Documentary Sunday

Chicken People

Every week Megan Condis and a group of friends get together for Documentary Sunday, a chance to dive into the weird, the wacky, the hilarious and the heartbreaking corners of our culture.  This column chronicles all of the must-watch documentary films available for streaming.

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This column is a reprint from Unwinnable Monthly #89. If you like what you see, grab the magazine for less than ten dollars, or subscribe and get all future magazines for half price.

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Fandoms are weird. To outsiders, fan cultures may seem unsettling. According to scholar Matt Hills, “Fandoms are linked to a troubling ‘obsessiveness’ and an imputed loss of reality in favor of pathological escapism,” while Henry Jenkins writes that fans are stereotyped as “’kooks’ obsessed with trivia, celebrities and collectables; as misfits and ‘crazies’… as people who have little or no ‘life’ apart from their fascination” with media. Mel Stanfill points out that fans are often thought of as “childish” in that they are so wrapped up in their object of fannish love that they fail to properly sexually develop (hence the common joke that geeks must be perpetual virgins). Being a geek, it is assumed, means missing out on all of the joys of real life.

But as those of us who exist within fandom know, geeks experience plenty of joy. There is a meme featuring Star Trek’s Simon Pegg that has been floating around the Internet for a couple of years now that captures the liberating side of fandom. According to Pegg, “Being a geek is all about being honest about what you enjoy and not being afraid to demonstrate that affection. It means never having to play it cool about how much you like something. It’s basically a license to proudly emote.” Indeed, there a reason we use the language of religion (the word “fan” originally comes from “fanatic,” we refer to texts with large fan followings as “cult” texts) when we describe our geekery: our favorite movies, TV shows, comic books and games are the totems we use to construct our identities, the touchstones around which we commune, the portals through which we pass to find “our” people. So we should cheer whenever somebody out there finds whatever it is that keeps them going, the hobby that helps them to express their truest self to the rest of the world, the thing that connects them with “their” people.

Even if they happen to be “chicken” people.

Chicken People is a 2016 documentary from the folks at CMT (that’s Country Music Television for those who aren’t in the know) about a very special kind of fandom: chicken fandom. The movie follows several breeders as they work to create a perfect specimen and to earn the top prize at the Ohio National Poultry Show, a kind of hybrid of the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show and the San Diego Comic Con. Although their environment may seem foreign to more traditional kinds of geeks, the rhythms of their lives feel very familiar. They find comfort in repetition. They dedicate large amounts of time and space to collecting and cataloguing. Their proudest moments only make sense to a select few, and they often frustrate their friends and family, who, despite their best efforts, simply can’t fathom their chosen priorities (at one point the father of one of the chicken enthusiasts the film follows exasperatedly hissed “he just basically wants to spend his whole life messing with chickens”).

It is almost as if they are playing Pokémon Go but in real life, searching for the males and females with the best potential in an attempt to breed up a champion. The only difference is that these little monsters are judged according to their aesthetic perfection and not their battling abilities. In fact, the chickens themselves might very well be the stars of the movie. These are not the typical poultry you imagine on Old MacDonald’s farm. They are astonishingly variable in size and shape, and many of them are strangely beautiful with alien plumage in shocking, iridescent colors that requires hours of grooming (including combing and blow-drying). On the other hand, they are far less plump then a typical broiler (a chicken that has been specifically raised for its meat), which is perhaps why, in the current era of factory farms and standardized livestock operations, these breeds seem to have become so rare. One has to wonder if these beautiful birds might have gone extinct were it not for the fans who kept their bloodlines alive.

I don’t think I will become a “chicken” person anytime soon. To be completely honest, birds frighten me. In fact, I should offer a content note to my fellow ornithophobia sufferers: at times the sudden, loud sounds made by our protagonists’ feathered friends caused me to jump out of my skin. But it was quite fun to visit someone else’s world, even if I don’t ever intend to live there.

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Megan Condis is an English Professor at Stephen F. Austin State University. Her book, Playing Politics: Trolls, Fake Geeks, and the Game of Masculinity in Online Culture, is forthcoming from the University of Iowa Press. She also designs video games based on her research, which are available for free at her website.

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