Animals encompass a large portion of our everyday lives. They are our companions, our fears, our sustenance, our transportation, our entertainment and even our representatives for countries and sports teams. However, more and more we see animals disappearing from our physical realities only to become more visible within our popular culture, and not always in their ‘true form’. As Berger states, ‘widespread commercial diffusion of animal imagery all began as animals started to be withdrawn from daily life’ (Berger, p. 26, 2009)
“For most people, animals are symbolic: their significance lies not in what they are, but in what we think they are. We ascribe meanings and values to their existence and behaviors in ways that usually have little to do with their biological and social realities” – Bruce Bagemihl (Marshal et. al, 2012)
Anthropomorphism is the common theme used within media that encourages this ‘disappearance’ of animals from our everyday lives and is defined as the attribution of human characteristics and traits to an animal or other non-human objects (Burke, et. al, 2014).
Think about some of your favourite movies, television shows and literature and the way animals are represented. Especially those targeting children. Using anthropomorphic to humanise animals in children’s media is thought to be a way of helping children understand the natural world (Goldman, 2014), however this statement has caused continual conflict between researchers who dispute whether anthropomorphism helps or hinders children’s knowledge of real animals.
So let’s look at some examples of anthropomorphism in practice:
Movie: ‘Finding Nemo’ (2003)
- This popular Pixar animation illustrates anthropomorphic characters living in their natural habit, an environment that you would expect a particular animal to live in in
reality. In this instance, fish living in the ocean.
- Through their animation, these characters are morphed to better reflect humans in the way that their facial features, such as eyes and mouth, are distinctly similar to that of humans. They are also given personalities that allow them to convey emotion in the way humans do.
- Therefore, while their physical features and environment are only marginally adjusted, the biggest difference is the ‘attribution of human abilities such as talking, thinking, dreaming and creating their own philosophies’ (Jardim, 2013)
TV Show: ‘Arthur’ (1996)
- This animated American children’s series illustrates anthropomorphism in a different way to ‘Finding Nemo’ in that these animals live in environments that they don’t belong to.
- The animals presented in this show including: aardvarks, rabbits, monkeys, moose etc, are depicted living in furnished brick houses, bipedal, wearing clothes, going to school/work, eating human food, and experiencing human relationships and activities.
- They are living in a world were humans are seemingly non-existent and, instead, these animals are living their lives in replacement of humans, modelling our own societies (Jardim, 2013).
Literature: ‘Winnie the Pooh’ (1926)
- Before it’s success as a television show, Winne the Pooh originated as a children’s
novel. It illustrates a fusion of both examples of anthropomorphism that was previously stated.
- The animals featured, such as: bears, piglets, donkeys, rabbits and kangaroos are living in outside environments, giving the impression that they are in their natural environments. However, they live in a place called ‘Hundred-Acre-Wood’, in tree-houses that are furnished on the inside. This is definitely not the natural habitat for piglets or donkeys, and even bears and kangaroos don’t live inside trees.
- Some of these animals are also partially clothed, wearing t-shirts and ribbons suggesting small traces of human characteristics.
Some criticisms of anthropomorphism suggest that its existence decreases factual learning about real animals, causing children to incorrectly associate them with human properties during their vulnerable development stage (Melson, 2001). Similar views are expressed by Goldman through the research of Patricia Ganea and Simon Marshall. I can understand this point of view to a degree as I spent most of my childhood believing that bears exclusively ate honey right out of the jar thanks to Winnie the Pooh. However, the work of (Geerdts, et. al, 2015) believes that by using anthropomorphism as a novelty, it can ‘support children’s learning about animals and their biological processes’ and in fact doesn’t impede factual recall at all. Through their random selection of pre-school aged children, they tested story recall, biological generalisations and animal/human property attributions within anthropomorphic media with the results showing little to no effect on a child’s perception on animals. Concluding that anthropomorphism ‘doesn’t lead children to hold unrealistic beliefs about the the psychological properties of real animals’ (Geerdts, et. al, 2015).
Despite these conflicting views on how anthropomorphism impacts the child mind, it is still a crucial factor affecting the representation of animals within the media, promoting humans to view animals through their own contrived lenses.
Berger, J 2009, ‘Why Look at Animals’, About Looking, Penguin, p. 26, viewed: March 31st 2016, <http://artsites.ucsc.edu/faculty/gustafson/FILM%20161.F08/readings/berger.animals%202.pdf>
Geerdts, M, Van de Walle, G & LoBlue, V 2015, ‘Learning About Real Animals From Anthropomorphic Media’, Imagination, Cognition and Personality: Consciousness in Theory, Research, and Clinical Practice , Sage Publications, academia.edu, viewed: March 31st 2016, <https://www.academia.edu/9096893/Learning_About_Real_Animals_from_Anthropomorphic_Media>Goldman, J. G 2014, ‘When Animals Act Like People in Stories, Kids Can’t Learn’, Scientific American, scientificamerican.com, viewed: April 1st 2016, <http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/thoughtful-animal/when-animals-act-like-people-in-stories-kids-cane28099t-learn/>
Jardim, T 2013, ‘Animals as character: Anthropomorphism as personality in animation‘, academia.edu, viewed: March 31st 2016, <https://www.academia.edu/4090243/Animals_as_character_Anthropomorphism_as_personality_in_animation>
Marshall, S & Schneider, B 2012, ‘Animal Sapiens: The Consequences of Anthropomorphism in Popular Media’, Montana, montana.edu, viewed: March 30th 2016, <http://scholarworks.montana.edu/xmlui/bitstream/handle/1/2207/SchneiderS0512.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y>
Melson, G. F, 2001, ‘Why the wild things are: Animals in the lives of children’, Cambridge, MA, US, Harvard University Press