Everything feels so big right now. COVID-19, the election, healthcare, and conversations about human rights, war, and peace all feel like immense, enormous problems. I do my part by voting, wearing a mask, and donating to others who seem to be able to do more. But I often still feel helpless against these systemic issues. I still feel small. I still feel, well, like an ant. So, in these times, I turn to my favorite heroic insect film, A Bug’s Life.
A Bug’s Life is a movie with a clear villain and resolution; it also has a beginning, middle, and end. It’s unlike the many seemingly endless difficulties we currently face as Americans and general humans. But even if real life is not as cut and dry, looking at A Bug’s Life with a socio-political lens shows that the 1998 Disney/Pixar film is more relevant, and inspirational, than ever.
The Colonialism Conundrum
A Bug’s Life tells the story of Flik, an ant in an ant colony. Flik has a lot of ideas and inventions that he believes will improve lives for those in his colony. Unfortunately, the colony’s leaders reject his suggestions because they go against the status quo. This is despite the current “status quo” of harvesting half the food on their island to give to the vicious and threatening grasshoppers.
One of Flik’s inventions destroys the harvest and puts the whole colony in mortal danger. So he sets out to find “warrior bugs” who can help defend the colony. Meanwhile, the rest of the colony scrambles to collect the rest of the food for the grasshoppers, even if that means they will go hungry. In the climax of the film, Flik convinces the rest of the ants that there is strength in numbers and together they defeat the grasshoppers.
At its core, A Bug’s Life is a story of colonialism. The grasshoppers have colonized the ants (whose home, fittingly enough, is called an ant colony) through violence and force. They demand half of the food the ants collect without payment, and regularly threaten to kill leaders and members of the colony. As the grasshoppers are the villains, this anti-colonialism story serves as a fictional example of colonized groups overcoming their colonizers.
Captialism vs. Socialism
Through a 2020 economic lens, A Bug’s Life is also a story of capitalism vs. socialism. Under their current way of life, the ants are the working class, and give up most of the food they collect to the grasshoppers, or the private owners. Hopper, the leader of the grasshoppers, is basically just a creepier, crawlier version of Jeff Bezos. Their entire way of life revolves around working for the grasshoppers. There is no room for innovation, and every ant just works until they, well, die.
Once the ants take down the capitalist grasshoppers, they create a socialist society. The ants then control the means of production and live in harmony. Surely this transition is more easily done in one ant colony than an entire country. But it does beg the question: why would ants, given the option not to work for the grasshoppers, still choose to?
The Problem with the Ant-merican Dream
This all brings us to the film’s social and political implications. It doesn’t take eight eyes to see that Hopper is only a hop, skip, and a jump away from a certain orange wannabe fascist. They both share a reputation for exploitative capitalism and bigotry towards anyone who isn’t a part of their groups. The only big difference between the two is that Hopper has more legs.
Where the metaphor diverts slightly is that A Bug’s Life doesn’t have Democrant and Republicant parties. The conflict is all of the ants versus all of the grasshoppers. In the United States, however, our grasshoppers realized they would have less work to do if they got half of the ants to work for them. And so, they created the “Ant-merican Dream,” and the idea that with enough hard work, any “ant” can one day be a “grasshopper.”
Those who believe in that dream for themselves don’t work together with the rest of the ants to create a society in which everyone can thrive. Instead, they find the most marginalized ants and do the grasshoppers’ job of keeping them down. They never seem to understand that the grasshoppers have created a system in which no ant will ever become a grasshopper if possible.
A Fight for Autonomy
At one point in the movie, some of the other grasshoppers ask Hopper if they should leave the ants alone. That is when Hopper reveals his true motivation and reason behind his relentless torment of the ants:
“You let one ant stand up to us, then they all might stand up. Those puny little ants outnumber us a hundred to one. And if they ever figure that out, there goes our way of life! It’s not about food. It’s about keeping those ants in line.”
The grasshoppers in positions of power who spread hatred and exploit the working class know what they are doing. And in order to create a better society, the ants (and us humans) have to recognize our worth. The only way there will be systemic change is if every American who is not in the 1% comes together and realizes that our total power is greater than the sum of our parts.
I am not suggesting that marginalized communities should join hands with those who don’t think they deserve rights. That is not their responsibility. The onus is on others to fully support the human rights of marginalized people.
In the final fight, Flik makes a powerful statement to Hopper and his fellow ants:
“I’ve seen these ants do great things, and year after year, they somehow manage to pick enough food for themselves and you. So-so who’s the weaker species? Ants don’t serve grasshoppers! It’s you who need us! We’re a lot stronger than you say we are. And you know it, don’t you?”
This rally cry gives the ants courage to fight for a more autonomous world for themselves and future generations. And if this recent Presidential election is any indication, we seem to be heading in the right direction. We are definitely a step behind the ants considering we are still stuck fighting each other instead of the actual bad guys. But it does seem like there are more ants who believe in kindness and communal good.
Twenty-two years later, A Bug’s Life continues to resonate as a beacon of hope and, hopefully, a blueprint for positive change.
Featured Image: Disney/Pixar