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A decade on, Bee Movie’s creators reflect on its many memes

“Well, let’s be honest, a bee and a woman carrying on is kind of weird to begin with. It’s weird stuff.”

According to all known laws of film-making, there is no way that Bee Movie should still be flying today. First released in the UK ten years ago on 14 December 2007, the animated family comedy was branded “scarcely memorable” by The Daily Telegraph, “instantly forgettable” by Film4, and “eminently forgettable” by the Apollo Guide. Even critics who liked Bee Movie hardly imagined it was the kind of film that would still be talked about a decade on. But Bee Movie, of course, continues to fly anyway. It doesn’t care what movie critics think is impossible.

“I would not have thought in a million years that this movie would be embraced the way it has,” says Barry Marder, one of the movie’s four main script writers and a close friend of Jerry Seinfeld, who first conceived of the film. “We just thought it was a movie and boom, that’d be it.” It wasn’t it.

Bee Movie's opening title

From 2011 on, Bee Movie has spawned hundreds of thousands of memes. People send its entire script to each other in messages as a joke, editors remix the trailer on YouTube so it speeds up after every utterance of the word “bee”, and one man even caught a real-life bumblebee and made it watch the film. People shrink and superimpose the whole script onto T-shirts, others make PowerPoint presentations analysing the plot, and earlier this year, some claimed Donald Trump plagiarised the film for his inauguration speech. But most – most Bee Movie meme fans – create posts about the film’s two protagonists, Barry and Vanessa. Barry is a bee. Vanessa is a human. In the film, multiple scenes imply they have romantic feelings for each other.

“It was never going to be sexual or anything like that,” says Steve Hickner, the film’s director. “It was purely this friendship... maybe in Barry’s mind he thought... but it was never going to be that.”

Barry and Vanessa’s relationship is undeniably at the heart of many Bee Movie memes. “Well, let’s be honest, a bee and a woman carrying on is kind of weird to begin with,” says Barry (Marder, not the bee).“It’s weird stuff, I have to be honest.” Fellow script writer Spike Feresten says people are either “entertained or repulsed” by the storyline, which some have nicknamed “Beestiality”.

“I suspect it’s that odd relationship between an insect and a human woman,” he says, when I ask why he thinks the movie has been so memed. “There isn’t really an interspecies love affair movie, I think… we don’t really want to sell that to kids.” So how did it happen?

“Often we would lose sight of those characters in the room. They would just be Barry and Vanessa, and we would write this dialogue for Barry and Vanessa, and read it over and have to remind ourselves, well, this is a tiny bee saying this, and the tiny bee is fighting with her boyfriend, so let’s dial it back to friend, and make it less romantic, because it’s getting weird.”

“Weird” is the word each of the film’s writers use when I ask why they think their movie is so popular online. Jerry Seinfeld first mentioned the idea to Steven Spielberg over lunch as a joke – but Spielberg immediately loved it. The movie’s creators tell me much was adapted and lost over the four years they worked on the film, but the basic premise – of a bee who befriends a woman and attempts to sue the human race – was never going to change. Steve Hickner, the director, summarises it best: “It’s a weird idea!” he exclaims. “It’s not a fairy-tale.”

***

One of the presents Madison got for her 17th birthday was not like the others. Despite the fact she wasn’t a fan of Bee Movie, or even Bee Movie memes, the student received a shirt featuring the film’s entire script, from start to finish. “I don’t actually know why my friend got it for me,” she says now. “I thought it was a cool gift, though.”

When a stranger complimented her shirt in 2016, Madison decided to upload a picture of it to Tumblr. Within a few days, hundreds of thousands of people had shared, commented on, or liked Madison’s picture, and in the following months, strangers came up to ask if she was “the Bee Movie shirt girl”. She hasn’t worn it since.

“We were all confused, delighted,” Spike says of the writers’ reaction to the shirt. “Jerry and I talked quite a bit about it – I even went so far as to buy the shirt myself.” This was the first time Spike became aware that Bee Movie had become a meme. “We weren’t quite sure if we were being made fun of, which would have been fine, or if we were being celebrated.”

Barry says he was the first to tell Jerry about the memes – having found out about them around four or five years ago. When his computer broke, he called his son’s friend, Matthew, around to fix it. When he was finished with the job, Matthew turned to Barry and asked: “You know what’s going on with Bee Movie, right?”. Barry didn’t. One Google search later, he realised the film’s impact. “The Bee Movie has become some kind of religious cult almost,” he says now. “It surprised me, because it wasn’t something that we had thought about.”

The last writer to find out about the unusual impact of their work was Andy Robin, who retrained to become a doctor after helping to write the film. “My 18-year-old daughter said something like ‘Bee Movie is really popular on the internet right now’ and showed me a sped-up video and a T-shirt with all the words printed on it,” says Andy, explaining he found out just a few months ago. “It wasn’t too surprising to me. Life’s full of random stuff and inexplicable fads that are far less appealing than a quirky, goofy film.”

***

How did Bee Movie get to be such a quirky, goofy film? Ten years on from its UK release on 14 December 2007, the general public have very few answers. Why were Barry and Vanessa so flirty? Why is there a joke about suicide pacts? Why does Ray Liotta own a honey company?

“Most animated movies are put together by executives as opposed to writers or directors or people that have a vision,” says Barry, who explains that Jerry was allowed creative freedom after the huge success of Seinfeld. “There’s some weird stuff in there that you probably wouldn't see in Toys or Coco or stuff like that, although fine movies. This one was put together by artists and not some corporate paint by numbers.” Spike concurs. “We weren’t focused on writing a movie for children. We were focused on writing a comedy, and seeing where that premise went.”

The fact Bee Movie is a children’s-film-that-isn’t-really-for-children explains why it’s so memed. Many Bee Movie meme-makers were kids when they first saw the film a decade ago, and have only begun to understand many of its adult jokes. Yet the movies’ writers and director tell me the film was constantly undergoing focus group screenings (where samples were screened to an audience of children) to ensure it was on the right path. Did no kids ever criticise the surreal plot?  

“Many, many filmmakers loathe these focus group things where you take your movie before it’s finished, put it before an audience, and see what happens –  [but] Jerry actually loved that process,” says Steve. “That was as close to stand-up comedy as you can get in animation.” Yet he elaborates on why this might not have changed the movie too much. “Jerry didn’t care anything about what their notes were, all he cared about was sitting in the audience when they were watching the movie and hearing where they laughed and where they didn’t.” As an eminent comedian, Jerry cared about his jokes more than his plot. 

By a remarkable coincidence, Madison (the girl with the Bee Movie script shirt) took part in one of these focus groups when she was around seven years old. She was shown an unpolished clip from the film and asked which bits she liked and which she didn’t. “I didn’t want to hurt their feelings, but they said it was important to give my honest opinion, so I told them I didn’t like it at all, the bees creeped me out, and I wouldn’t want to see it again.” When she finally watched the whole film, aged 10, she still didn’t like it. “The first time I had fun watching it was sometime in high school, when I was with a big group of friends and we could spend the whole time heckling.”

***

How did Bee Movie memes begin? Paris Martineau, a writer at New York magazine, took it upon herself to find their origins last month. With great difficulty and a vast amount of research, she found the first ever Bee Movie meme was created on Tumblr in 2011 – but why did she bother?

“When we talk about films and other art, we generally measure success based on audience interaction… but meme making and sharing generally requires a level of interaction and understanding far beyond that of the average spectator,” she tells me. “Memes represent important socio-cultural moments.” This is something that each of the writers remark on – that the film had an unconventional version of success (“It doesn't have the reach of, say, Frozen,” says Steve), but it was successful nonetheless (“It has a fan base that really loves it. That’s what you hope for, to create something with longevity”).

The rough timeline of Bee Movie memes, discovered by Paris, goes a little something like this: the film was heavily promoted before its release, with Jerry Seinfeld donning a bee costume and flying through the air at Cannes (“I do remember seeing a ton of advertising for Bee Movie and thinking it was a bit much, like they were announcing the second coming,” muses Andy). In 2007, critics were divided upon the film’s release, which scores just 51 per cent on the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. In 2011, a Tumblr user shared a sincere screenshot of the film’s opening monologue (“According to all known laws of aviation, there is no way a bee should be able to fly…”) with the hashtag #inspiring. In 2012, Tumblr exploded with absurdist Bee Movie memes, which were propelled into the mainstream by a Twitter account, @Seinfeld2000, dedicated to parodying Seinfeld.

“From my perspective, Bee Movie was this obscure, kind of weird footnote on Jerry Seinfeld’s career, this medium-successful animated film he decided he should do. It seemed like a funny thing to joke about that would surprise my small audience,” the creator of the @Seinfeld2000 account tells me over email. But what appeals about the film itself? “Bee Movie speaks to the human condition and Barry B Benson is the perfect avatar for the soul’s journey through life on this planet. Any image or joke derived from this contemporary masterpiece will carry a sliver of magic within it, no matter how careless.” Makes sense.

Yet the meme that propelled Bee Movie memes off of the internet, to inspire Vanity Fair to write an article entitled “How Bee Movie Won 2016”, is arguably the best one. “Bee movie trailer but every time they say bee it gets faster,” was a YouTube video that is exactly what it sounds like, created by 18-year-old Australian Darcy Grivas. It was viewed over 17 million times.

“I actually only saw the movie as I was editing,” says Darcy, who was inspired to make the video after being added to a Facebook group entitled Melbourne Bee Team. It took him hours at a time to create his videos, which involved painstakingly noting every time “bee” was said in the film before he could begin editing. “Now it’s been a year since it happened but people find out... and they are like ‘Oh my god you are the terrible meme guy’,” Darcy laughs.

“Why” is not a question one can really ask of memes. “It’s gotten to be funny, for some reason, but I don’t know the reason,” muses Spike. “I understand why it could become a meme, I think anything can. But I don’t think I’m going to be let in on the joke.”

Darcy has a simple answer – and has coined a term that may become increasingly important in the coming years. “In the same way films can become cult classics just because there are a group of people that like them, films can now become meme classics.”

***

Almost everyone I speak to who worked on the film tells me a story about food. Barry recalls Spike getting coconut cupcakes every morning, and “paninis constantly coming in” throughout the week. Steve emphasises that because an animated movie takes “for-ev-er”, Jerry would dedicate certain days to certain foods. “He would periodically be like, today is cupcake day so we’re going to find the best cupcake in Los Angeles,” Steve explains. “Another day would be the best yoghurt, the next day would be cookies, or, you know, who makes the best French toast?” Once, Barry was forced to write three grovelling letters (posing as Andy and Spike) apologising to Dreamworks co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg.

“We got in trouble because we were eating out of the hotel’s honour bar,” says Barry. “We were eating too much food. Andy Robin, in particular, wasn’t using the money for room service, he spent $1,200 on Toblerone bars.” 

“There was just weird stuff going on the whole time,” is how the scriptwriter describes the process of creating the film.

One crucial element of this weirdness was how far the writers were willing to develop the “bee world”. Spike says they argued over whether bees, who drive cars in the film, would have insurance companies (Jerry said no). “Well then, we would argue, why are they driving around in cars, who made the cars, Jerry?” recalls Spike. “With animation, you’re creating the world and the rules for the world, and when that meets comedy, everything gets blown apart. If this world is separate from the human world, how can there be a Bee Larry King in the bee world – what does that mean? Who is Bee Larry King?”

Bee Larry King

Overall, the process of creating the film sound undeniably hilarious. Close friends came together to create something, deciding to have as much fun as possible along the way. “I asked Jerry one time, ‘why did you pick me’, and he said ‘I thought you might be funny because you had crazy hair’,” reminisces Steve. “Basically, he was there just to have fun every day.”

***

“To be honest with you we didn't expect it to take off the way it took off, as being some kind of cultural event, we just wrote it as a funny movie,” reflects Barry on the whole meme phenomenon. Spike recalls that Jerry wanted to “write a timeless classic”, to which he initially reacted with scepticism. “But ten years later, somebody starts talking about it, and maybe, well, he pulled it off, seems like he did.”

But does all this mean Bee Movie 2 is on the horizon?

“Jerry and I talk about 20 times a day and we discuss constantly about possibly doing some other bee stuff,” says Barry. Instead of a feature film, he says they’ve spoken about creating eight webisodes. “One of the things that I always wanted to put in there, was I wanted an obese bee that had to be cut out of the hive by fire-bees,” he says, listing other jokes he’d like to expand on. There would be a bee beard (“that’s like the worst thing you could do to bees, that was almost a racial thing you know”), a Jeff Bee-zos (the first billionaire bee), and a bee army (their weapon would be a giant mosquito). “As recently as yesterday Jerry and I were talking about idiotic bee stuff, you know.”

Spike had an even more memeable idea. Last year, he told Jerry he should print off a script with “Bee Movie 2” written on giant letters in the front. Then, he should walk into a restaurant and allow the paparazzi to take a picture. “That would really contribute something to this fun.”

But just because Bee Movie 2 might not happen, it doesn’t mean Bee Movie memes are going anywhere. Though it is already arguably the most-memed film in existence (followed closely, perhaps, by Shrek), Bee Movie memes show no real sign of stopping among their core fanbase. According to Netflix, one person in the UK watched the film 357 times this year alone.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

A 1907 painting of Spinoza, who was excommunicated from Judaism in 1656. Credit: SAMUEL HIRSZENBERG
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Why atheists are true believers too

How atheisms are imitating the religions they claim to reject.

In 1995 Richard Dawkins became the first ever “professor for the public understanding of science” at Oxford University. By the time he retired, 13 years later, it looked as if he had privately renegotiated his contract; for he was now functioning as Oxford’s very own professor for the public misunderstanding of religion.

In The God Delusion (2006) he argued that the existence of God was a scientific hypothesis which was almost – almost – demonstrably false. Miracles were scientifically impossible (yes, professor, I think we knew that: the clue was in the word “miracles”). And the creation story in the Book of Genesis was very bad science indeed. Opposing the stupidities of modern “creationism”, and all the other pseudo-scientific or anti-scientific dogmas of the fundamentalists, is one thing. Criticising the moral evils committed by religious fanatics is another, and no less worthwhile. Yet to treat religion itself as merely a defective form of science is a strangely crude error, rather like thinking that poetry is just a way of conveying factual statements that are to be tested for their truth or falsehood.

In his new book, Seven Types of Atheism, John Gray – who, I should mention, is no more a religious believer than I am – has little time for the so-called New Atheism of Dawkins and Co. The confusion of religion with science is only one of the points he objects to. Even if it can be shown that religion involves the creation of illusions, he argues, that does not mean that religion can or should be dispensed with; for “there is nothing in science that says illusion may not be useful, even indispensable, in life”. As for the idea of the American New Atheist Sam Harris that we can develop “a science of good and evil” which will contain all the correct liberal values: Gray sees this as a piece of astonishing and culpable naivety, ignoring nearly two centuries’ worth of evidence that scientism in ethics and illiberalism go happily hand-in-hand.

If this short book were just another intervention in the Dawkinsian “God debate”, it would be very short indeed. In fact it would get no further than page 23 where, at the end of his brief opening chapter, Gray concludes damningly that “the organised atheism of the present century is mostly a media phenomenon, and best appreciated as a type of entertainment”.

But the New Atheism is the least of the seven varieties that make up the subject-matter of this book. The others are all much more interesting, being connected with significant elements in our culture. And if the phrase “our culture” sounds parochial, well, that is an issue Gray deals with explicitly, pointing out that what we call “atheism” is something much more specific than just a rejection or absence of religion as such. It is a rejection of certain religious beliefs – and that narrows the field already, as many religions of the world are not primarily belief-systems at all. In particular, Gray argues, it is a rejection of belief in an omnipotent creator-god, which means that while atheism is Christianity’s close relative, it bears no relation to Hinduism or Buddhism at all.

So this is a book about post-Christian thinking – most of it, in Gray’s view, pretty bad thinking, too. One of his targets is secular humanism, which he describes as “a hollowed-out version of the Christian belief in salvation through history”. Another is what he calls “making a religion from science”, a delusion which he traces all the way from Mesmerism in the late 18th century, via dialectical materialism in the 19th and 20th, to those futurist thinkers today who dream of uploading a human being’s consciousness to computer circuits, thereby rendering it immortal. And another is political religion, “from Jacobinism through communism and Nazism to contemporary evangelical liberalism”.

Obviously there are overlaps between these three varieties of modern atheism; dialectical materialism, for instance, has also formed part of the creed of Marxist political religion. The one fundamental thing they have in common, on Gray’s account, is that they are all doctrines of progress, of an onwards and upwards march of humanity through history. Whether he is right to say that secular humanism is committed to this view, I am not so sure; doubtless, those who believe in humanist ethics will also think that if more and more people adopt their ethical system the world will become a better place, yet it’s not clear why they should regard that as inevitable.

But one thing at least is clear: John Gray regards all belief in human progress as the most pernicious of delusions. Despite all his eloquence on this subject, some readers may feel that his argument runs away with him, taking him further than he needs to go. It would be enough, surely, to say that the basic moral qualities of human beings have not changed over time, and that there’s no reason to think that any improvements in human behaviour that have taken place are part of a pattern of inevitable progress. Yet Gray goes further, claiming that there has been no real improvement at all.

The abolition of slavery? Slave auctions in “Islamic State” territory have been advertised on Facebook. The abandonment of torture? It has persisted at Guantanamo Bay. Well, yes; but having pockets of slavery here and there in the world is not the same as the situation 200 years ago, when it was a huge and entrenched institution, questioned only by a small minority. Yes, torture continues, but not as a standard judicial procedure. And in many countries there have been substantial, long-term changes in attitude and treatment where female subjugation, child labour and the criminalisation of homosexuality are concerned. Surely there must be some way of acknowledging this, without relapsing into Pollyannaish Steven Pinkerism?

One reason for Gray’s emphasis on the theme of temporal progress is that it fits these various secular atheisms into a larger pattern – that of salvation through history. And this brings us to the core of his argument: out of the whole range of major religions, only Christianity works in a historical dimension like this, which means that the secular atheisms are imitating, or unconsciously reproducing, a central feature of the very religion they claim to reject.

He makes this point again and again. These modern atheists’ view of the world is “inherited” from Christianity. Their belief in progress is “a secular avatar of a religious idea of redemption”. Jacobinism and Bolshevism were “channels” for the millenarian myths of Christianity. Bolshevism was in a “lineage” going back to medieval millenarianism. The apocalyptic myths of radical Christian movements “renewed themselves” in secular, political forms.

Having watched Gray wield his scalpel so effectively on other writers’ arguments, I can’t help thinking that this one deserves a few incisions. What does it mean to say that a communist who yearns for the coming of the classless society is really expressing just the same view as a millenarian looking to the reign of Christ on earth? The form of the belief may be roughly similar, but the content is entirely different. And if these are “inherited” ideas standing in a “lineage”, what is the evidence of a continuous chain of transmission – from, say, the 16th-century radical Anabaptists of Münster (whose chaotic quasi-communist experiment Gray describes in graphic detail) to the Bolsheviks of Petrograd and Moscow? As for the religious myths “renewing themselves” in a secular guise: this seems perilously close to the mindset of Dawkins’s theory of “memes”, which Gray has scornfully dismissed as hardly a theory at all.

Gray also mentions a Gnostic “impulse” that has recurred, unchanged, over two millennia. But if the same impulse can produce a religious idea in one period and a secular one in another, it seems that the impulse is something that stands behind both, itself neither secular nor religious. In which case, the modern atheisms may be not so much reproducing religious beliefs as expressing some basic yearnings that are pre-religious or non-religious in themselves. These are dark theoretical waters, and I am not convinced that Gray has got to the bottom of them.

Yet what he has done is to produce a marvellously stimulating account of some major currents of post-Christian thought, in which ideas and arguments leap constantly off the page like white-hot sparks from an anvil. The dismissals are concise and often devastating; but there are also wonderfully funny details, lovingly accumulated by a wry observer of human foolishness. It is nice to learn, for example, that Auguste Comte’s secular religion of Positivism imposed on its followers “special types of clothing, with buttons placed on the back so that they could not be worn without the help of others – thereby promoting altruism”. And I would challenge anyone to read Gray’s account of the cult of Ayn Rand, with its compulsory cigarette-smoking and rational tap-dancing, and not laugh out loud.

But what of Gray’s own post-religious beliefs? He certainly does not belong in the fifth category discussed here, that of “misotheists” – the Marquis de Sade, Dostoevsky and William Empson – whose views were shaped by a positive hatred of God. (Here, at least, he has no difficulty in showing that some kinds of atheism are dependent intimately and inseparably on Christian theology.) Gray’s own sympathies are divided between his two final varieties: the naturalistic, undogmatic and guaranteed progress-free atheism of the philosopher George Santayana; and the philosophico-theological theories of Spinoza and Schopenhauer, which argued obscurely both that a greater reality, possibly to be identified as Spirit or God, existed, and that to talk about it as a god who created the world, or intervened in it, or issued commands to humans, was to misunderstand it entirely.

Santayana was himself an admirer of Spinoza, and towards the end of the book, Gray quotes his characterisation of the Dutch-Jewish philosopher as follows: “By overcoming all human weaknesses, even when they seem kindly or noble, and by honouring power and truth, even if they should slay him, he entered the sanctuary of an unruffled superhuman wisdom.” I am not sure that this is quite the image that readers should take away of Gray, whose tolerance of human weaknesses – at the personal level, if not the intellectual one – seems admirably generous. Nor can it be guaranteed that people will acquire unruffled superhuman wisdom by reading this book. More likely they will find themselves tremendously, even painfully, ruffled. And I mean that as high praise, for an author who is one of the greatest intellectual provocateurs of our time. 

Noel Malcolm is editor of the Clarendon Edition of the Works of Thomas Hobbes and a fellow of All Souls, Oxford

John Gray will appear in conversation with Jason Cowley at Waterstones Trafalgar Square, London WC2, on 2 May (newstatesman.com/events)

Seven Types of Atheism
John Gray
Allen Lane, 176pp, £17.99