Dir. Peter Lord and Nick Park
By Callum Hughes
The new century meant very little to me, other than my first glass of champagne as the clock struck midnight. Despite, or perhaps because of this I remember very little about that night as a nine year old boy. But I remember I was supposed to be excited, that we entering a new world as I sat on my father’s shoulders, most likely a little drunk and very tired, only to find that the next day was exactly the same as the ones that came before. Nothing happens when you’re nine; you’re not that cute anymore, the horrors of teenage years are still to come and you’re at that strange mid-place where life is something you drift through. Still nine had its significant moments for me, I became a vegetarian around that time, realised for some reason that it was, at least in theory, better that Labour were in government than the Tories and for the first time started questioning why I couldn’t play with girls.
Girl power died that year, lest we forget, as the Spice Girls split, of course the group were hardly the most interesting or musically gifted group of women to emerge in the 90s but they popularised a version of feminism that even young girls (and boys) could understand.
Feminism comes in many forms, it is a word that has been used for great things but also used far too often as an insult, a put down. It is a label that many have avoided and many have embraced. At its basis the movement addresses the society we live in, a society where women are still treated as the underclass yet are seen as equal by far too many commentators. Many allegories have been used to describe women in society and I can think of few greater than chickens in a farm. Locked away, expected to produce quietly in a society that looks down on them, expects them to underperform. Feathers must be ruffled.
So as the Spice Girls split, as I started thinking about the world around me Chicken Run arrived.
As odd as it might seem to begin a blog on feminist filmmaking with a family film about a highly organised band of chickens, there are a dedicated group within my circle of friends, who I am inclined to agree with, who would list Chicken Run as one of the most strongly feminist films ever made. I should probably say from the off that I love Chicken Run; I would list it as Aardman’s best work to date. I love the fact that it’s a funny, family film that directly deals with dark, adult themes, without it ever seeming forced or jarring. It is, let us be clear about this, beyond anything else an extraordinary film, beautifully constructed, wonderfully written, still as beautiful, funny and engaging 13 years later. I first saw it when I was just 9 years old in the cinema and have seen it a dozen or so times since then. It never fails to hit me with both its humour and its powerful, emotional message.
So where’s the feminism? Most obviously the central characters are a group of strong, independently minded female characters. Ginger, the films protagonist, is a character fighting to escape the confides of Mrs. Tweedy’s farm, which bares more than a passing resemblance to a prisoner of war camp, and where their inevitable fate is to become chicken pies. The films central message then, is escape from a life of entrapment and routine, to a life of freedom and independence. If that’s not a feminist message, I don’t know what is.
The film is filled with feminist characters. At the film’s heart is Ginger, one of the finest feminist characters ever committed to film; free thinking, determined, unwavering in her beliefs and her ambitions. Ginger is shown from the opening scene to have a fierce dedication to her own freedom and independence, as well as being a brave, heroic central character. She commands respect from her fellow chickens and more importantly from Rocky, the male romantic interest. There is also Mac, the intelligent scientific mind of the group and Bunty, the cynical, uncompromising member of the group.
Chicken Run places female characters in what could be seen as typically male roles. The film is partly a parody of The Great Escape, and it turns that most macho of films on its head; placing chickens in the role of the British soldiers in a prisoners of war camp; tough, hardened characters, making the most of harsh pasts. Yet the film makes no apologies about placing those characters in those roles, they are uncompromising in their femininity but they are three dimensional. They are tough but emotionally vulnerable, likeable but flawed. In other words they reach the standards that male characters seem to reach very frequently in even the most sub standard of films yet are so rarely reached by female characters.
It is perhaps a drawback, yet also one of the films biggest strengths, that it is never open about its feminist ideals. It is the sad state of affairs the film industry was in then, and remains in now, that labelling any film feminist is likely to reduce its box office potential. Still, maybe it is to the films benefit, since the wider audience may not know it, but may be influenced by what they are seeing on the screen. They can relate to these characters, understand and sympathise, and maybe it’ll stick in their minds and change something about the way they live their lives day to day, a bit like it did with me.
The film’s best and most moving moments are the most direct. Early on in the film Ginger talks passionately about the world outside, free of the confides of the farm, with green grass, wide spaces and most importantly no farmer telling them what they can and cannot do. It could come across as unsubtle, even patronising, but the film addresses these ideas with the character’s sense of hopelessness. Ginger is seen as a dreamer, with unrealistic expectations. Bunty tells her it is better to keep her head down, lay eggs and try and make the most of it. It is the film’s most powerful aspect that it portrays feminism not as something cynical or bitter, but something hopeful and optimistic. Ginger dreams of something better and nothing will stop her flying away.
Of course some would argue this is a reading that goes too deeply into what Chicken Run is trying to say. Ultimately these characters are Chickens, and the film is perhaps trying to say more about cruelty to animals than the patriarchy.
Still, beauty lies in the eye of the beholder; freedom means different things to different people. Chicken Run is at its heart a film about freedom and the need for no living thing to be confined or controlled. For any feminist watching the film this will speak to them but also anyone who sees Ginger and her friends as a microcosm, as depictions of real people. Those people will see that they live in an unfair, deeply troubled society, but they will see hope from this film and no matter how high the fence seems, there’s still a way of flying over it.
Callum is a screenwriter and essayist who studied film at the University of East Anglia. He is the editor of the Feminist Film Blog.