In this deleted article from 2015, a UK writer points out that Shaun the Sheep: The Farmer’s Llamas has a strong anti-immigrant undertones unbecoming of a kid’s show with a worldwide reach, and I couldn’t agree more.
Seemingly innocuous at first, The Farmer’s Llamas tells the tale of three outsiders who are bought at auction and thrown into an unfamiliar environment, and a revolt by locals to send them back to where they came from.
But, you say, it’s just sheep and llamas. Well, tell that to George Orwell.
The article makes a compelling argument, so read it before continuing on with my far less succinct examination of the film.
It’s a two-minute read:
Exotic and crafty llamas? Too comfortable in their new home? Oust the intruders?! Aardman’s official description reads like something you would have seen on Donald Trump’s defunct Twitter account.
It’s also interesting to note that the 2015 article was taken down — likely because of the Shaun the Sheep’s rabid fandom descended upon the writer bleating and baahing about how it’s just a kids show or maybe Wallace and Gromit showed up with billy clubs.
Either way, here’s a look at some of the short film’s troubling themes and once you start reading you’ll start to get what I’m talking about.
While at a funfair, Shaun spies three immigra—, I mean llamas, being pulled along by a foreign looking Peruvian man playing a pan flute — because all Peruvians are part of a pan flute band, right South Park?
The llamas’s names are Hector, Raul, and Fernando and they’re here to be sold because the pan flute player hates their “crafty” ways. They’re also hypnotized by his pan flute playing drawing comparisons to them being sedated for transport.
So, these trouble-making llamas are up for sale and no one wants them except for Shaun who likes their style, but why they being sold auction?
It’s a pretty specific way of selling off these slav—, I mean llamas. There are cattle auctions, yes, but being sold for money immediately establishes them as more property than people, which is exactly how slaves were seen.
In the late 1700’s, slaves were sold at scramble auctions in England and then put to work on sugar cane plantations in the Caribbean. There’s a long and tortuous history of these practices and anyone who knows anything about slavery would know that auctions of living being are inextricably linked to slavery, so you’d have to be some kind of idiot not to see the parallel.
Anyway, Farmer, the farmer, and Bitzer, the dog, are tricked by Shaun into buying these slav— I mean immigra—, I mean llamas, and they bring them back to Mossy Bottom Farm where they start to wreak havoc with their wild llama ways.
The havoc includes being better at football than the sheep because the immigra—, I mean llamas use their natural height advantage to play better. They’re big and therefore must naturally be good at sports, right? Well, natural talent is also a stereotype.
The llamas also ruin the civilized time the sheep are having in their pool, which prompts further hatred toward the these immigra—, I mean llamas and draws comparison to historic racism at pools.
The llamas also take all of the bedding from the barn and put the mattresses, pillows, and sheets into one big, unsophisticated pile unlike the sheep who use beds.
This act also ends up running the sheep out of their homes furthering the hatred the flock feels towards these immigra—, I mean llamas.
What’s more, the llamas also consume more than the sheep, so not only are they ruining the barn they’re also taking up the resources meant for the sheep, which only deepens the hatred for them.
And what’s worse is that they hate the food! “We won’t eat this traditional British feed!” the immigra—, I mean llamas say spitting it out. Not like they’re just used to food they had back home and unfamiliar tastes are hard to acclimatize to. It’s not like everyone who has travelled to another country hasn’t stopped in at a McDonald’s for something familiar.
After being forced to eat food they hate, the llamas are forced to steal a bunch of food from Farmer’s house because they’re hungry. These stolen goods include some bottles of cola.
These immigra—, I mean llamas imitate alcoholism and, under their influence, Shaun and Timmy (the baby of the flock) mirror their behaviour.
Yeah, these immigra—, I mean llamas made a baby become an alcoholic.
Then the llamas then go on a drunken ride on an ATV and wind up destroying the barn, which puts Shaun in an uncomfortable situation with his flock because he brought these immigra— I mean llamas, onto the farm in the first place only for them to destroy everything good about Brita—, I mean Mossy Bottom Farm.
Also an ATV can carry 180 kgs at most while two llamas likely weigh about 260 kgs. Aardman really shattering my suspension of disbelief.
So, Shaun’s home is gone and everyone hates him because of the immigra—, I mean llamas.
Shaun has learned that by bringing these immigra—, I mean llamas, onto the farm he’s ruined his entire society. All they do is consume food, steal from the farmer, make babies into alcoholics, and make white peop—, I mean sheep, feel inadequate when it comes to sports.
Right around this time, the llamas end up locking the Farmer and Bitzer out of their house and they start to destroy everything inside.
When their satellite TV is disrupted (they were watching football, of course), they chase Shaun throughout the house intent on hurting him or killing him for messing up their fun times.
On the roof about to be killed, Shaun’s community of white peop—, I mean sheep, come to the rescue using coca cola pan flutes to hypnotize the immigra—, I mean llamas, into submission.
Use their own music against them! It’s not like the pan flute has a super long history and cultural significance. Any white perso—, I mean sheep, can play a pan flute well enough to hypnotize some pesky foreigners.
Anyway, Shaun’s people have been able to unite in their hatred of the immigra—, I mean llamas, and forget that Shaun brought them onto the farm in the first place.
Then they lock ’em up.
Shaun… what are you doing?
Wow, that’s really dark.
Back at the funfair, the llamas are waiting to be sold over to their next slave own— I mean, farmer, who is a surly looking man who is also tricked into buying these immigra—, I mean llamas.
But in the credits, they show the llamas are now owned by a cute, little girl who looks like she loves them and wasn’t totally thrown in because the BBC commissioning editor realized they’d created an excessively racist parable of immigrant stereotypes and that stop-motion animation takes way too much time for a do-over, so they’d just have to deal with the reception when the public sees it, but maybe it’s subtle enough not to be seen as aggressively xenophobic.
Yay, all’s well in slavery that ends well in slavery.
Much like the author at the top of this article notes, it’s easy to think that we’re reading too much into this short film, but think about what Shaun learned from this whole experience.
Shaun learned that outsiders are unwelcome if they’re going to misbehave. If you’re going to come to Mossy Bottom Farms or Britain, you better start acting like the sheep, consume the same feed, listen to authority, and throw away your identity as soon as possible; otherwise, it’s back to the auction.
That’s the moral of the story.
Be different, get sent back home.
There’s no celebration of the llamas and their culture. There’s no talk about what their needs are and how they’re not being met by the farm. All we see is the hate and indignation of the sheep, and their creeping white influence over Shaun’s beliefs. He goes from liking the llamas into embodying their hatred and slamming jail cell door on their faces. That’s freaking dark.
Now, I’m an adult capable of watching this film with a critical eye. I realize that all of the awful stereotypes the short film depicts are fiction, but a kid can’t do that. A kid will see only the surface-level meaning that outsiders are bad and original inhabitants are good.
That’s the power a show like Shaun the Sheep has over the minds of children watching it and its accessibility makes it pervasive even across language barriers.
The comparison the writer makes of the short film to Paddington, who is a bear also from Peru, is very apt because it’s a great example of how you write an inclusive refugee story.
So, is there a solution to this short film’s xenophobia? I mean, not really. It’s already been out for more than six years at this point. I guess I’m surprised that more people haven’t written about this, but maybe now that the short is on Netflix a wider audience will see it and then will start to uncover the same things that I have.
I just can’t imagine that commissioning editor at the BBC or that Aardman’s people didn’t notice the troubling messaging coming out of the story.
I mean, you’d either have to have blinders the size of Bristol not to see how anti-immigrant the short film is or have a company with a lot of white people in charge of this thing…
I reached out to journalist Andrew Billen who had spoken to Shaun the Sheep’s creators back in December 2021 and mentioned my blogpost. Here’s what Mark Burton, one of the show’s directors, said:
Andrew Billen: When I went down to see Farmer’s Llamas being made, I wrote a piece saying it was about the threat of adolescence, hitting these young sheep and they’re all going bonkers. But then yesterday I read an essay saying it was quite racist against Argentinians and these immigrants coming in and ruining this lovely tranquil life in England. Have you ever heard that?
Mark Burton: No, I haven’t. No. That certainly wasn’t the intention of the people who made Farmer’s Llamas.
AB: It was more about the energy?
MB: I think you’re absolutely right actually, because Shaun in a way… We often see him as like a ten-year-old boy and I think it’s that thing of where you have older boys and let older kids draw you into bad influences. It’s about that.
… Shaun the Sheep is, by its nature, as we discussed, incredibly diverse in terms of the fanship of Shaun the Sheep, you know, from around the world. And the people that love it and the people that engage with it – 95 per cent of countries around the world. So there’s no sense in which it feels exclusive at all.
While Burton may have said that xenophobia was not the intention of the short film, it was certainly the effect. The images above mixed with the commentary aren’t reaches; they’re very obvious parallels to the racism and stereotypes faced by many immigrants.
A number of people have also commented on this article who also feel the same way, which makes me feel like I’m not alone in seeing these parallels.
Also while Shaun the Sheep may have a universal appeal and a diverse audience, I urge you to look at that final image in the article above. Everyone at the top who were involved in the short’s production is white.
Did any of them see what I saw? Did anyone question maybe that the film was a little xenophobic?
That questioning doesn’t happen if everyone with decision making powers is just one type of person — no matter how aware they are of the people around them and how not racist they claim to be. The worker bees who make up the diverse workforce, which many companies swear they have, are usually on contract or too junior to feel like they have any say without major repercussions.
Anyway, you can read Aardman’s Diversity and Inclusion results here, but this page speaks for itself and shows the vast majority of the seniors and executives at the company are as white as Shaun the Sheep’s fleece.
If you’ve got a subscription, you can take a read of Andrew Billen’s article here: The Sunday Times