Texas Tech University

The (White, Heteronormative) Culture of Environmentalism

Diana Fields

Popular arguments for the environment often work to perpetuate the white, male-dominated nuclear family and to villainize anything that departs from this "natural" heterosexual form. In Environmentalism in Popular Culture: Gender, Race, Sexuality, and the Politics of the Natural, Noël Sturgeon discusses the ways in which American popular culture affects how society thinks about and interacts with nature [1]. In chapter four, "The Power is Yours, Planeteers!" she takes apart the environmentalism presented in popular children's programming of the 1990s. Sturgeon unboxes the "multicultural" idea of environmentalism that is presented to children by showing that, in truth, this idea only reinforces problematic cultural norms. Towards the beginning of the chapter, Sturgeon writes that "in a post-cold war context, environmentalism became a new moral framework for children's popular culture" (103). The focus on saving the planet depends upon the preservation of the nuclear family and other accompanying moral lessons. Sturgeon argues that in this setting of heteronormative environmentalist popular cultural stories, the major problems that arise are: "the association created between homosexuality, evil, and environmental destruction, coupled with an anxiety about the successful reproduction of white middle-class nuclear families; and the 'naturalizing' of racial and ethnic differences in the gender-balanced multicultural kids' teams that successfully deal with environmental problems" (104).

Sturgeon looks at popular kids' films and television series, like The Lion King and Captain Planet, to first show that the evil characters are almost exclusively portrayed as very campy and decidedly non-heterosexual male figure. Perpetuating the "normative" heterosexual model is apparent in the depiction of evil characters as little more than drag queens. These shows teach children that any non-normative sexuality is very, very bad. This singular view of sexuality becomes problematic when put into context of the American society where more individuals openly discuss their "alternative" sexuality.

Sturgeon shows that the multicultural hero groups do little more than present the U.S. dominated heterosexual ideal under the guise of diversity. There is the idea that these ethnically and geographically diverse people all have something culturally in common that allows them to understand one another and save the day. People of color are often seen as being closest to the natural world, but they are surprisingly cast as the villains trying to harm the environment. Onscreen, the villains may not always be people of color, but the voice actors often are. Finally, Sturgeon points out that because the heroes save the white, middle-class, nuclear family form, there is no focus on the overconsumption and environmental racism resulting from this normal and natural family form.

The biology of reproduction is often used, and consciously overlooked, to perpetuate the U.S. nuclear family as natural and normal within environmental discourse. Sturgeon suggests that "how we reproduce...is politicized in several layered and contradictory ways" (121). Sturgeon looks at how heterosexual relationships are viewed as "natural" for all species; reproductive value is not shown to be based on any social constructs. The assumed lack of diversity in nature concerning different relationship types also acts as the main family unit type when animals are the central character of a film or television show. Reproduction and production politics are often combined. The production of more people means the need for more things, leading to environment misuse. Since asexual and homosexual people cannot reproduce offspring, they do not fit nicely into the capitalist system. Sturgeon writes that "these social arrangements are heteronormative, naturalized by assumptions about human relationships...built on a foundation of a particular family form" (122). To prove this, Sturgeon focuses on two gay penguin couples. She discusses how the penguin couples have been used to praise both the heteronormative and heterosexual family forms. Sturgeon goes on to argue that focusing on the "naturalness and superiority of the U.S. nuclear family form" takes the focus away from its environmental issues (132). Sturgeon shifts gears to focus on how people of the Artic are ignored in the face of environmental issues even though they practice sustainable ways of living.

Finally, Sturgeon argues that mainstream media suggests that earth's reproduction is most jeopardized by people of color. This is the point where Sturgeon's arguments about problematic children and reproduction politics coalesce. Through these two chapters, Sturgeon unveils how the focus on sexuality and race distract from the bigger environmental issues while also undermining any possibility for sexual or racial diversity. The pollution of governments and corporations and the rampant consumerism of the heteronormative, nuclear family truly jeopardizes earth's reproduction, but the media shifts the blame from these entities to people of color (141).

[1] Noel Sturgeon. Environmentalism in Popular Culture: Gender, Race, Sexuality, and the Politics of the Natural. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2008.