Dinosaur displays, talking teddy bears, and plotting pets: what the movies (don’t) teach us about human-animal relationships

Kate Whiston, University of Nottingham

As an animal geographer, the heading ‘Becoming Human’ in The Guardian’s g2 film supplement immediately caught my eye. The title rang true of Deleuze and Guatarri’s notion of becoming, a transformative process of identity formation, which has influenced so many who study animals, including Donna Haraway. The article by Steve Rose (2015), the Guardian’s film critic, is also available online, and pays homage to shifting attitudes towards animals in Hollywood. As anyone studying animals will tell you, animals help shed light on what it means to be human. The reinforcement of their ‘otherness’ through the human-animal binary highlights human superiority and helps to redefine the category of ‘human’ as opposed to ‘animal’.

Taking the new blockbuster, Jurassic World, as his starting point, Rose (2015) considers the radical new ways in which more recent films with animals in their starring roles are re-framing what it means to be human. The dinosaurs in Jurassic World are highly problematic; genetically-modified ‘creations’, they are ‘attractions’ for a human audience and live unnatural lives in captivity. However, this monster movie turns the argument around, leaving us instead pondering the animality of the human owners of the dino-resort; it is the humans who are presented as the real monsters. As fetishized cultural products, however, the dinosaurs in Jurassic World raise questions about animal rights, human-animal relationships, and the ontological differences between ‘human’ and ‘animal’. There are similarities that can be drawn with Holloway et al’s (2009) paper, which applies Foucauldian biopower to genetic technologies used in livestock breeding. Here, the use of new genetic technologies to (re)create and (re)define farm animals’ bodies serves to control and regulate animal bodies and behaviour. Intervention in these animal lives – similar to the human intervention into the lives of the dinosaurs in Jurassic World – produces particular truths and subsequently affects human-animal relationships.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Rose (2015), then, draws comparisons with another new film, Ted 2; a highly anthropomorphized story of a walking, talking teddy bear. This film presents an extreme illustration of changes in attitudes towards animal rights, tracing Ted’s battle to legally be recognised as a ‘person’ in order to adopt a child with his human partner.  Rose (2015) compares this rather surreal situation to changing animal rights attitudes. Citing examples in New York, the article suggests that animals are increasingly being given human legal rights. Animal rights activists, for example, are arguing that chimpanzees be given legal personhood, a decision that would redefine their imprisonment as illegal. Such examples of increasing animal rights refute the human-animal divide, blurring the boundary between ‘human’ and ‘animal’, and redefining animal subjectivity. Animals, it seems, have transgressed the species boundary; they are becoming human.

The re-definition of animal rights and subjectivity in films is by no means a new phenomenon. Take any Disney film with animals as its focus, and there are hidden geographical stories about animal rights, their daily struggles, and their identities. Bambi’s heart-breaking bereavement at the hands of a hunter; the objectification of Dumbo as a ‘performer’; the canine battle against a cruel, fur-crazed woman in 101 Dalmations; these are just a few of many examples in which Walt Disney has challenged us to re-think our treatment of, interactions with, and relationship to animals. Yes, any film written about animals is loaded with anthropomorphism, an approach to understanding animals that is heavily criticised in academia, but can such a device, in fact, help stress the importance of treating animals as our equals rather than an inferior ‘other’? Bear’s (2011) study of Angelica the octopus, after all, promotes the idea of ‘responsible anthropomorphism’ as a useful tool for understanding individual animals and increasing sensitivity towards their rights and subjectivities.

The recent release of the trailer for The Secret Life of Pets (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i-80SGWfEjM), an animated film by Illuminated Entertainment, poses another extreme in animal-centric films. The film, due for release next June, challenges us to reconsider our views of pets, giving an insight into what they get up to while we’re out. Whilst obviously fiction (I’m not suggesting that our pets are forming rival gangs in the battle for human companionship!), the film will ask us to consider the extent to which our pets are, in fact, active agents with complex subjectivities and the ability for conscious, rational thought. This is a stark contrast in the light of recent controversy over dog meat in China. The annual Yulin Dog Meat Festival, in which 10,000 dogs are slaughtered for their meat, took place at the end of last month, and reminds us that we are still far from achieving equal rights for animals (BBC, 2015 [online]).

The films mentioned above may be little more than light-hearted distraction. The reality may be, as harsh as it seems, that any hint of our changing relationship with animals and their rights is, in fact, as real as Hollywood’s dinosaur displays, talking teddy bears, and plotting pets.

books_iconBear, C. (2011). “Being Angelica? Exploring individual animal geographies”, Area, 43(3):297-304.

books_iconHolloway, L., Morris, C., Gilna, B., and Gibbs, D. (2009). “Biopower, genetics and livestock breeding: (re)constituting animal populations and heterogeneous biosocial collectivities”, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 34: 394-407.

60-world2BBC, (2015). “China Yulin dog meat festival under way despite outrage”, BBC News online, June 22nd 2015. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-china-33220235.

60-world2Rose, S. (2015). “Becoming Human”, The Guardian, g2. June, 2015. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/film/2015/jun/18/jurassic-world-ted-2-evolutionary-leap-animal-rights.

 

 

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