Did you ask for a deep dive into the meme machine 2007 film and secret psychological thriller Bee Movie? Because that is exactly what Kiki Penoyer is going to do, right the hell now!
In 2007, comedian Jerry Seinfeld decided to follow in the footsteps of many of his comedy peers and predecessors, by taking the terrifying and oft-rewarding plunge of dramatic acting. Though best-known for playing a fictionalized version of himself on the sitcom that shared his name, it would be challenging enough to break out of the mold he had occupied for so long—but he faced a far greater challenge than anticipated when he set out to write, produce, and star in a film about a sociopath at odds with himself and his place in society, who escapes to the big city to at last embrace his antisocial nature, unleash his disregard for humanity in a terrifyingly destructive way…and find love—in the arms of a fellow sociopath, who becomes his accomplice in his cheerful quest to destroy the human race.
I’m speaking, of course, about the complex psychological thriller Bee Movie.
No doubt inspired by the success of Showtime megahit Dexter—a TV series about a charming young serial killer who hides his psychopathy with khaki shorts and witty one-liners—Jerry and his writing team (all of whom were either writers on Seinfeld or one of Jerry’s other projects) originally sought to tell the story of Barry B. Benson, the sociopath in question, as a live-action motion picture. At the behest of noted film legend Steven Spielberg, the crew considered the possibility of doing something much more daring: using digital animation, a medium most typically reserved for light-hearted children’s films, in to tell Barry’s story as a means of highlighting the oft-cartoonish levels of performance those with Antisocial Personality Disorders must often demonstrate in order to fit in with modern society.
As a concept, it was brilliant.
But would it work?
The film opens with a now-famous quote regarding the physics of honeybee flight: According to all known laws of aviation, there is no way a bee should be able to fly. Its wings are too small to get its fat little body off the ground. The bee, of course, flies anyway because bees don’t care what humans think is impossible. This quote, with its cheeky sort of optimism, has gone on to serve as an inspirational mantra for our generation, repeated even by our most treasured celebrities and social influencers.
Of course, the fact that this is patently untrue only makes this quote more ironic; you may take inspiration from these words, but these words are meaningless. And so is your inspiration. There are absolutely no laws of physics that in any way contradict honeybee flight; nothing is to stop a bee from flying, just as nothing is to stop any of us from achieving our dreams. We invent systems of laws and societal structures to convince ourselves that there are mechanisms in place which hold us down, and we must merely choose to “not care what humans think is possible” in order to rise above—when in reality, the mechanisms are all of our own human design, and there has never been anything in our way, and this is all a meaningless dream.
Barry B. Benson, the protagonist of our film, begins his day by sorting through his closet. “Yellow, black. Yellow, black. Yellow, black. Yellow, black. Ooh, black and yellow! Let’s shake it up a little.” he exclaims, pulling a sweater from the end of the rack off its hanger.
The sweaters are all identical. There is nothing different about any of them. What you wear doesn’t matter, Barry seems to be telling us; we assign random meanings to clothing, but in essence, they’re all exactly the same sweater. The societal pathology regarding fashion is merely another construct designed to stand in the way of our true expression, and Barry winks at this with his assertion that one of any identical sweaters is different than any other.
Barry’s only real friend is Adam, an extremely anxious young bee ecstatic to at last join the corporate work machine, as he will finally have a role where he will be instructed on how to perform each day and therefore free him of the tyranny of liberty. Adam serves as a useful foil for Barry, as Adam’s extreme social anxieties are at the opposite end of the scale from Barry’s nihilism. It is initially unclear what Adam derives from this connection—Adam is the one who must initiate all conversations and acts of friendship, such as calling Barry on the day of their graduation to confirm Barry will still give him a ride to what will undoubtedly be the most intense and important event of their young lives. He knows that there is a possibility Barry will forget, or perhaps purposely abandon him, and yet he has continued to initiate acts of friendship with Barry over the years. Perhaps the most likely explanation is that Barry cares an equal amount about everyone—which is to say, 0%—and therefore Adam is at no risk of being judged any differently. Some film critics have suggested that the other possibility is that this relationship is meant as a tongue-in-cheek nod to Matthew Broderick, who voices Adam; Broderick’s best film performance to date is that of Ferris Bueller, Nihilistic Cool Kid, who abuses his taller, more-oblong-faced and uptight friend Cameron—in essence, the film’s Adam—throughout the 1980s classic Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. I suspect, however, that this is too lazy an explanation for a project so complex and well-thought-out as Bee Movie.
For Barry, the relationship is more about the utilitarian perks: the main condition of Adam’s friendship is his careful reminders to Barry what the “polite” thing is to do in a given situation—in other words, to assist Barry in performing Normalcy, to avoid arousing suspicion. To continue the Dexter comparison, he’s sort of like Barry’s Rita. But a dude.
In fact, very nearly all the bees appear to be dudes. The only exceptions are Barry’s mother and then three other random bees who have the same face shape and haircut or glasses as his mother.
Now, this may seem strange. In reality, almost every single bee you’ve ever seen in real life is a lady bee. Typically speaking, bees, a matriarchal society, are a network of hard-working ladies with a Queen at the top; the only guy bees are created solely for reproduction, but are otherwise nonparticipating members of bee society. They generally don’t even have stingers—which Barry, Adam, and every other bee we see around the colony DO seem to have, but the only three lady bees we see all have the exact same face and/or hair and/or glasses as his mother, while everyone else—sporting a variety of individual faces, haircuts, heights, and body types—all appear to be male.
This at first may appear to be an oversight on the part of the writing team, who were so dead-set on writing a movie where Jerry Seinfeld stars as a fuckable bee that they decided to simply ignore the actual laws of nature and instead make pretty much every character in the movie male so all of his (male) friends could be in it and not have to pretend that there is even a fictional universe where they would accept a woman as ruler over them. (The Queen is mentioned, but her role was completely cut out of the film, in spite of it having been voiced by Megan Mullally, and all the Authority roles in the movie are assigned to male characters instead.)
But to accept that would be to miss the actual complexity of the choice: in a world where capitalism is king and the goal is to shove a citizen right out of college and then into a job where they’ll work until they literally collapse from exhaustion, does gender really matter? Or in Barry’s world, where no one else’s life or identity matters, does their gender make any real difference to him? Is Barry only capable of recognizing and flirting with women if they resemble his mother, therefore categorizing everyone around him as ‘men,’ simply because they are members of the workforce and he is not sexually interested in them? Is this a subtle indication to the audience that Barry’s Oedipus Complex has taken over his entire worldview, to remind us he is an unreliable narrator?
As the film continues, the answer will become clear:
All of those things.
The biggest challenge Barry faces, of course, is the conflict between his upcoming graduation—and the expectation to immediately join the workforce and contribute to society in a meaningful way afterward—and his disinterest in the needs or lives of others. On the way to ceremony, Adam tentatively brings up the death of a classmate, whose funeral is being held the next day; this classmate apparently was assaulted while out of the hive and died when stinging the attacker in self-defense. Adam asks if Barry plans to attend the funeral—a hint that it would be the societally polite thing to do—but with no one but Adam around to hear him, Barry scoffs that “Of course [he’s] not goin’ to the funeral; everyone knows if you sting something, you die.” Barry feels his classmate’s untimely death is ultimately their own fault for not possessing the intellectual power to avoid death, and therefore feels no need to perform sympathy for his fallen comrade.
Much like Meursult finds himself unable to cry over the death of his mother in the existentialist landmark novel The Stranger.
When the time comes to start work, Adam is ecstatic—at last, he will be given an opportunity to be just like everyone else! The worry of following unwritten societal rules will be supplanted by the bliss of written employee codes of conduct, allowing him to let go of his anxiety and live in a mindless state of calm efficiency.
Barry, who has never had such worries, balks at the very idea. Sure, the production of honey is the entire point of the hive, and is vital to sustaining the lives of every single member of the colony, but the concept of a socialist workforce—one where all citizens have their needs met and are expected to do their part to then take care of others—is lost on one so balls-deep in Ayn Rand as Barry B. Benson. Confronted with the need to care about others in order to be accepted, Barry becomes agitated; as is common in cases where sociopathy is indicated, he deals with his upset by seeking out a high-risk activity.
The “Pollen Jocks,” as Barry calls them, hold the highest place in his esteem; they are in charge of collecting pollen outside the hive and returning it for honey production, and their jobs are considered the most dangerous—and therefore the most glamorous to those for whom risk-taking behaviors are attractive. In spite of the fact that in real life, pollen-collecting honeybees are just another form of worker bee, Barry’s Rugrats-esque fictionalization paints them as four times his height and twice as broad, with leather jackets and guns; the adrenaline high of being near them drives him to lie in order to join their ranks to fly out the next day, searching for a rush that will quell his rage over being asked to do what he cannot (i.e. care about anyone else around him for even one minute).
This is the first plucking of thread that begins to unravel Barry’s mask; without Adam around to help him cheat at having a moral compass, he finds himself powerless to resist the high of having shirked his duty. While on his mission, he quickly abandons the team, ignores their warnings to stay away from what turns out to be a tennis ball, and expresses an alarmingly weak amount of concern when he comes upon what he believes to be a field of dead and mutilated bodies (i.e. a windshield featuring a concerning array of dead bugs). Barry is informed that none of these folks are actually dead—they are faking death in order to hitch a ride on a windshield; the concept of using deception to obtain rewards intrigues Barry greatly and tugs even harder at his mask, and his ability to feign even vague worry for the others around him vanishes. When told that the bug immediately to his left IS, in fact, properly dead, Barry merely shrugs. “All right,” he says, unbothered.
The death of others can hold no meaning for one who can find no meaning in their lives.
But the carefully controlled world in which he has maintained a semblance of balance is about to be shattered forever. In a rare chance encounter, Barry meets Vanessa, whom he is able to identify as a human female (because she, too, shares the same basic facial shape and hair color as his mother.) While bees have been taught all their lives to fear humans, Vanessa appears immediately to Barry as one who is different—and in fact, she is.
Different in much the same way as Barry, in fact.
For Vanessa, too, is a sociopath.
It isn’t ever explicitly stated, but it becomes obvious the longer one looks. Vanessa’s partner, Ken, has a deadly bee allergy. Vanessa keeps a thriving colony of flowers going on her windowsill, and always leaves the window open just a crack. The constant threat of possibly inviting in a tiny danger that could leave Ken gasping for air and possibly dying in her presence thrills her, in a way she cannot control or explain.
And indeed, through this crack flies Barry, and Ken predictably attempts to squish him in order to save himself and his guests from possible painful deaths. Vanessa, however, intervenes, catching Barry in a jar and releasing him juuuust outside the window, back into the flower patch, with the window still open—an invitation to try again, a silent plea to Barry or any other bee to zoom inside and cause more trouble and feed her addiction to adrenaline. At Ken’s shocked expression, she demures, dropping hastily into what sounds like an innocently girly tone: “Why should his life matter any less than yours?” she asks. Ken becomes confused and upset by this question, as it sounds to him as if she considers an insect’s life as highly valuable as his own.
Only Barry, however, has heard the subtext Vanessa has tried so hard to hide: Life has no meaning, whether it be human life or bee life, and killing a human would be just as insignificant as killing a bee. And for Barry B. Benson, this is a powerful concept that opens too many possibilities to ever be unheard again.
He returns to Vanessa that evening and engages her in conversation. The film cleverly chooses to use real dialogue for these scenes, even though of course we know that even if bees DID find time in their short lifespan to become fluent in the language of the very creatures they had been taught all their lives to fear, his vocal cords would be far too short to be able to produce a sound at any volume she can hear. Undoubtedly if we could turn off the Barryvision filter, we would see that the two of them merely exchange a sort of spiritual connection, without words, formed from an understanding that for the first time, they are being SEEN by another being like them—and for the first time, they feel normal.
But of course, as the chosen medium is Animated Children’s Film, Jerry has written a very hilarious exchange wherein Barry tells a shitty racist joke, Vanessa doesn’t get it, but laughs politely when prompted, and then Barry goes on to make tired sexist observations mocking Vanessa, with which she must agree in order to continue engaging in the conversation—the most boring and trite possible conversation, in order to emphasize just how NORMAL finally finding someone like themselves truly makes them feel.
It’s a powerful metaphor.
After this encounter, the unraveling becomes much more rapid, and Barry finds it harder and harder to hide his true tendencies from others. He spends less time on his usual performance of societal awareness and more on individualistic and selfish pursuits—i.e. skipping work to hang out in the pool. The pool is shown as being full of bee vomit (i.e. honey) to symbolize how grotesque and out-of-place his actions are, emphasized when he submerges himself in it later in order to escape his parents’ concerned pleas that he go back to work so he can instead daydream of romancing Vanessa in a public park. The inappropriately sexual glances between this human woman and her insect friend are intended to shock the audience, particularly when Dream-Vanessa pauses in her gazing and murders a passing bug, at which both she and Barry laugh gleefully. And shock it does. The juxtaposition of uncomfortable sexual tension and savage displays of antimorality serve to underscore the dangerous spiral both Barry and Vanessa are on, and to foreshadow their eventual path of destruction that will put all of humanity in danger.
In the end, of course, Barry discovers that human beings are collecting and selling honey, and Barry overhears human beekeepers uttering cartoonishly villainous lines about how they like to torture their insects and how stupid those insects are (undoubtedly merely Barry’s own dark id supplanting reality yet again, as beekeeping is typically a pretty adorable and peaceful task taken up only by those who have done substantial research and therefore understand how remarkable and important bees are). One of these “kept” bees confesses to Barry that they were forced to come to this kept hive when their Queen was kidnapped, indicating a portrait on the wall of a bee with a face more similar to Adam’s or Barry’s than Barry’s mother; Barry, less able than ever to see or understand those around him, shouts angrily, “That’s not a queen! That’s a man in a dress! That’s a drag queen!”
Though scored as if it were any other one-liner joke in an animated movie, this line is clearly not intended to be funny, as nothing about this IS funny. The true brilliance of this deeply troubling, sexist, probably transphobic line is how it marks Barry’s crossing of the threshold, how his extremely limited worldview is a constant source of confusion, and how that confusion is churned by his darker side into a disdain for others that has begun to transform Barry into a full-blown villain. When Barry relays what he has learned to Vanessa, the two hatch a most diabolical plot: to sue the entire human race and forbid them from ever again collecting honey, instead returning it all to the hives from whence it was stolen.
This may sound innocent and naive, until one recognizes two things. One, very few store-bought honeys actual contain organic bee-created honey, and many of them are various forms of sugary syrups that resemble honey but are total lies, and the desire to feed these lies to every one of his fellows he can find, knowing their diets consist entirely of REAL honey and would therefore devolve into violent system upsets if given fake versions of their product, is diabolical. And two: Once all the bees are too sick or overstocked with this processed honey to move, the entire ecosystem will collapse in a shockingly short time—something which surely was covered in Barry’s time at university, considering the time he had to learn fluency in human English, jazz, and a number of bizarrely outdated pop-culture references that clearly required a certain amount of research opportunities in order to come across.
If it was thrilling to think of possibly killing Ken, imagine the adrenaline rush Vanessa must be feeling when she concocts a scheme to potentially kill the entire human race. Some of this glee is visible when she blithely informs Ken that she is helping Barry to “sue the human race,” a statement to which Ken reacts, understandably, very negatively. As the plan progresses and Ken continues to express what a morally bankrupt idea this is, Vanessa in her bloodlust throws him out of her life to be with Barry, the only one who truly understands her.
A truly ludicrous trial ensues, clearly a send-up of what a joke Jerry and Co. thinks the criminal justice system to be, where the only really notable thing that happens is that Adam nearly dies when stinging a man for mocking Barry—and then Barry responds by asking his dying friend to pull himself together and stall the trial so that he and Vanessa can go steal a prop for a daring courtroom reveal (i.e. allowing every bee present to be gassed by a beekeeper’s fog gun, including his own family, in order to advance his political agenda). As the onlookers gasp in horror, Barry goes so far as to compare the theft of honey to the enslavement of Black Americans, demanding to know what Bees should do when kept underfoot by “the white man”—the strongest example of proof that Barry lacks any basic understanding of the world outside himself or how empathy works, and evidence of a possible psychotic break (as no sane person would legitimately compare the unforgivable inhumanity of American slavery and all of its repercussions, which are still very much a part of our nation’s culture, with fucking Rainier Fireweed).
The judge thusly finds in favor of the bees. If this enrages or shocks the audience, what they must keep in mind is this: Barry’s vocal cords are still too short to be heard by humans, so all she knows is that a ton of bees are hanging out in her courtroom menacing people, and she needs to appease them to get them to leave.
Barry becomes internationally famous, encouraging his fellow bees to abandon their jobs and fall instead into a life of hedonistic pursuits while he continues his bestial romance with Vanessa. Adam is crushed at the loss of his one opportunity to feel he had at last fit in with society, but Barry’s need for Adam has ended, leaving him too little room to care.
As the next phase of their plan unfolds, however, there is trouble in paradise. The death of the ecosystem means that Vanessa, a florist, is suddenly out of a job. She becomes restless and angry; not knowing how to help, Barry suggests “a suicide pact,” but when he is unable to come up with a way to do it that would work for both of them, she becomes extremely upset. Unable to accept her role in this destruction, she centers all the blame on him (another common indicator of sociopathy), breaking off the affair—the first thing that catches his attention. Now that they have both lost something they actually wanted, they decide to admit their plot for global domination was short-sighted; he convinces her to work with him on hatching a new scheme to save the flowers so that Vanessa can go back to work and Barry can go back to making fuck-me eyes at Vanessa.
After their plan succeeds, Barry opens his own law practice, accepting as clients a number of other animals who feel they have been exploited by humanity—i.e. cows—and offering to use his considerable arguing charm to help sue humanity once again, this time ensuring Vanessa’s work won’t be affected and therefore he will have to face no consequences. Barry has learned a little about himself, but nothing about overall morality, and the tone of this next-to-last scene suggests that the cycle will continue again, perhaps more than once, as Barry continues to look for ways to monetize his disregard for humanity.
The final scene shows Ken, the only person in the film who tried to stop this madness, discovering that Vanessa has changed the name of her flower shop to include Barry in the title. Ken cries out in anguish, a true German-Expressionist Schrei, not unlike Charlton Heston discovering the Apes had destroyed the Statue of Liberty. Ken alone knows Vanessa and Barry for who they really are and the depths to which they are unafraid to sink, but like the prophet Cassandra, he is doomed to go unheard as his planet spirals into utter chaos time and again. Truly, the only thing missing from this finale is a chorus of well-dressed urchins urging you not to feed the plants—or in this case, the bees.
The internet erroneously categorizes Bee Movie as a comedy, which I’m guessing is probably because it didn’t do well at the box office and many people simply haven’t seen it—they fell for the marketing tricks and saw Jerry Seinfeld doing an Animated Comedy and wrote it up as a comedy without ever seeing it. If you HAVE seen Bee Movie, you’ll agree with me: it’s not a comedy. And it’s certainly not a kids’ movie. In the first place, it isn’t funny—like at all. Which is fine, because it isn’t a comedy. It’s a psychological thriller—is Psycho funny? No. Is Memento funny? No. Is Bee Movie funny? Absolutely not. Nor should any of those films be shown to children, as they’d likely be kind of disturbing, seeing as they’re in no way appropriate for that age group.
But that is the brilliance of Bee Movie: by telling a story about an attempted mass-murder using a cheerful animated protagonist with Dreamworks Face, Jerry and co have subverted all genres and stereotypes, turning the concept of traditional animated films on its head.
You expect your animated movies to be for kids? Too bad: here’s banter about incest.
You want your animated films to be funny? Too bad: we cut Megan Mullally out of the movie and reassigned her a nothing part who doesn’t get to tell any jokes.
You want your dramas about sociopathic killers to be dark and dour and feature powerhouse film stars like Christian Bale? Too bad: Here’s Jerry Seinfeld with Dreamworks Face.
You want your films to make sense? Too bad: Here’s a script about a lady who wants to fuck a bee who almost destroys the planet by being a selfish prick.
Because Bee Movie is not for kids.
It’s not for adults.
It’s not for anyone.
Just like Barry B. Benson.
And if that’s not art, what is?
Author’s note: Fuck Bee Movie.