On a road trip from Dallas to our home in Siloam Springs, my family decided to play a movie for the last couple of hours to entertain my three-year-old and five-year-old. Usually, I prefer classic films such as Singing in the Rain or Mary Poppins, but those are not available at the roadside RedBox. In a well-written Facebook feed, a friend had recommended the BlueSky production Ferdinand:
“Ferdinand is a great teaching tool about the myth of redemptive violence, loving and respecting those who are different, nonviolent resistance, and the lesson that love can conquer all. No doubt the movie had to fill in gaps of the short story, but most of it is fun and joyful. I recommend it to parents who are challenging their kids to look past the binary of ‘good guys vs. bad guys’ and also want a story about how we are all redeemable.”
This extemporaneous review sums up the goodness of the Ferdinand story (our family subsequently bought the book and have since watched the 1938 Disney film that received an Academy Award). Unfortunately, most reviewers of Ferdinand—including Christians and conservatives—have been less prescient than my friend. I want to refute these reviews, in the hopes that more people will watch Ferdinand and draw from it the good that is there.
When Munroe Leaf’s book Ferdinand was published in 1936, it sparked controversy. The story is about a bull named Ferdinand, who prefers to smell flowers and sit beneath a cork tree rather than fight matadors in the Madrid arena. Seemingly an innocuous story. Over 80,000 copies sold within the first year, a prodigious amount during the Great Depression. According to a recent New Yorker review, there was even a Ferdinand balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade in 1938. In addition to Ferdinand’s adolescent admirers, critics chose to read between the lines of the tale and exalt Ferdinand as a pacifist icon. While pacifism is a minority viewpoint at the best of times, in between two world wars, the book struck a chord. Hitler decried it as propaganda and supposedly had it burned, whereas the Roosevelts purportedly adored it. The book was causing people to choose sides: love it or hate it. But the reason for love or hate had to do with the bull’s pacifism.
Almost a century later, writers are shaming or lauding the film (inspired by the book) because Ferdinand defies gender norms and might be gay. In her review for The Guardian, Simran Hans writes, “Ferdinand’s passivity (and flower obsession) isn’t explicitly coded as queer, though the film hints that this might be the case.” She neglects to offer evidence of these “hints.” What Hans labels “passive” should be called “pacifist.” Although Ferdinand does not want to fight in the arena with the matador, he is a courageous actor in his life. Rather than butt heads with the other bulls and compete against them, Ferdinand rallies them together. Instead of bullying those around him, he befriends even the smallest—a trio of adorable scavenging hedgehogs—as well as the unwanted—namely, the unseemly goat Lupe. His love for flowers is not an “obsession,” which connotes a sickness, but implies Ferdinand’s attention to beauty as well as a creative spirit. Despite how his initial caretakers incite his destructive nature, Ferdinand cultivates beauty even in the bullpen, tending to a small flower that he hides from the other bulls. He refuses to harm anything, even when attacked. He will not fight humans when they tie him up, other bulls when they mock him, not even a bunny in the wrong place at the wrong time. At one point, Ferdinand even tries not to break plates when he finds himself, a bull, literally in a china shop. Implying that Ferdinand is “queer” because he rejects violence is as absurd as labeling gay other great pacifists, such as Ghandi or Martin Luther King Jr. or Desmond Doss.
Unfortunately, even Christian readers are missing the mark. In The Federalist, reviewer Jessica Burke homes in on the “be you” statement in Ferdinand and interprets it as the relativistic ethos of secular culture subverting Christian truth. She makes two blunders. First, we should not conflate “Be true to yourself” with “You do you,” the slogan of autonomous authority. The former is open to more potential good than the latter. Acting in accordance with who we are assumes self-knowledge, a noble goal that opposes self-absorption. Walking in the footsteps of Socrates and Jesus, Flannery O’Connor writes, “To know oneself is, above all, to know what one lacks. It is to measure oneself against the Truth, and not the other way around. The first product of self-knowledge is humility.” The makers of Ferdinand had none of this in mind nor any conception of the Incarnate Truth. However, their bovine hero does not boast, does not pretend to be more than who he is, and approaches every other creature with humility. He models virtue, even if his creators could never articulate the source.
Secondly, Burke falters when she believes reviewers, such as Lori Day from Huffington Post, who purport that Ferdinand emblematizes gender nonconformity. Day writes, “Ferdinand was sweet, loving, and gentle and he did not want to fight. He was not traditionally masculine. In fact, he was actively resisting gender norms!” When I teach writing, I advise my students against hiding their assumptions in adverbs, the blunder that Day commits here. “Traditionally” supposes a specific but unnamed “tradition,” perhaps the American, 20th-century tradition of masculinity. However, there is the Christian tradition of gentleness and love first promulgated by the Son of Man. And, we should not see Ferdinand as resisting “masculinity” but as defying his culture, which bred bulls for fighting in an arena. It is the societal expectations that Ferdinand overthrows. If we reject Day’s conclusion that peacemaking resists gender norms, then Burke need not deduce that Ferdinand’s pacifism “is fine” for a “silly bull,” but that “discerning audiences will see it is dangerous for a human.” For, when she does so, Burke forgets the fully human Jesus who—rather than fight back or call 10,000 angels to His side—allowed Himself to be hung upon a cross. The tradition of suffering humiliation and refusing to fight, even when it may cost your life, is for more than a bull; it is the magnanimous calling of the human.
When I watched Ferdinand, I did not think of queer symbology or bucking gender norms, but of Saint Telemachus, the monk who put an end to the gladiatorial games in Rome. In the 4th century, the Eastern ascetic was brought to the stadium—possibly the Colosseum—to be put to death for his faith. Rather than fight, he was stabbed to death by a gladiator. While the rulers of the city and its people looked on, their hearts were turned by this brave monk’s passive acceptance of death. The crowd exited the stadium in silence, and the Emperor Honorius banned the gladiatorial fights. Because of Telemachus’s refusal to fight, the violence in the arena ended that day, with his own shed blood.
Thankfully, the children’s film (and book) spares Ferdinand. Faced with his obstinate passivity, the crowd in Madrid frees the bull to return to his hillside and smell flowers. In the film, the Matador and bull reverse roles in a scene that reveals the true instigator and the true victim. Although the movie is not for the ages, so to speak, and does not deserve any awards, the story at its heart reminds viewers of timeless heroes, those who, like Ferdinand, are peacemakers, and as such, called blessed.