Friday, November 14, 2014

Why We Love Penguins

<p>Get a room, penguins.</p>
 Photographer: Vanderlei Almeida/AFP/Getty Images
Get a room, penguins. Photographer: Vanderlei Almeida/AFP/Getty Images 
This passage from Australian Richard Flanagan's Booker Prize-winning novel "The Narrow Road to the Deep North" has made the shortlist for the infamous Bad Sex in Fiction award from the U.K.'s Literary Review:
He kissed the slight, rose-coloured trench that remained from her knicker elastic, running around her belly like the equator line circling the world. As they lost themselves in the circumnavigation of each other, there came from nearby shrill shrieks that ended in a deeper howl. Dorrigo looked up. A large dog stood at the top of the dune. Above blood-jagged drool, its slobbery mouth clutched a twitching fairy penguin.
I'm no judge of sex scenes in novels, but I am bothered by the penguin. It appears to have photobombed the scene, and anyone who reads it will remember the bird, not the unfortunate travel metaphor.

Penguins are everywhere. The latest edition of YouTube Trends features a much-shared ad for U.K. retailer John Lewis starring a lonely penguin. DreamWorks will release "Penguins of Madagascar" on the day before Thanksgiving. It will be the first animated film for John Malkovich and Benedict Cumberbatch. The latter has apparently been cured of a rare syndrome: Until recently. he had trouble pronouncing the word "penguin." 

Articles on penguins in science magazines tend to go viral (this one, about scientists using a cute penguin toy to keep real penguins from stressing out, is a recent example). Last year, CNN Turkey showed a penguin documentary at the height of anti-government protests in Istanbul: What else could have distracted angry young Turks? OK, that didn't work so well, but it was worth a try.

Adopt-a-penguin programs that collect money for research are so popular that there's fierce competition among them. "We are the ONLY penguin adoption that gives each adoptee their very own penguin," one trumpets.

"What is it about penguins?" stories began appearing in 2006, when the animated feature "Happy Feet" took in $42.3 million on its opening weekend. Here are some possible answers culled from man-on-the-street interviews in a number of publications:
  • Penguins walk on two feet, which connects them to us;
  • They are known to be monogamous and great parents:  The males take care of the eggs and the females perform heroic feats to feed their family;
  • They are funny, with their formal clothes and clumsy waddling;
  • They don't need an artist's help to look like a toy or a logo;
  • They are the mascots of environmentalism, and serve as bellwethers of global warming.
  • They are super-cute, which sums up all "22 Reasons Why Penguins Are Hands Down the Best Animals on Earth" in this BuzzFeed listicle.
Still, there is a dearth of serious research. All I managed to find was this 1996 paper by Barbara Phillips of the University of Texas at Austin, which describes her efforts to test perceptions of animals as characters in advertising. She found that penguins are easy and fun to represent visually.
We tend to imagine that penguins have a dual personality. For the most part, they are seen as silly and playful , but they also can embody formality, haughtiness and reserve.

The rich vein of penguin material in popular culture has only grown since 1996, offering a treasure trove for curious academics. My strictly unscientific theory is that the birds owe their popularity to their perceived social awkwardness, as described by this 5-year-old meme. In the noisy, competitive and harsh environment, identifying with penguins is an excuse to celebrate our own shyness and clumsiness.

So penguins deserve to be ubiquitous, except in sex scenes.


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