By Nuala Caomhánach, Doctoral Candidate, New York University
Featured image by Sam Nystrom Costales
DreamWorks Animation’s 2005 film, Madagascar, is the story of four animal BFFs that leave Central Park Zoo in Manhattan only to get re-captured at Grand Central Station and “deported” back to the “wild.” The film’s four mammal protagonists are then loaded into wooden crates aboard a tanker ship that is hijacked by fellow zoo-mates (a gang of penguins) and they eventually wash ashore on the island of Madagascar off the east coast of Africa. Full of musical numbers and hijinks, Madagascar seems innocuous because it is written for children, yet lurking beneath this highly colorful movie is a familiar narrative of “the west and the rest.” The movie tagline should really be “a narcissist, a dreamer, a hypochondriac, and a harlot walk into the African “wilderness” and find themselves in the existential crisis of modernity.” The familiarity of the trope of the “wild” is so deeply embedded in western thinking that it allows the audience to stop thinking critically about what information this movie is giving audiences, especially children, about the non-western natural world. From penguin gang culture to a sexualized hippopotamus, this film ultimately replicates nineteenth-century colonial models of exotic lands, misogynistic tropes, and a prophetic zoocentrism that is morally unsettling once one looks beyond its vibrant animation and catchy musical numbers.
European explorers, merchants, and colonizers created narratives about the non-western world as vast spaces filled with “exotic,” “uncivilized,” “primitive,” and/or “inferior” cultures, and lands filled with potentially useful resources. As a landscape ripe for exploitation, Europeans imagined the entire continent of Africa as the ultimate place of freedom from the strict social hierarchies and stiff moral codes present in Europe at the height of colonization.1 Europeans went to Africa, delimited as a single country, to shelve the expectations of European society and culture and indulge in conquering the “wild” in all its forms.2 Even though the height of the exploration era and the “Scramble for Africa” may seem cast to history books, the impact that it had on culture through popular and academic publications in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries still exists today. Its legacy is so naturalized we cannot even see its construction scaffolding anymore. Characters in Madagascar repeatedly recite the same imperialist sentiments and visions of Africa through the film’s characters, dialogue, soundtrack, and visuals.
Madagascar opens with Marty, a zebra voiced by Chris Rock, turning 10 years old. While celebrating his birthday with his zoo-crew, Gloria (a hippopotamus), Alex (a lion), and Melman (a giraffe), his friends (and the audience) learn that Marty’s birthday wish is to return to “the wild.” Marty’s revelation shocks his friends, including Alex (voiced by Ben Stiller), who indignantly responds, “The wild? Are you nuts? That is the worst idea I’ve ever heard.”3 Similarly, Melman (voiced by David Schwimmer), whose main character traits are that he is anxious and a hypochondriac, expresses his confusion with Marty’s wish by noting a seemingly practical concern: “It’s unsanitary.”4 Marty, ever the optimist, shares that half his life is over and says, “Come on. Just imagine going back to nature. Back to your roots. Clean air, wide-open spaces!”5 His plea to his mammalian friends is not entirely different from the opening of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899), in which the English Seaman Charles Marlowe explains to his companions his childhood desire to explore the “blank spaces” on the earth.6 But “there was one yet—the biggest, the most blank, so to speak—that I had a hankering after”: Africa.7 As Marlowe first approaches the continent, his view is informed by imperial ideology. He anthropomorphizes the coast as “savage,” yet mute, and local Africans as backward, primitive “unhappy savages.8 Both Marty’s hype speech and Heart of Darkness actively reiterate the nineteenth century dichotomy of “civilization” and “the wild.”9
Through the use of scale, lighting, and color the viewer is able to distinguish between “civilization” and “the wild” in Madagascar. The urban landscape of Manhattan is seemingly oppressive as it peers over Central Park Zoo. The zoo animals’ enclosures are spatially close to each other to create a suffocating atmosphere, especially during the day when visitors flood through the zoo’s gates to visit their favorite animals. Animators represent urban spaces with drab colors, with the only respite being the mural that faces Marty’s enclosure. The mural is full of bright colors, depicting water buffalo and zebras posing as if they are in a David Attenbourgh documentary, like a giant postcard sent from somewhere in Africa to remind Marty of a life that is not his. Marty’s daydreams and the island of Madagascar itself feature a rich palette of greens and blues with wide open spaces devoid of humans. When Alex asks King Julian (voiced by Sacha Baron Cohen), the king of the lemurs, if there are any “live” people on the island, King Julian says no, despite the actual reality that there are nearly 29 million people who live on the island of Madagascar. Maurice, King Julians’ side-kick, says “if we had a lot of live people here, it wouldn’t be called ‘the wild.’”10 While the film’s screenwriters probably thought that this line was pithy, we have to address the (other) elephant in the room: Maurice effectively replicates the colonial concept of wilderness. The history of wilderness as a concept has a peculiar history, an environmental space depicted as humanless, yet, it is quite profoundly a human creation, a white vision of nature.11 Indeed, the wilderness is not a pristine sanctuary where the last remnant of an untouched, virginal, endangered nature can be encountered, but a product of western thought and modernity.
Since the late 1700s, western ideas about the environment treated nature as separate from culture. This asymmetry not only enabled a racialized division of humans into superior (white) and inferior (black and brown) but assigned higher economic and legal protections to the former as an endowment from God.12 The first interaction between the zoo-crew and the lemurs in Madagascar reads like a nineteenth century explorer’s first-encounter story and is crucial to this binary.13 The audience first hears the drum beats in the distance with Gloria (voiced by Jada Pinkett-Smith) stating that “where there’s music, there’s people.”14 They “discover” under a baobab tree a huge group of lemurs in a dance club atmosphere. The baobab is not only a symbol of the modern Republic of Madagascar, but is also frequently associated with Africa in popular culture, from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince to Disney’s The Lion King. With its upside down physique, a smooth trunk devoid of stems until a crown of straggly branches, the baobab tree is otherworldly and representative of the exotic landscapes of Africa that Europeans envisioned during the nineteenth century and beyond. Under the dark canopy of the jungle, the lemurs dance wildly to Reel to Real’s 1993 hit, “I Like to Move It.” Seemingly, the CD of the pilot who crash-landed on Madagascar and whose skeletal remains hang from the tree above the lemurs is one of the only artifacts of humanity. The lemurs dance fluidly and move as one choreographed entity. Like voyeurs, the zoo-crew are mesmerized by this exotic dancing as they try to figure out if these animals are “crazy” or “savage”: the classic imperial binary used on indigenous peoples around the world.
The movie’s focus on dance associates movement with art, but dance has a politics. By dancing–a complex non-textual act— African cultures created a body sovereignty that connected them to their history, politics, land, family, and relationships to others. During colonial conquests, dance was an embodied choreography through which Europeans could inscribe racialized and gendered inscriptions onto black bodies. The exoticization process produced the objectification and the commodification of Africans.15 On the one hand Europeans could imagine black bodies as infantile and primitive; on the other hand hyper and oversexualized.16 Colonialism transformed the meaning of indigenous dances and ceremonies into erotic and/or violent acts, and represented not just the symptom of the “other,” but as a trope and a process for colonization. Exotic dance was a way to control the “others’” body, and to put it/them at the colonizer’s disposal.17 The lemurs’ collective dance is at odds with the individual posings of Alex at the zoo show–a reflection of civilizations’ elevation of the individual at the cost of the collective. The group is lit at a low angle from a glowing disco-ball flower that casts large strobe-like shadows on the surrounding tree life. Coupled with the music, the shadows designate this “other” space as exotic, carnal, and bodily in nature.
Madagascar replicates these eighteenth and nineteenth century racist stereotypes through Gloria, the only female mammal and least developed character in the film. Gloria’s personality is inscribed through her body, not only is she a curvy, opinionated hippo, the film heavily sexualizes her character. For example, when she emerges onto the island of Madagascar, she is wearing two strategically placed starfish and a crab to simulate a scandalous bikini. In this scene and others, Gloria is representative of a much longer history and legacy of sexualizing black women. Scholars like Robin Mitchell and Sadiah Qureshi have shown how black women’s bodies were gazed upon, sexualized and fetishized, scientifically collected, appraised, displayed, and consumed as objects of desire and disgust both in the flesh and through visual and textual representations by white men and women.18 Black women’s bodies allowed white women to establish their superiority within white patriarchal European society. The audience inherently absorbs this gendered and pseudo-scientific racialized hierarchy of white supremacy over black female bodies, and these understandings of group identity and ethnic sensibilities.
Madagascar is a place the four main characters should feel home in, but the zoo animals individually struggle to adapt and it soon gets ugly. For example, Alex and Marty navigate nature in completely different fashions. While Marty spends the whole film talking about how he wants to live in the wild, the first thing he does is domesticate the place and settle into a life of sun and sea. Alex is impressed with his friend, but his ego suffers a huge blow as he cannot seem to adapt to life in Madagascar as quickly as Marty. He wonders if wilderness critters wipe themselves with a leaf, deems a hole in the sand a latrine, and begins to lose his grip on reality, almost like a form of “jungle fever” so feared by European explorers.19
Like all tales of the white man in Africa, he must be challenged by the perilous and exotic jungle to prove his resilience and masculinity. At the zoo, the animals have access to all the modern world’s luxuries, including dinner served every night on a silver platter. Without identifiable food on the island, Alex “goes native.”20 His mane becomes kinky, he hallucinates about the steak he was accustomed to getting at the zoo, and slowly turns predatory and lustful of Marty’s rear end. King Julian, upon seeing Alex biting Marty’s butt, states “what is a simple bite on the buttocks among friends?”21 The narrative crosses into a predatory sexuality that emerged in Alex’s zoo life. He dreams about steaks–and mutters sweet nothings in his sleep in an almost sexual way. He cuddles and licks steaks on other occasions solidifying his fetish for raw meat. This is not a random occurrence; rather, this is part of a larger history of hypermasculinity and white supremacy embedded in European imperial expansion.22 Alex, a self-centered apex predator, charming yet insufferable, with his adaptive abilities highlights the trope of the hypermasculine white man in Africa and the zoocentrism of understanding the natural world today.
While the lemurs are able to speak as well as the main characters, the fossa represents the backward notion of indigenous cultures, an unsophisticated predator. Although being in the wild eventually triggers Alex’s feline tendencies that domestic life at the zoo suppressed; it is Melman who seems to represent the reality of coming from a space considered “civilized” to one deemed as “wild.” The anxious, paranoid, pill-popping hypochondriac, Woody Allen-esque, nebbish New Yorker represents the actual inability of modernity to adapt. Ultimately, what the filmmakers present is the “normalcy” of the Western model of modernity with Africa depicted as savage, exotic, and a punchline. Madagascar does not subvert or pervert norms; rather, it wields a weary, worn, and unoriginal Orientalist binary by wrapping it in comedy and catchy songs.
Nuala Caomhánach is a PhD candidate in the Department of History at New York University, and a research scientist in the Invertebrate Department at the American Museum of Natural History. Her dissertation “Curating Madagascar: The Rise of Phylogenetics in an Age of Climate Change, 1920-2023” examines the relationship between scientific knowledge, climate change, and conservation law in Madagascar. Her project illuminates how changes in botanical science have affected international conservation ideology, policy, and practice. She co-curated the Black Botany: The Nature of Black Experience exhibition as a Andrew W. Mellon Fellow at the New York Botanical Garden. Additionally, Nuala is a contributing editor at the Journal of the History of Ideas Blog, and co-produces the Not That Kind of Doctor podcast that invites PhD students to discuss their research. Twitter: @nulybranch.
- Thomas J. Bassett, “Cartography and Empire Building in Nineteenth-Century West Africa,” Geographical Review 84, 3 (1994): 316-335; Edward W. Said, Orientalism (New York, Pantheon Books, 1998); Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, eds. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988), 271–313; Johannes Fabian, Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014); Nick Sprenger, “Orientalism in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire Series,” Historifans, July 25, 2022, https://historifans.org/2022/07/25/orientalism-in-george-r-r-martins-a-song-of-ice-and-fire-series/.
- Richard Philips, Sex, Politics and Empire (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2017); Martin Ewans, European Atrocity, African Catastrophe: Leopold II, The Congo Free State and Its Aftermath (New York: Routledge, 2017); Rachel Jean-Baptiste, Conjugal Rights: Marriage, Sexuality and Urban Life in Colonial Libreville, Gabon (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2014); Helen Tilley, Africa as a Living Laboratory: Empire, Development, and the Problem of Knowledge, 1870-1950 (Chicago:, University of Chicago, 2011); David Renton, David Seddon, and Leo Zeilig, The Congo: Plunder and Resistance (London and New York: Zed Books, 2007); Pamela Scully, “Rape, Race, and Colonial Culture: The Sexual Politics of Identity in the Nineteenth-century Cape Colony, South Africa,” The American Historical Review 100, 2 (1995): 335-359; Annie E. Coombes, Reinventing Africa: Museums, Material Culture and Popular Imagination in Late Victorian and Edwardian England (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994).
- Madagascar, directed by Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath (Glendale, CA: DreamWorks Animation, 2005).
- Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness (New York: Penguin Classics, 2007), 8.
- Conrad, Heart of Darkness, 8.
- Conrad, Heart of Darkness, 16.
- Stuart L. Pimm, “Africa: Still the ”Dark Continent,” Conservation Biology 21, 3 (2007): 567-569; Noah R. Bassil, “The Roots of Afropessimism: The British Invention of the ‘Dark Continent,’” Critical Arts 25, 3 (2011): 377-396; Angela Thompsell, “Why Was Africa Called the Dark Continent?: Victorian Era Adventure, Missionaries, and Imperialism,” ThoughtCo, August 26, 2021, thoughtco.com/why-africa-called-the-dark-continent-43310. Robert Siegel, “Chinua Achebe: ‘Heart Of Darkness’ Is Inappropriate,” All Things Considered, NPR, October 15, 2009, https://www.npr.org/2009/10/15/113835207/chinua-achebe-heart-of-darkness-is-inappropriate.
- Frédéric Ducarme, Fabrice Flipo, and Denis Couvet, “How the Diversity of Human Concepts of Nature Affects Conservation of Biodiversity,” Conservation Biology 35, 3 (2021): 1019-1028; Michael-Shawn Fletcher, Rebecca Hamilton, Wolfram Dressler, and Lisa Palmer, “Indigenous Knowledge and the Shackles of Wilderness,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 118, 40 (2021); Frédéric Ducarme and Denis Couvet, “What does ‘Nature’ Mean?” Palgrave Communications 6, 1 (2020): 1-8; Kimberly K. Smith, “What is Africa to Me?: Wilderness in Black Thought from 1860 to 1930,” Environmental Ethics 27, 3 (2005): 279-297; Donald M. Waller, “Getting Back to the Right Nature: A Reply to Cronon’s ‘The Trouble with Wilderness,’” The Great New Wilderness Debate 546, 5 (1998); William Cronon, “A Place for Stories: Nature, History, and Narrative,” The Journal of American History 78, 4 (1992): 1347-1376; Raymond Williams, “Ideas of Nature,” in Problems of Materialism and Culture (London: Verso, 1980); Aldo Leopold, “Wilderness” in A Sand County Almanac: And Sketches Here and There (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1949).
- William Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness: Or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,” Environmental History 1, 1 (1996): 7–28; Donald Worster, Nature’s Economy: A History of Ecological Ideas (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).
- Adam Briedik, “Colonial/Imperial Discourses in a First-Contact Narrative: Terry Bisson’s ‘They’re Made of Meat’ (1991),” Polish Journal of English Studies 8, 1 (2022): 43-65; Daniel Simpson, The Royal Navy in Indigenous Australia, 1795–1855: Maritime Encounters and British Museum Collections (Cham, Switzerland: Springer Nature, 2021); Helen F. Wilson “Contact Zones: Multispecies Scholarship through ‘Imperial Eyes,’” Environment and Planning E : Nature and Space 2, 4 (2019): 712-731; Michael Householder, Inventing Americans in the Age of Discovery: Narratives of Encounter (New York: Routledge, 2016); John Sutton Lutz (ed.), Myth and Memory: Stories of Indigenous-European Contact (Toronto: UBC Press, 2011); Vanessa Jane Smith, Intimate Strangers: Friendship, Exchange and Pacific Encounters (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010); Dorothy Eber, Encounters on the Passage: Inuit Meet the Explorers (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008); T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting, Black Venus: Sexualized Savages, Primal Fears, and Primitive Narratives in French (Durham: Duke University Press, 1999).
- Robin Mitchell, Vénus Noire: Black Women and Colonial Fantasies in Nineteenth-Century France (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2020); Jeanne Essame, “Returning the Colonial Gaze: The Black Female Body in Angèle Etoundi Essamba’s Photography,” In Locating African European Studies: Interventions, Intersections, Conversations, eds. Felipe Espinoza, Caroline Koegler, Deborah Nyangulu, and Mark U. Stein (New York: Routledge 2019).
- Tayler Friar, “The Black Female Body: Representation of the Erotic in Contemporary Visual Art in Africa,” E-rea. Revue électronique d’études sur le monde anglophone 19, 1 (2021); Gloria Wekker, White Innocence: Paradoxes of Colonialism and Race (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016); Cren M. Holmes, “The Colonial Roots of the Racial Fetishization of Black Women,” Black & Gold 2 (2016); Anne McClintock, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest. (New York: Routledge, 2013); Robert Morrel and Lahoucine Ouzgane, “African Masculinities: An Introduction,” in African Masculinities: Men in Africa from the Late Nineteenth Century to the Present, eds. Lahoucine Ouzgane and Robert Morell (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).
- Jean-François Staszak, “Danse Exotique, Danse Érotique. Perspectives Géographiques Sur La Mise En Scène Du Corps de l’Autre (XVIII e -XXI e Siècles),” Annales de Géographie 117, 660/661 (2008): 129-158; Jean-François Staszak, “Qu’est-ce que l’exotisme?” Le globe 148 (2008).
- Clifton Crais and Pamela Scully, Sara Baartman and the Hottentot Venus (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2021); Robin Mitchell, Vénus Noire, Laura Ann Stoler, Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power: Race and the Intimate in Colonial Rule (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010); Katherine McKittrick, “Science Quarrels Sculpture: The Politics of Reading Sarah Baartman,” Mosaic (2010): 113-130; Sadiah Qureshi, “Displaying Sara Baartman, the ‘Hottentot Venus,’” History of Science 42, 2 (2004): 233-257; Londa L. Schiebinger, Nature’s Body: Gender In the Making of Modern Science (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2013).
- Charlotte Rogers, Jungle Fever: Exploring Madness and Medicine in Twentieth-Century Tropical Narratives (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2012); Maja Horn, “Jungle Fever: Exploring Madness and Medicine in Twentieth-Century Tropical Narratives, Review”: Literature and Arts of the Americas 48, 2: 278-280.
- Anna Reid, “Heart of Darkness and the Fear of Going Native,” Ilha do Desterro: A Journal of English Language, Literatures in English and Cultural Studies, 62 (2012): 55-73.
- Several scholars have explored how white masculinity became synonymous with power, patriarchy, and empire. See Emilie Taylor-Pirie, “Expeditions into ‘Central Man’: Imperial Romance, Tropical Medicine, and Heroic Masculinity,” in Empire Under the Microscope: Parasitology and the British Literary Imagination, 1885–1935 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2021); Fiona Zerbst, “‘The Small Man with the Big Weapon’: An Examination of Representations of the Great White Hunter in Several scholars have explored how white masculinity became synonymous with power, patriarchy, and empire. See Emilie Taylor-Pirie, “Expeditions into ‘Central Man’: Imperial Romance, Tropical Medicine, and Heroic Masculinity,” in Empire Under the Microscope: Parasitology and the British Literary Imagination, 1885–1935 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2021); Fiona Zerbst, “‘The Small Man with the Big Weapon’: An Examination of Representations of the Great White Hunter in South African English-Language Poetry,” English Academy Review 36, 1 (2019): 84-99; Donna Haraway, “Teddy Bear Patriarchy: Taxidermy in the Garden of Eden, New York City, 1908-1936,” in Grasping the World: The Idea of the Museum, eds. Donald Preziosi and Claire Farago (New York: Routledge, 2019); Jonathan Saha, “Whiteness, Masculinity and the Ambivalent Embodiment of ‘British Justice’ in Colonial Burma,” The Journal of the Social History Society 14, 4 (2017); Angela Thompsell, Hunting Africa: British Sport, African Knowledge and the Nature of Empire (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015); Warwick Anderson, “The Trespass Speaks: White Masculinity and Colonial Breakdown,” The American Historical Review 102, 5 (1997): 1343-1370.