Laura Wing is a 2000 graduate of the University of San Francisco School of Law.
BABE by Laura Wing
Dont let the pink snout and curly tail fool you. Babe is not your ordinary pig, and the motion picture "Babe" is much more than a warm and fuzzy tale about talking animals. Behind Hoggett farms fairy-tale fašade lies a cruel world dominated by a rigid caste system and a tyrannical rule of law where diversity is not merely frowned upon but squashed at every given opportunity. However harsh this world may be, Babe, a pig who thinks hes a sheepdog, defies the stereotypes and rules that seek to hold him down and ultimately fulfills his personal destiny and changes the farm forever.
Babe is not simply an underdog or rather underpig for whom audiences inevitably cheer, but he is a role model as well. Babe teaches us that by remaining true to yourself and true to the law which is natural to you, you can achieve that which people say you cannot do. Through this honest and sometimes na´ve approach to life, Babe proves himself to be an iconoclast and inspiration to marginalized and oppressed people everywhere. And in the tradition of films such as "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," the motion picture "Babe" is another example of the innocent outsider who changes the system by remaining true to his ideals.
Undermining the Caste System on Hoggett Farm
Hoggett farm is governed by a strict caste system where each species has its own purpose, and each animal has its own place. Those species whose purpose is to work with the "bosses," Farmer Hoggett and his wife, hold the highest positions in the system. These are the dogs and the cats, and they enjoy privileges such as going inside the house that other creatures do not. In the middle lie the animals whose purpose is to help the bosses. This includes cows raised for milk and sheep raised for wool. They do not have the elitist privileges like the cats and dogs do, but their life on the farm is secure. At the bottom are the animals who seemingly have no purpose for they are kept simply to be eaten. This includes the ducks and, unfortunately for Babe, the pigs. They live with the sad fate that they, along with their family and friends, will someday be killed and served for dinner. This is the callous world into which Babe was unwillingly thrust.
This caste system, however rigid it may be, cannot stand on its own. It requires a belief by the animals on the farm that it is right, that each animal should stay in its proper role. Therefore, stereotypes exist for every animal on the farm. Upon meeting Babe, the sheepdog puppies immediately think that Babe is dumb because they have always been told that pigs are definitely stupid and nothing will convince them otherwise. Conversely, the sheep think that the dogs are ignorant savages and nothing will ever convince them otherwise. The universal belief in the veracity of these stereotypes serves as a cornerstone for the caste system.
The other element that holds the caste system in place is Rexs set of laws. Rex, the leader of the sheepdogs and thus the ruler of the farm, sets and enforces the rules under which the animals on Hoggett farm live. Any deviation from the rules must first be approved of by Rex. Even Fly, Rexs "wife," must ask Rex for permission to let Babe sleep in the barn with the dogs. Even though the ultimate ruler of the farm is Farmer Hoggett, Rex is the only one who holds any real power over the animals for Hoggett is too distant and too far removed from the animals to have much of an affect on their day to day affairs. Thus Rex represents the express law on Hoggett farm, and he is responsible for maintaining order and adherence to these rules.
Almost immediately upon his arrival, Babe begins to put a crack in Rexs seemingly impervious rule of law. Babe does something that no other animal has done before. Babe questions the rules. He asks why pigs cannot sleep in the barn and asks why pigs cannot go inside the house. In like manner, Babe refuses to accept the stereotypes of each animal and instead forms an opinion of them based upon his personal knowledge of the creature. To wit, Babe refuses to believe that all dogs are vicious and mean, as the sheep tell him, because the sheepdogs, particularly Fly, have showered Babe with love an compassion. From the beginning Babe rejects the stereotypes that are the foundation to the caste system. Thus by simply following his own heart and his own rules, Babe begins to undermine Rexs power.
Clash of Natural Law with Rexs Rule of Law
It is not until "the great crime" is committed that Babe outwardly defies the law. Ferdinand, a duck, asks Babe to help him break inside the house to steal the newly purchased alarm clock. In an effort to avoid becoming dinner, Ferdinand has given himself a purpose in life by beginning to crow like a rooster. His plan is foiled when Mrs. Hoggett buys an alarm clock, or mechanical rooster as Ferdinand puts it, and Ferdinands life is yet again placed in jeopardy. Ferdinand implores Babe to help him steal the mechanical rooster even though it means breaking the rule that only dogs and cats are allowed inside the house. Babe agrees to help his friend because he believes that his actions, which violate the express law as set forth by Rex, are justified by a higher law that compels Babe to do everything he can to save Ferdinand.
However, when the plan goes astray, Rex reacts by tightening up the rules and being more tyrannical than ever before. At Babes trial Rex proclaims to the packed barn that absolutely no deviation from the rules will henceforth be permitted. He states,
In spite of Rexs stern restatement of the rules, Babe continues to follow the higher law which is natural to him. One morning Babe rises early and hears sheep crying in the distant field. Even though Babe knew that it was against the rules to leave the farm, he left the farm and ran to the field to help the sheep who were in the process of being stolen. Babe alerts Hoggett of the crime, and the majority of the sheep are saved. If not for Babes willingness to break the rules, the entire flock of sheep would have been stolen, and the fate of the entire farm would have been put in danger. Babes bravado changes his reputation on the farm from a quiet little pig to a hero. Even Hoggett himself praises Babe for his actions. However, Rex does not see Babe as a brave pig, but rather sees him as a threat.
Triumph of Natural Law
Babe truly begins to threaten Rexs power when he begins to compete with Rex by doing sheepdog work. Hoggett, who observed Babes natural talent for herding animals, begins to train Babe to become a sheepdog and takes him out to the field each day with Fly and Rex. Yet despite Flys insistence that sheep are inferior and the only way to herd them is to treat them as such, Babe asserts that sheep are their equals and entitled to some respect. Thus in his typical manner, Babe does what he believes is right and refuses to heard the sheep the way that dogs do, by being cruel and biting them, and instead gets the sheep to do as he wishes by being kind and asking them.
This repudiation of well established sheepdog tradition proves to be too much for Rex who takes his anger out on Fly. Rex blames Fly for putting these ideas in Babes head, calls her a traitor to their species, and attacks her. As a result of this fight, Fly is badly injured, and Rex is sedated and chained. Thus, in an ironic twist of fate, Rex furthers Babes training as a sheepdog because without Fly and Rex, Hoggett is forced to turn to Babe to help him in the fields with the sheep. And much to the surprise of everyone, Babes natural talent for herding sheep proves itself to be unparalleled.
With Babe as the lead sheepdog, and therefore the most powerful animal on the farm, Hoggett farm relaxes into a quiet peace. Further, Babes rise to power proves Rexs paradigms wrong. Babe shows by example that the vicious stereotypes, such as the belief that pigs and sheep are stupid, are not true. And perhaps more importantly, Babe, who has garnered the respect of the animals through this kindness, shows that power which is derived from the consent of the governed can, and will, ultimately triumph over tyranny. Contrary to what his previous actions would have foreshadowed, Rex does not violently react against Babes assent to power or sink into despair from his loss of power. Rather, Rex realizes that his strict adherence to the rules is not only irrational but also unnecessary and begins to support Babe. Rexs endorsement of Babe, as exemplified in his behavior when Babe attends the sheepdog trials, cements the triumph of natural law, to which Babe adheres, over the express rule of law set forth by Rex.
"To Thine Own Self Be True"
Like Babe, Ferdinand is a deviant on Hoggett farm, but unlike Babe, Ferdinand is shunned from society and never finds his rightful place. Ferdinand and Babes divergent fates results from different motivations for breaking the rules of Hoggett farm; Ferdinand breaks the rules to avoid being killed and eaten whereas Babe breaks the rules to remain true to his ideals and to help others. To avoid becoming dinner, Ferdinand has tried everything from anorexia to an unsuccessful attempt at mating with the hens. Yet however hard he may try, Ferdinand cannot escape his fate, and he is in turn terrified by it. Ferdinands fearful realization of his destiny is exemplified in his Christmas dinner syllogism. Ferdinand reasons, "Christmas dinner. Dinner means death. Death means carnage. Christmas means carnage."
Ferdinand is unhappy with his life, but the other animals on the farm have no sympathy for him as they do for Babe. They see Ferdinands unrest as a result of his refusal to accept his destiny. For example, after Ferdinand laments the death of his friend Roseanne -- who has been prepared a lorange for Christmas dinner the cow tells Ferdinand that, "the only way that youll find happiness is to accept that the way things are, is the way things are." In response, Ferdinand declares, "The way things are stink. Im not gonna be a goner. I am out of here." Thus it is self-interest, not compassion, that motivates Ferdinand. On the other hand, the animals of Hoggett farm sympathize with Babes plight because he repeatedly risks his own safety to help others. And Babes risks are not taken in hopes of gaining personal power, but rather to be remain true to his beliefs that all animals are equal and that every animal has a right to determine his or her own destiny.
However helpful support from the animal community may be, the secret to Babes success is that he remains true to himself. Ferdinand is constantly trying to change himself to fit within the system of laws on the farm: he tries to be a rooster, he tries to be an alarm clock, and when they all inevitably fail he runs away from the farm. Conversely, Babe doesnt change himself. Instead Babe tries to change the system so that it will fit within his concepts of the law and justice, even if that means putting himself on the line. Babe is willing to put himself in jeopardy by defying the laws of the farm because adherence to a higher, truer law is more important to Babe than saving himself. It is this belief that defiance of worldly law is often required to achieve true justice which brings about Babes success and brings about a better life for all of the animals on Hoggett farm.
Babes unprejudiced heart and unparalleled belief in humanity help him transcend the horrors of Hoggett farm and help him change life on the farm for all the animals. However, Babe delivers much more than your typical sugar-coated G-rated fodder. By plotting natural law (i.e. Babes law) against worldly law (i.e. Rexs law), "Babe" shows that kindness can be a stronger weapon than cruelty, explains that civil disobedience is often justified, and illustrates how the actions of one person can change an entire society for the better. Hoggett farm may be a fictional place where animals can talk, but its problems are real. Every society that has ever suffered from racism or sexism or elitism can relate to the speciesism of Hoggett farm just as every person who has been oppressed by the law can relate to Babe, the pig who wants to be a sheepdog. Therefore, instead of dismissing "Babe" as a childs movie, we should hail it as an example of peaceful, nonviolent opposition to a tyrannical system. And we should embrace the fact that sometimes a childs innocent belief that all things are possible if you stay true to yourself, is what is often needed to survive the battle.
Published May 10, 2000