Pop Culture Smackdown: Polar Bears vs. Penguins!

Filed under: Media, That's Entertainment, Funny Stuff, Books for Kids

polar bear versus penguins

Which cold-weather creature comes out on top in pop culture? Illustration: Christopher Healy

We've always had a fascination with cold-weather animals. Perhaps it's because they live in environments we never could. Polar bears and penguins are animals we're never going to see padding along the side of the road, no matter what part of the world we call home. Plus, they're adorable. But who has fared better in the world of pop culture: Penguins or polar bears? Let's take a side-by-side assessment. It's time for a smackdown!

Penguins: The aquatic birds have taken lead roles is some of the best picture books of the last decade: The brilliant and museum-worthy "Lost and Found" by Oliver Jeffers; Antionette Portis's minimalist masterpiece, "A Penguin Story"; the bizarrely funny "Penguin" by Polly Dunbar; and the highly original math fable from Jean-Luc Fromental, "365 Penguins." Perhaps it is the penguins' black-and-white coloring that makes it so well suited to avant-garde artwork.

Polar Bears: But the big furry guys have headed up perhaps even more picture recent books. We've got Lauren Thompson's deservedly lauded "Polar Bear Night"; Jeff Mack's cute "Hush Little Polar Bear"; the amiable "Sweet Dreams, Polar Bear" by Mindy Dwyer; and "Goodnight, Lars" from Hans de Beer's Little Polar Bear series. Why are these stories all about polar bears going to sleep? Are these writers trying to tell us something? Anyway, there are over a dozen books in de Beer's Little Polar Bear series alone, plus Daniel Pinkwater's fun Irving & Muktuk series about two badly behaved polar bears (a refreshing change of pace), and Jan Brett's arctic reimagining of the Goldilocks tale, "The Three Snow Bears."

Results: The penguins might have a slight edge on quality, but the bears have the quantity. TIE!

Penguins: Outside of your general "this is what a penguin is" books, the majority of penguin books tend to focus on one particular issue, which you can tell from titles like these: "These Birds Can't Fly"; "Why, Why, Why Can't Penguins Fly?"; and "I Wonder Why Penguins Can't Fly."

Polar Bears: The bears have a surprisingly more diverse set of titular topics: "A Polar Bear Can Swim"; "How to Hide a Polar Bear"; "Do Polar Bears Snooze in Hollow Trees?"; and, sadly, "Polar Bear, Why is Your World Melting?" In fact it's the number of books about global warming that put this one over the edge for the bears. Although we do at least have a couple of nonfiction titles about that adorable German zoo cub, "Knut."


Penguins: "March of the Penguins" was a cultural touchstone that people still reference five years later.

Polar Bears: "Arctic Tale" was a very good film, but didn't have half the pop culture impact of "March of the Penguins." And the polar bears had to share the movie with a walrus family.

Results: PENGUINS!

Penguins: You've got the musical lovebirds of "Happy Feet," the rad dudes of "Surf's Up," the scheming soldiers of "Madagascar," and that cute little Wheezy from "Toy Story."

Polar Bears: You've got Iorek, the butt-kicking, armored warrior bear from "The Golden Compass."

Results: Iorek could probably eat all of those penguins, but you've got to go with the numbers. PENGUINS!

Penguins: On the small screen, we've got "The Penguins of Madagascar" (those guys again) and the space cadets of "3-2-1- Penguins."

Polar Bears: Well, there are those cuddly bears from the Coke ads, who, frankly, are more recognizable that the cast of "3-2-1 Penguins." And the brain-twisting appearance of those polar bears on "Lost" -- one of the few things about the show to get a complete explanation. Plus, this actual polar bear TV -- which is awesome.


Penguins: At this point in time, the biggest pop culture presence for the birds may be in "Club Penguin" -- the mega-popular virtual world/online community for kids that has spawned its own video games, toys, and book series.

Polar Bears: And there's always the Polar Bear Club, a group of hairy, old guys who head to beaches on January 1st to jump into the freezing water for a rush.

Results: PENGUINS! Which means ...

Overall winner: PENGUINS!

Related: Top Teen Beach Reads: Which Should Scare You, Which Should You Borrow?

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