When I was a kid, I loved this cartoon. As I’m watching it again now, I still find a lot of things about it that are lovable. The animation is wonderful, the sound design is rich, and the gags definitely hold up. But it’s also clear that a lot of the sentiments behind the characterization of the ostrich harken back to the gender dynamics of the time. Before the action even starts (and this may have been unintentional, though it’s still interesting), Donald, our star, is using an ostrich feather duster, establishing his position of power of the ostrich. And strangely, even though they’re both birds, Donald can talk (well, sort of), but the ostrich can only coo and squawk. This is a strategy Disney often employs to establish the power dynamic between two characters: think Goofy versus Pluto.
As soon as the ostrich enters the scene, it makes advances at Donald, which makes Donald uncomfortable because Donald assumes he’s a man. So, outright, we experience the homophobia which is common at the time. Although, judging by his feather patterns Donald would be correct in his assumption, we find out shortly after that the Ostrich is in fact female, which quells Donald’s fears, and the ostrich can go about perpetuating the a stereotypical ditziness characterized by the Ostrich’s urge to eat everything in sight. The character design plays with the features of the ostrich that are considered desirable for American women. It’s long legs, long eyelashes, and voluminous caboose all contribute. Yet, the ostrich isn’t sexy. Like many women in the eyes of many men at the time, her clumsiness and lack of common sense makes he nothing more than a flirtatious annoyance.
Joust is an American video game developed and released in 1982. It features knight riding flying ostriches attempting to defeat knights riding buzzards. My impression is that this game uses ostriches in part specifically for their novelty. Many early games were built on ludicrous premises (Mario? Seriously?) and what more bizarre than a flightless giant that seems almost half camel?
I find two interesting things about the portrayal of the ostrich in joust. First, most obviously, for some reason this ostrich can fly. Wikipedia makes the choice of the ostrich as a flying bird out to be somewhat of an afterthought:
[The developer] felt that the primary protagonist should ride a majestic bird. The first choice was an eagle, but the lack of graceful land mobility dissuaded the designer. Instead, Newcomer chose an ostrich because he thought a flying ostrich was more believable than a running eagle.
It’s description as “majestic” is what is most pronounced to me about the ostrich’s depiction. On the arcade cabinet, the birds neck is posed in such a way to emphasize its long neck and with its head turned slightly upward. This pose is reminiscent of both nobility and snobbishness.
Second, in the gameplay itself, the birds take on a kind of heraldic symbology. While it seems somewhat happenstance that the bird is rendered from side-view due to the common graphic tropes in video games of that time, the medieval world of the game calls for this interpretation.
Inflatable Ostrich Costume
The thing that makes me cringe about this costume is really the look on the ostrich’s face, and its posture in this picture in particular. It’s looking up with its big cartoony yellow eyes at the douchebag on top of it, begging for the humiliation to end. Its legs are bent looking like its about to collapse under the weight of the rider, and its reign is basically a choker, in the literal sense.
That isn’t to say that I don’t find the costume *kind of* funny. I like that it plays with what is already odd about riding an ostrich (which, I guess is a mildly common practice?): the ostrich legs and the human legs seamlessly meld together. It’s almost believable, if you kind of squint your eyes, that when a human rides an ostrich that the human becomes a sort of weird, ostrich-penised bird-centaur. Here, that image is actualized.