Animals and humans have an interesting and complex relationship with one another. It is no surprise that contemporary global media have been increasingly covering animals and their issues. Especially in recent times with a heightened prevalence of movements such as veganism, no animal testing and animal-free entertainment to name a few.
The media has become an extremely important and influential tool for activists and others to bring these types of issues to light and shape opinions of those who watch. This is why it is important to analyse the ways that individuals and companies are portraying animals in the media.
There is a lots of data out there to show that animals are smart, emotional and moral beings and that they care about what happens to them. The way that we refer to animals in the media inform the thoughts and perceptions of those people watching and therefore influences their actions. As the voice for animals, we have an ethical responsibility to advocate their rights through media platforms.
Animals are often represented in the media as having human qualities, characteristics and abilities which is known as the term anthropomorphism. Kaplan (2014) explains that it is the expression of human feelings and motivation and in itself is neither good or bad but it all depends on how it is used by humans to refer to actions and motivation of non-human animals.
It is used commonly in cartoons and movies where animals will be able to walk and talk and wear clothing but it is also a technique that is used by activist and in documentaries where animals are humanised through the narrative stricture and the social behaviours or ideas that they explore. (Evans, 2016)
When using anthropomorphism in this context, the ridiculousness of the situation is lessened. Rather than specifically assigning human characteristics to the animals, we draw parallels and similarities between ourselves and the animals and we are able to identify and empathise with them and as a result of this we are more likely to do what we can to help or save them.
Anthropomorphizing brings us out of our selfish prioritization of human needs. It helps us connect to the world of species around us. Human compassion for dolphins or pandas makes these animals the poster children of the environmental movement. To a great extent, our love for, and joy in, the animals around us fuels our efforts to protect them. (Tackett, 2013)
March of the Penguins is a great example of the use of anthropomorphism in a documentary. The documentary uses the narration to describe the penguin’s actions in a human sense of the form. Cubitt (2013) says that this allows the audience to make personal connections to the animals.
“In this shot, a family of penguins is focused on and the audience is told about the strong bound and love that they all share for each other. Humans will interpret this scene has two penguins that are in love cuddling. However, it could very well be for some survival purpose or alternative motive outside of love.” (Cubitt, 2013) This technique is allows the penguins to become more relatable and gives them the ability to show relationships and emotions.
It is possible, however, for anthropomorphism to be damaging for animal welfare. It is important to avoid the ‘bambification‘ of animals as caused a skewed view of what really occurs in nature. According to deWaal, (2001) “bambification” is the entertainment industries business stripping away animal’s bad characteristics while endowing them with “baby appeal” using cartoon characters with “enlarged eyes and rounded infantile features” that provoke human care giving endearment and protectiveness.(Kesling, 2011) This is used commonly in children’s movies and TV shows and should be viewed with a critical eye and it creates unrealistic views about the needs of animals.
Ultimately, the success of anthropomorphism is determined by the reaction of those who view it. When done in a way in a proper and sensitive way, the outcome will more than likely be positive. Documentaries that address animal welfare can benefit from the anthropomorphism of animals when the outcome triggers an emotional and empathic response. The humanisation on animals must move less from the ‘cute’ aspect in children’s entertainment and move towards a tool that promotes positive change and inspires action among those who watch.
Evans, N 2016, ‘Looking at Animals’, Lecture Week 4, BCM310: Emerging Issues in Media and Communication, UOW, 23/03/16
Cubitt, Sean, Salma Monani, and Stephen Rust. “Penguins are good to think with: wildlife films, the imaginary shaping of nature, and environmental politics.” Ecocinema Theory and Practice. New York: Routledge, 2013. 109-123. Print.
Kaplan, M 2014, “Ethology, Ecology And Critical Anthropomorphism”, Anapsid.org, viewed March 30 2015, <http://www.anapsid.org/ethology.html>
Kesling, J 2011, “Anthropomorphism, Double-Edged Sword”, Responsible Dog – It’s all about dogs, viewed March 30 2016, <https://responsibledog.wordpress.com/2011/05/21/anthropomorphism-double-edged-sword/>
Moss, L 2014, ‘Can humanising animals help us save them?’, Mother Nature Network, July 16, blog post, viewed March 30 2016, http://www.mnn.com/earth-matters/animals/stories/can-humanizing-animals-help-us-save-them
Tackett, C 2013, “How Anthropomorphism Can Be A Tool For Animal Conservation”, TreeHugger, viewed March 30 2016, <http://www.treehugger.com/endangered-species/can-anthropomorphism-help-encourage-conservation.html>