has a dark history. Yes, appealing to a childlike love of small, soft things can be helpful in cultivating a love of nature – but so too has it led to serious abuse in circuses, in pet farms, and even in the production of film and TV.
Penguins are not just the cute and comedic critters the show implies. They are violent, as we see all too briefly during a competition for territory. And horny too (they may be monogamous in sharing a burrow, but they frequently enjoy sex with various partners on the journey home).
In not being honest about the full spectrum of what and who a penguin is, we risk not being honest about ourselves – and the harm of which we are capable. And that, ultimately, isn’t funny for anyone.