How Conservative is Bee Movie?
A pun-filled cartoon starring Jerry Seinfeld is a strange place to find themes about tradition, reform, and revolution, but hey here we are.
Since its release in 2007, Bee Movie has become well-known through memes poking fun at its absurdity, and people have commented on the surprisingly strong message its plot conveys. When Barry B. Benson (Seinfeld) finds out that humans are stealing bees’ honey, his successful crusade to ban the practice results in mass bee unemployment and the destruction of plant life. This is easily interpreted as a cautionary tale about how well-intended social change, if taken too far, will throw society into chaos.
But I think it’s deeper than that. Beyond its witty insect jokes and interesting world-building, Bee Movie contains a critique of radicalism and a defense of moderation in a way that few other popular films do.
The mere fact that Barry’s idealism is actually destructive marks Bee Movie as against the grain.
At the beginning of the movie, Barry lives in a hive in which every bee fits into a perfectly functioning rigid society. It is apt that the movie used bees to depict such a society, as they have historically been used as a symbol of industriousness, uniformity, and harmony.
But Barry takes this order for granted. After graduating from college, he struggles to find a job he considers meaningful, a problem that is familiar to many young graduates (and is also depicted in the film The Graduate, which Bee Movie contains a scene alluding to.) This alienation produces a yearning for something more, and a feeling that society is restrictive—a romantic desire that has motivated radicals from Jean-Jacques Rousseau to Karl Marx. Many other movies embrace it, too. Think Belle in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast singing “There must be more than this provincial life.” Think Luke Skywalker whining about being stuck on his uncle’s moisture farm.
Departing from the mundane is a fundamental part of the archetypal hero’s journey. Other movies never question that idealism and adventure-seeking, or if they do, it ultimately turns out to be good. But Bee Movie doesn’t pander to utopian hubris. It could have ended with Barry accomplishing his goal of banning honey, and the bees living happily ever after. Instead, the movie shows that what the protagonist initially wanted was not actually a good thing in practice. In doing so, its third act flips a common narrative trope on its head and conveys ideas that are less black-and-white.
Also, Bee Movie’s portrayal of its pre-honey-ban antagonists is a commentary on how well-meaning social activists view their opponents.
For example, when Barry sneaks onto a honey farm, he hears two beekeepers cackling to each other about exploiting bees (“They make the honey, and we make the money.”) These men did not know Barry was present, and had no realistic reason to make such villainous taunts. Later, during Barry’s lawsuit to ban bee farming, he faces off against a rotund, conniving lawyer, Layton T. Montgomery (John Goodman). With a drawl reminiscent of a Southern plantation owner, Montgomery lectures the jury and the opposing counsel with assertions that sound like baseless appeals to tradition (“This is an unholy perversion of the balance of nature.”)
These characters are so over-the-top that they can only be interpreted as subjective depictions of Barry’s viewpoint. They mirror the belief that, if a system, norm, or institution creates outcomes you don’t like, it must be based on irrational malice and have no legitimate reason to exist. This straw-man tendency is on full display in real life when political leftists claim that the system is racist or unfair when it doesn’t produce the outcomes they like.
Bee Movie shows the dangers of this desire to destroy social norms, in a powerful endorsement of Chesterton’s fence analogy: the principle of not changing something unless you know why it exists. This isn’t limited to the environmental consequences when bees stop pollinating flowers because of a honey surplus. The protagonists’ attempts to fix this mistake were equally hubristic. To try to re-pollinate the world’s dying flowers, Barry steals a float from the Tournament of Roses, but when the plane gets stuck in a storm and the two pilots get knocked out, he comes up against the problem that he doesn’t know how to fly a plane. Instead, he has to rely on the knowledge and instinct of the thousands of bees of his hive, who join together to carry the plane to its destination. Though comical, this ending represents the conservative idea that the knowledge necessary to maintain society is embedded in organic traditions, institutions, and norms that are often too complex for any individual to comprehend on his or her own.
Beyond creating a functioning civilization, social roles can provide individuals with purpose, even if they may seem mundane. At the beginning, Barry thinks honey production is boring, but other characters, including his father (Barry Levinson) speak about how they find satisfaction in simple jobs like stirring.
Bee Movie is far from perfect, but I think it’s pretty sweet that it touches on these themes that are so categorically opposed to popular narratives.