Friday, January 29, 2010

Intelligent Pets


There’s a popular plot device throughout various stories about intelligent beings kept as pets. I’ve always had a particular fascination with this device, which I can now somewhat attribute to my own masochism, as people being treated as pets is a popular theme in BDSM. BDSM inspires some of the instances of intelligent pet, but only a certain variation. Intelligent pets can be broken down into five basic categories: involuntary pets that are absolutely slaves, animal pets that are naturally subordinate, voluntary human pets of nonhumans, dubiously willing human pets of nonhumans, and voluntary human pets of humans.

Enslaved pets are common, but tend to show specifically humans in the subordinate role. The audience (or reader) cares about humans more, and humans can easily be seen in a sympathetic light. The slaver may be human as well, but as slavery among humans is a real and potentially offensive subject, the slaver is typically nonhuman and may be an alien or demon. The slaver is an antagonist and easily opposed by the viewer/reader. Examples include the 2001 Planet of the Apes remake, in which intelligent humans are caught and enslaved by intelligent apes, and the Tripod Trilogy by John Christopher, in which humans are brainwashed by alien Masters.
Intelligent animal pets are naturally subordinate in a wide variety of children’s media. This is a fantastic exaggeration of ordinary life, so as to give ordinary domesticated animals rational thought. Often the writers don’t think it through enough to realize that they might inadvertently be producing promotion of slavery, if only in the hypothetical realm. These pet relationships are based in values that appeal to children, including friendship and family. A good pet seeks a good master to be its friend, and if their relationship is loving enough they become a family. Some animals reject the pet relationship, but it’s always to their loss. A small part of them might really want to be a pet, but they have a tough façade that leads them to reject the promises of friendship and family. Examples include the films Up, Look Who’s Talking Now, Homeward Bound, All Dogs Go to Heaven, and the Pokémon anime.
Sheldon: “You know, I’ve given the matter some thought, and I think I’d be willing to be a house pet to a race of super-intelligent aliens.”
Leonard: “Interesting.”
Sheldon: “Ask me why.”
Leonard: “Do I have to?”
Sheldon: “Of course. That’s how you move a conversation forward.”
Leonard: “Why?”
Sheldon: “The learning opportunities would be abundant. Additionally, I like having my belly scratched.”
–The Big Bang Theory, episode “The Financial Permeability”
Voluntary human pets of nonhumans are a bit more uncommon. In general, we are not prepared for a human to desire a subordinate role. For a graceful acceptance, the nonhuman master must be significantly endowed with power that is not perceived as especially threatening. The master may be a pacifistic alien or god. In this case, it is not that the human is degraded by being placed in a role beneath them, but that the master is just so far above them that inferiority is a natural component of any relationship between them. Examples include Sheldon’s musings in Big Bang Theory, and Princess Cimorene in Dealing with Dragons by Patricia Wrede, in which a dragon is the master (I’ve incidentally written about the way Dealing with Dragons may be interpreted as BDSM-themed here).
Then there’s the heavily BDSM-themed stories of human pets whose abilities to consent to being the pets of nonhumans are dubious. Masters are often creatures of supernatural origin, powerful compared to humans but not godlike. A sexual fantasy is most likely in play, and so the masters will have some sexy attributes. Though it is not required, the masters probably look human in some way or can take human shape. Examples include a bajillion vampire stories, such as True Blood and Buffy, a few werewolf stories… all over the darker fantasy romance genre. Even Twilight has this theme, if not with a literal human pet.
The genre in which humans are voluntary pets of other humans is strictly BDSM. You won’t find an example of this in a children’s story. If this ever shows up in mainstream media, it is portrayed negatively and probably only takes place among villains. The only real chance to have this portrayed as a healthy relationship is in media produced specifically for the BDSM crowd, such as the film Secretary. All other media will depict the relationship as unhealthy at best or at worst as creepy porn that ignores respect of the submissive partner.
Intelligent pets of various types can be found throughout fiction. Many of them are in relationships with a BDSM theme, but just as often they are not. Keeping intelligent pets can be portrayed as a horrible crime or as a natural and healthy relationship. It depends on who the story is written toward, what values the story is intended to promote, and where the writer is coming from.

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