Project Update: Mankind’s Romantic Relationship with Animal Abuse

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» Project Update: Mankind’s Romantic Relationship with Animal Abuse

Researcher Network member, Rebecca Stanton, updates us on her research, considering how industries that harm animals, such as the farming industry, are frequently depicted in a way that is unreflective of reality. This has led to widespread misconceptions, such as the “happy farm” myth.

Have you ever seen a Tyrannosaurus Rex? No? Me neither. But do you know what a Tyrannosaurus Rex looked like? What it sounded like? How it walked? Most likely, your answer is yes. Most people think they can accurately imagine what a Tyrannosaurus Rex looked and acted like. In fact, most of us probably have very similar ideas of what a Tyrannosaurus Rex looked and acted like. However, nobody alive today has ever, or will ever, see a Tyrannosaurus Rex. So how is it possible that most of us have very similar ideas of what this long-extinct animal looked and sounded like? The reason is simple: our opinion on Tyrannosaurus Rex has been shaped by the depictions of it in the media. This argument is not just applicable to Tyrannosaurus Rex. It also applies to other extinct animals, like the dodo; mythical animals, such as unicorns; and in many cases, real animals that we are unlikely to ever interact with, such as tigers, elephants, and whales. Basically, our opinions of animals, even those that are long extinct or mythical, are largely shaped by cultural representations of them. 

Think back to when you were a young child, particularly the television shows and films that you enjoyed. Now think about the most common elements present in those forms of media. Media aimed at young children commonly include princesses, monsters, witches, and of course, animals. Animals are featured in almost-all children’s media. In fact, some of the most financially-successful children’s media, such as The Lion King and Peppa Pig, do not feature any human characters at all. Thus, animals are clearly a significant feature in children’s media. This is what my PhD research looked at: how animals are presented in children’s media, particularly in relation to the harms that animals often experience in reality, such as those that occur in the farming industry. I explored this idea specifically alongside animated Disney films produced 1937-2016.

My research found that in film, certain species of animals are often romanticized; that is, their positive behaviours are celebrated, and their more negative features are removed. For example, dogs are usually presented as loyal, friendly, loving animals. They are rarely portrayed as aggressive or greedy, even though dogs frequently exhibit these socially-unacceptable traits in reality. In contrast, other species, such as rats, are usually presented unfavourably. Rats are usually characterized as unhygienic, deceitful, and villainous. Thus, certain species of animals are repeatedly depicted in specific ways by children’s media. This is significant because the media provide people with the only exposure many people globally have to many species of animals. Therefore, if rats are repeatedly depicted in as being anti-social, this may cause people to view rats negatively in reality. Further to this, the way that certain species are portrayed affects how often they are harmed, and how sympathetically the narratives that they inhabit reflect upon these harms. Species that are depicted as pro-social are rarely harmed, and if they are, then those harms are presented as socially-unacceptable. In contrast, species that are depicted negatively, such as flies, often experience harms that are presented as socially acceptable.

Further to this, my research also found that the amount of sympathy a narrative encourages towards animals depends largely on the amount of anthropomorphism its character has. To illustrate, in animated Disney films, pro-social heavily-anthropomorphised animal characters are always depicted as undeserving of harm. This is evident with the reaction to the deaths of Bambi’s mother in Bambi and Mufasa in The Lion King, for example. In contrast, when animals are not anthropomorphised, any harms they experience are presented as socially-acceptable. Thus, the media present some forms of animal abuse as socially-acceptable, depending on the species involved and the level of anthropomorphism applied to their character.

My research also found that industries that frequently harm animals in reality, such as the farming industry, are presented in a romantic or humorous manner in children’s media. For example, 20% of the feature-length Disney films I studied depicted animal farming. Yet the farms in these films are always organic, free-range, and with no mention of death. No animated Disney film has yet presented a factory farm, slaughterhouse, or similar, despite the prevalence of these locations in reality. Moreover, the cruellest aspects of farming, such as when calves are removed from their mothers, are also never shown. In the farming industry, almost all calves are removed from their mother at birth, so this practice is very common. However, despite being common, it is never presented to children. Therefore, children’s media are frequently presenting animal farming, yet it is never presenting the harsh realities of it.  This is a problem because these misleading depictions are what allow the “happy farm” myth to continue.

Around three billion animals are intentionally killed every day. However, despite the prevalence of animals in children’s media, this fact is very rarely acknowledged. This omission is a problem because children often develop their opinions on animals from the media, as the Tyrannosaurus Rex example from earlier demonstrates. If the media imply that animals are seldom harmed, then children are repeatedly being mis-educated on the harsh lives that most animals today experience.

To conclude, my PhD research had four key findings. Firstly, most people develop their opinions on animal species from the media. This applies even to species that are extinct or mythical. This first point is particularly evident with children as children’s media almost-always include animals. Secondly, children’s media repeatedly portray certain species of animals in specific ways. For example, dogs are usually presented as a pro-social species, and rats are usually presented as anti-social. Thirdly, when animal characters are anthropomorphised, any harms that they experience are presented more sympathetically than the harms faced by non-anthropomorphised animals. This is a problem because it implies that animal abuse can be acceptable, depending on the species and behaviour of the animal. Fourthly, the common harms that animals face in reality are never presented in children’s media. Despite this, industries that harm animals, such as the farming industry, are frequently depicted, but in a romantic way that is unreflective of reality. This has led to widespread misconceptions, such as the “happy farm” myth.



A huge thanks to Laura at Primary Veducation for the dinosaur idea (@pri_veducation)

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