Animals and humans have always had intricate relationships with one another. Since the beginning of time, animals and humans have worked along side each other, hunted one another and lived side by side with the other, so it is only natural to see animals present in the media within contemporary society.
From the youngest years of our childhood, we are introduced to animals in the media. I for one, was obsessed with animals as a youngster. My favourite movies consisted of The Lion King, Dumbo and The Land Before Time, all of which were films based around animals. These films attempted to portray the natural world as a reflection of our own humanity, developing the concept of anthropomorphism. By giving these animals a human conscience and understanding of the world, we are opening up new doors to the way we feel towards animals and the way in which we understand their nature.
There would not have been a dry eye in the cinema as Scar acted on his plan to murder Mufusa in front of Simba. Even to this day, I am left feeling a range of emotions during this highly intense scene as Simba cries out for his father, who is trampled to death. Such anthropomorphic approaches to animals in children’s films and other forms of media, ultimately give animals a purpose in teaching and instilling youth with life-long morals, lessons and values (Burke, et al, 2004).
The idea of anthropomorphism has developed however to be used in media campaigns and documentaries focussing on animal welfare. Take the WWF activism campaign posters below as an example.
Here, we as an audience, are looking at animals in the context of humanity and human society, demonstrating the success of anthropomorphism as a tool in raising awareness of issues and inspiring change, because it makes animals in the most simplest term, relatable (Moss, 2014).
The concept of anthropomorphism however cannot be solely theorised as the similarities between human and animal emotions are still being researched to this day. It is however “categorically wrong to say that animals don’t have thoughts and emotions, just like it’s wrong to say they are completely the same as us (Safina, 2015). Though through not reviewing and looking into the concept of anthropomorphism, we as a society, do run the risk of eroding our empathy with species that we are helping wipe out at a rate unseen since the time of the dinosaurs.
Anthropomorphism is also becoming incredibly prevalent in animal documentaries. This however raises the question that does it decrease the science and educational facets of the programs, as audiences are subjected to developing emotional connections with humanised animals? Producers of documentaries are probably right to assume that very few people would in fact want to sit in a theatre, watching animals doing animal stuff for two hours. Viewers need to be some kind of emotional investment in order to walk away with an understanding of the facts or education elements being presented in the film.
Landis however argues that by projecting emotional narratives that “aren’t reasonable, or so far beyond reality, is something film makers should try prevent … otherwise you get into the Disney approach that I really just abhor”. Ultimately these narratives and characters weaved into the animal documentaries should not lead audiences to far from the true happenings of the animal kingdom.
The humanisation of animals, when used in successful and innovative ways, can truly be a powerful tool in subjecting humans to feel for creatures and in a wider sense, the rights of animals in general. Whilst such anthropomorphism can be employed for entertainment purposes or to teach humans values inherit to their own humanity, it can most definitely lead the way to promoting conversation within the media.
Evans, N. 2016, ‘Looking at Animals’, Lecture Week 4, BCM310: Emerging Issues in Media and Communication, UOW, 23/03/16
Burke, C, Copenhaver, J, 2004, ‘Animals as people in Children’s Literature,’ Language Arts, Vol. 81, no. 3, pp205-213
Moss, L. 2014, ‘Can humanising animals help us save them?’ Mother Nature Network, July 16, blog post, viewed March 28th 2016, <http://www.mnn.com/earth-matters/animals/stories/can-humanizing-animals-help-us-save-them>
Safina, C. (2015). Beyond Words. 2nd ed. New York City: Henry Holt and Co.