Evading slaughter by breaking down borders: Babe the sheep-pig
Written by Georgia Jeffrey
Babe (1995) is the story of a personified pig who is transformed from potential food to quasi-human family member. Farmer Hoggett wins a runt piglet at the local fair in the hopes of plumping it up for Christmas dinner. Fly, a sheepdog, adopts Babe against her colleague Rex’s wishes. Babe soon learns of his fate and makes a desperate attempt to avoid the slaughterhouse by rendering himself more useful alive. He becomes a sheep-pig.
The film upsets our usual understanding of pigs whose experiences are usually invisible. Nonhuman animals are defined and categorized by humans in relation to what they are utilized for (Stewart and Cole, 2009). These are socially constructed, learned and ingrained in children from a young age. The opening scene of the film establishes the mainstream view of pigs as food. A wooden pig opens up to reveal links of sausages. The upbeat music is contrasted by the dark lighting where each trinket is lit from above, one by one, as the camera pans across the wall. Objectified representations of pigs are juxtaposed to a personified figurine of a pig standing on its hind legs in a chefs hat and holding a pie. For the experienced viewer, this scene is both exciting and sinister. However, younger audiences may not initially see it as the latter. They often have not learned to associate the ‘cute’ animal in the fields with the meat on their plate. Babe (1995) unashamedly addresses that.
From the beginning of the film, the audience is reminded of the precarity and violence endured by most pigs. The film introduces Babe inside a concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) filled with thousands of pigs inside pens with barely enough room to move. His mother is quickly taken away and loaded onto a truck using an electric shock device. He believes she is going to a happy land, when in fact she is going to slaughter. This scene is reminiscent of the deceit of Jews being taken to death camps during World War II and is somewhat harrowing to watch.
The characters in the film are committed to the “binary agency system of animal resources and human capitalism” (McHugh, 2002:162) and are demonstrative of the unease of humans when their categorisations are challenged. At 0:07:45, Fly declares “the bosses only eat stupid animals like sheep and duck and chickens.” When Babe refuses to treat sheep as inferior and argues they are equal, human speciesism is questioned. Throughout the film, Babe crosses category boundaries from farm animal to working animal to entertainment animal and pet. The title ‘sheep-pig’ is of itself a cross between a working and farmed animal. The status quo defends itself using humour and violence (Stewart and Cole, 2009). Rex attacks Babe (0:46:00) for threatening his role as a working animal while Duchess the cat scratches Babe for threatening her position as pet and companion (1:04:00).
While Babe’s main concern is avoiding being dinner, Mrs Hoggett’s main concern in her mothering role is with feeding her daughter, grandchildren, husband and cat. Babe (1995) is involved in the “domestication of gendered bodies” (McHugh, 2002:174). McHugh (2002) would argue that the females in the film are separated from active market roles. I argue that they have a key role in raising and maintaining laborers for the capitalist market. Mrs Hoggett is constantly eating or discussing the animals as food. She is positioned in the tradition of the female grotesque as she is physically large and has a seemingly infinite appetite (ibid.). “There is a long tradition of the fat female body as being a site of comedy, usually as object or butt of a joke” (Hole, 2003:315). At 1:21:16, Mrs Hoggett is sat in a hotel room with a group of women when she sees her husband and Babe appear on the television. She faints at the sight with a cup of tea in hand. The scene is both oral, de-eroticizing, but feminizing as the idea of her body still being delicate despite its size is emphasized. While women are expected to provide food for their family, when they consume too much they become objects of humor.
Babe (1995) reconfigures social boundaries of animals, machines and humans (McHugh, 2002). The farm moves from an anthropogenic system to a nonanthropogenic system by the end as the farmer becomes no less inseparable from the farm animals and machines (ibid.). Despite Babe’s efforts to navigate the animal hierarchy and escape being considered food, human domination over animals is still evident. The famous line “that’ll do pig” (1:26:00), whilst affectionately delivered, is an order. The shot is taken from the point of view of Babe. He is looking up at Farmer Hoggett and is clearly not of equal position. Farmer Hoggett is backlit and looking down on Babe, demonstrative of a higher power.
Similarly to other children’s films like Charlotte’s Web (2006), it is a gimmick that saves the animal, not his animalness. However, Babe (1995) still questions and challenges our human perceptions of animals and their uses. It forces the viewer to consider where their food comes from. In addition, the film exposes the idea that humans can empathise with animals outside of the ‘pet’ sphere and thus makes the audience question their own feelings towards eating animals for meat.
Babe. (1995). [DVD] Directed by C. Noonan. Universal Pictures.
Charlotte’s Web. (2006). [DVD] Directed by G. Winick. Harper & Brothers.
Hole, A. (2003). Performing identity: Dawn French and the funny fat female body. Feminist Media Studies, 3(3), pp.315-328.
McHugh, S. (2002). Bringing up babe. Camera Obscura, 17(1 49), pp.149-187.
Stewart, K. and Cole, M. (2009). The Conceptual Separation of Food and Animals in Childhood. Food, Culture & Society, 12(4), pp.457-476.