In Britain, the first airing of the John Lewis Christmas TV commercial—or advert, as they call them over there—is treated with the same ravenous anticipation that Slate staffers bring to the release of a new episode of Serial. Here in the United States, Thanksgiving serves as a dam to hold back the flood of Christmas commercialism at least until Americans have digested their turkey dinners—or that’s how it should be, anyway. In Thanksgiving-less Britain, the ad for John Lewis, a high-end department store chain, serves as the starting gun: Once it starts flooding the airwaves, it’s wall-to-wall tinsel and and mince pies until Boxing Day.
The 2014 version, which just debuted, features the Calvin and Hobbes-like story of a boy and his best friend, a “pet” penguin. Over the course of two minutes, we see them joyfully playing together, but as time passes, the penguin starts to get a bit broody every time it sees heterosexual humans making out. On Christmas Day, the boy mends his flightless friend’s achey-breaky heart by presenting it with a species-appropriate companion. Cue happy penguin and proud human mother.
According to Gay Star News, the homosexuals of my native land are miffed at what they perceive as the heteronormativity of the ad. As several British tweeters pointed out, penguins are known to be a gay-friendly species. NBC’s Parks and Recreation has spotlighted a same-sex penguin couple at the Pawnee Zoo, and as Outward’s Mark Joseph Stern reported this summer, a book about gay penguins was banned in Singapore.
This negative response surprised me, because although it’s true that the human lovers who stir up the penguin’s vague yearning for rumpy-pumpy all appear to be arrayed in male-female dyads, I felt that the cross-species aspect overcame the imputed heteronormativity. Besides, part of growing up gay is learning to “translate” the language of heterosexuality into our own same-sex idiom.
Most of all, though, I wondered how anyone could discern the gender of either the original penguin or the one purchased by the little boy. True, I have very little experience of penguin-sexing, but the two animals appear to be about the same size and height. The ad read to me as a gender-blind story of ally-ship: A small human boy recognized that a friend was craving the companionship of its own kind, and he provided it without judgment.
Unfortunately, I later discovered that the ad has an official backstory, one that imposes a gender binary: The boy is called Sam, his favorite toy is Monty, and the new addition to their ménage goes by the old-fashioned moniker of Mabel. And it’s all a plot to sell $150 stuffed toys. Yep, that sounds like Christmas to me.