Meerkat Manor

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Like millions of Americans, I have become thoroughly addicted to Animal Planet's Meerkat Manor.  If you haven't seen it, you are just missing out big time.  Meerkat Manor chronicles the life and death exploits of the little meerkat species in the Kalahari Desert of Africa.  Not only are these incredibly resourceful little creatures with amazingly engaging personalities, but the key to meerkat survival is the complex social life they enjoy.  The big activities are feeding and mating, which the meerkats do frequently.  One result of this kid-centered life (the meerkats practice home-schooling exclusively), is that a meerkat family is run by a dominant female, who is paired with a dominant male.  For the most part, the males are either dominants who serve as the family bouncer or they are roving males, always on the hunt for a mating opportunity.  This is just the briefest of introductions -- you just have to watch the show and you will likely be hooked.  Fortunately, Animal Planet provides a full-episode viewer on its website, so you can catch up rather quickly. Another interesting feature of Meerkat Manor is the way our perceptions are almost totally dependent on the editing and the narration.  The home team are the Whiskers, as they vie for food and space with the loathed Zappa family and the vermin Commandos.  Of course, these meerkats have no idea of any such names, just as the individuals do not know that they are Flower, Zaphod, Shakespeare, Punk, Rocket Dog, or Mozart.  Some of these individuals gain almost cult-status among their followers, as a dip into You Tube will reveal.  For three years the show's lead character was Flower, the dominant female of the Whiskers.  Flower recently died from a cape cobra bite while she was defending her young.  It was a devastating blow to the entire Meerkat Manor community of viewers -- you might pray for us, we're still struggling over this.  The outpouring of tributes was exceeded only by the death of Princess Diana, complete with musical backdrops celebrating Flower as our hero and role model.  A similar outpouring accompanied the "heroic" death of Shakespeare, who died protecting the Whisker pups from a Lazuli family raid.  (Since numbers more or less rule among the meerkat clans, one favored tactic is to raid an enemy burrow and slaughter all their young.  Shakespeare was home babysitting the Whisker babies when the Lazuli raided, and Shakespeare surrendered his life in a one-on-one duel with Big Si, the Lazuli dominant male, along with his henchmen.  Again, the You Tube outpouring was overwhelming).

Many of us remember the famous "Vanna White" speech given by Ted Koppel a few years back.  He argued that "Wheel of Fortune"'s Vanna White was so intensely loved by men precisely because there was nothing there.  Thus she could be whatever men wanted her to be in their own minds.  Well, Meerkat Manor takes this to another level.  The show is largely based on projection, as the little meerkat Flower is and can be whatever the editors and the viewers want her to be.  Mainly, it seems that they want her to be a sort of Joan of Arc turned mafia boss.  While Flower is (was) undoubtedly an exceptional meerkat, she was after all just a meerkat, and not the trascendent spiritual figure she is being made out to be.  (If my body shows up floating in the Reedy River, you will know it was for saying this about Flower.)

One might also expect there to be a major feminist angle to the show, given the female dominant leadership.  But there is not.  I think this is because it all operates on the implied level; one needs hardly to make a fuss over it -- it is what it is.  But if Meerkat Manor operates as an implied endorsement for matriarchies, it is a very ruthless one indeed (just like feminism among humans).  Let's just say that Flower does not exude many of the Bible's feminine virtues (although industry and courage she does have).  After all, she is a meerkat. 

What is also interesting is that the Whiskers do all the things the evil Zappas, Commandos, and Lazuli do.  They steal food, they conquer grazing areas, and they slaughter enemy youth.  But the narrator (Lord of the Ring's Sean Aston) describes the Whisker's activities as "brilliant tactics" where as the Lazuli are "despicable thugs."  The framing is everything, and totally effective.  Trust me, watch a couple of episodes and you will start yearning for the death of all Zappas (except Houdini, the "Don Juan of the desert") and cheering every rousing Whisker success (and there are many).  All together, it is 1984 meets Animal Planet, and frightfully effective.

So there is a fairly high level of psychological manipulation going in with Meerkat Manor, although by today's standards it is pretty benign.  As a Christian, one watches with marvel for God's incredible creation.  These really are fascinating little creatures and the drama of the show is riveting.  They live in a ruthless world -- killing and being killed, loving and hating, feasting and starving,  They daily face deadly unpredictability, whether from the elements, deadly predators, or rival gangs.  But they persevere, aided by their native ability and by kind providences.  Compared to almost everything else on television, this is high quality stuff.
Posted October 22, 2007 @ 12:05 PM by Rick Phillips

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