If you were to walk down an aisle housing children’s DVDs in a shopping centre, scroll through the kids segment of Netflix or take a closer look at the children’s bookshelf in your local library, I would be surprised if you were to say you didn’t see an animal (cartoon or ‘real’) on a DVD or book cover. Animals circulate amongst children’s popular culture stories — whether it be Kung Fu Panda’s Po, those two dogs that fall in love in Lady and the Tramp or the fish Ellen DeGeneres voices named Dory, — and they have done so for a number of decades. Their popularity in this genre has meant anthropomorphism has become a social and cultural norm.
Anthropomorphism, in simple terms, is the “assigning of human traits to an animal or object” (Burke & Copenhaver, 2004, p.207). It is a technique which has been utilised by many artists, directors and storytellers across a number of cultures as a way to connect with younger audiences, share morals and ideals and communicate messages in a non-threatening way.
Aesop introduced the notion of anthropomorphism in Ancient Greece, with ‘beast fables’ telling stories of animals that could talk, feel emotion and understand morality. The Tortoise and the Hare, a classic narrative popularly shared amongst youth, is one prime example of traditional anthropomorphism providing lessons to an impressionable audience.
Twenty-first century examples of anthropomorphic tales often narrate complexities that may be challenging for audiences to comprehend. In films such as Inside Out, Monsters Inc. and Toy Story, the anthropomorphic characters impart messages of wisdom regarding coming of age, tales of belonging and highlight the significance of friendship. One is introduced to a variety of “morals and responsibilities,” whilst exploring notions of “relationships, race and social class” (Burke & Copenhaver, 2004, p.211) in a way that engages the young reader’s “interest and sympathy.” (Vogl, 1982, p.69)
Whilst anthropomorphism is effective for the most part, — distorting animals to appear cutesy and cuddly can certainly make a profit for conglomerates such as Disney, — it can also cause a labyrinth of problems to arise.
The film Blackfish — a documentary dedicated to revealing the harsh realities of life in captivity for Orcas, — has proven that desensitising the public to animals can be dangerous, and in some cases, life threatening. SeaWorld, which housed orcas in captivity for the entertainment and viewing of the general public, generated profit from anthropomorphising them. As a result of anthropomorphic manipulation, SeaWorld and its affiliates sold merchandise that depicted the Killer Whales as endearing and warm, suggested that they too could communicate with us in their Shamu-shows, and moreover implied a bond was built between trainer and orca that was similar to complex human friendships. Intrinsic behaviours and animalistic instincts orcas such as Tilikum displayed whilst kept in captivity were ignored in favour of those passed off as ‘human’ in nature. It wasn’t until the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010 that society began to see the faults inherent to its anthropomorphic ways.
Despite anthropomorphism being an effective means to inform and provide receptive insight to an ever changing society, a heightened awareness of its dangers needs to be brought to the forefront. There are other ways to teach children the moral high ground. Why should animals and the rights they possess be ignored in favour of funny animals and toys that act like us? How far can we go before we lose all sight of reality?
- Blackfish, 2013, Documentary, CNN Films & Magnolia Pictures, United States, Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite.
- Burke, C., & Copenhaver, J., 2004, ‘Animals as People in Children’s Literature’, Language Arts, 81:3, p.205-213.
- Vogl, S., 1982, ‘Animals and Anthropomorphism in Children’s Literature’, Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters, Volume 70, p.68-72