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Every child of the 2000s can recall exactly where they were when Jerry Seinfield’s magnum opus “Bee Movie” first graced the big screen. Indeed, I would argue that the defining moment of my childhood occurred when the all-too-fateful “Do ya like jazz?” playfully escaped the intoxicatingly seductive lips of Barry B. Benson. As a seven-year-old, I lionized the insectoid idol with a fervor that could be characterized as obsessive. The lofty ideals and down-to-earth nature of dear Barry B. Benson, when juxtaposed with his almost flippant accessibility, crafted a black and yellow brand of heroism I couldn’t help but aspire to.   

Alas, as a jaded young adult, the family-friendly bildungsroman that once brought me such joy now brings me great existential agony. In my all-too-jarring transition into the adult world — a transition marked by adherence to a capitalist system that seeks to exploit my mind and body for profit, I discovered that the Bensons of this world are few and far between, and we need not examine their honey-tinted dogmas too long before uncovering a plethora of truly sinister forces at work.   

When analyzed in conjunction with similar industrial adventure narratives such as the iconic Marxist flick “Monsters, Inc.,” “Bee Movie” appears to follow a predictable but not trite formula. The marginalized worker gains an awareness of the manners by which a neoliberal economic system exploits him, and he consequently attempts to inform his comrades of their plight. He is mocked, rendering himself a pariah, a lunatic. He finds a way to seize control of the means of production, overthrowing the existing system of labor and rendering class order obsolete.

Or so it would appear.

In the first act of this laissez-faire tragicomedy, our six-legged savior agonizes over his career path, which he will inevitably pursue until the day he dies (much like you and me). He fears the inexorable absurdity that awaits him at the end of his life cycle, and cannot stomach a lifetime defined by the production and distribution of honey, a sticky and overt symbol for human’s monetary currency. Early in the film, Benson challenges convention by journeying outside the hive with the “pollen jocks,” who occupy the upper echelon of the proletariat (think “Mean Girls”’s Plastics of the bee world).

Benson’s journey into the commercial heart of New York City culminates in his realization that the bourgeoisie class of humans has profited from the labor of the bees for centuries. He then proceeds to sue the human race for their calculated exploitation of his species (evidently the ACLU wasn’t taking his calls). Barry’s unrelenting dedication to his fellow bees grants the audience the opportunity to view him as an altruistic savior, perhaps even as a metaphorical representation of Karl Marx himself. Nevertheless, despite his indefatigable commitment to justice, coupled with his fervent collectivist ideology, Barry B. Benson fails to bring about the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Benson seeks to overturn capitalist institutions using their own tricks. He pursues his cause through the human legal system with the aid of his Engelsian paramore, Vanessa. Vanessa’s involvement in Barry’s schemes is suspect, if not downright shady, as her flower shop depends on the exploitation of the pollen jocks. Hence, like Engels, her ideology and practice are ultimately contradictory in nature. The co-founder of Marxism condemned the treatment of factory workers while simultaneously owning several large textile factories.

Alas, the budding love affair between Barry and Vanessa cannot grow to fruition, primarily due to the inter-species divide; reality truly stings. This biological division serves as a mirror image of the socioeconomic division between bourgeois Vanessa and proletariat Barry. In his psychedelic daydreams about Vanessa, we see Barry floating in a pool of honey, as The Archies’ 1969 hit “Sugar, Sugar” plays in the background. The constant invocation of “honey honey” is no accident. Barry associates Vanessa with honey, which in his world, is the sole marker of economic and social mobility. Hence, their love is ultimately superficial and economically motivated.  

“Bee Movie” cannot be accurately categorized as a Marxist triumph. In fact, I would assert that it is its very antithesis. Barry’s attempt to overturn the existing order for the greater good culminates in him instituting a free market economy for the bees. Their exploitation will continue, merely under a different label. Any attempt to take action outside of the neoliberal institutions of power ends in tragedy, which is further emphasized by the mortal wounds Barry’s friend Adam experiences in his attempt to physically attack a human.  

The supposedly happy ending of the film takes place when the bees return to the existing system of production with the addition of a few inconsequential concessions. They remain enslaved to the humans, producing honey with the efficiency of a disgruntled union worker, only this time with marginal improvements to their working conditions. Barry embraces his profession as a pollen jock and part-time lawyer in a futile attempt to integrate himself into the petite (no pun intended) bourgeoise of the human legal system.  

In his attempt to spearhead a proletariat revolution, my childhood idol finds himself trapped in the very system he sought to overturn. His overreliance on bourgeois institutions to take down the class as a whole leads to his ideological demise. The temptress Vanessa returns to her exploitative ways, utilizing bees for capital gain. In his glorious rage against the dying of the light, Barry finds himself less like a bee and more like a moth, incinerated instantly in his futile attempt to embrace glory.

Daily Arts Writer Darby Williams can be reached at darw@umich.edu.