Friday, February 11, 2011

Problematic Pet Depiction

(reposted due to code error :/ )

A lot of children’s movies, such as Lady and the Tramp, feature anthropomorphized pets that are given human intelligence. These characters tend to be cute representations of the animals we love and have characteristics of these animals as we understand them. A common theme is that dogs and cats are supposed to be our pets. This is an idea in American culture but certainly not true everywhere, and yet these American films consistently depict pethood as a natural and desirable way of life for these animals. Okay, given that the films are American, I can buy that to an extent. The problem comes when you consider that these animals have human intelligence.


Insisting that animals of human-level intelligence must be pets is endorsing slavery. It’s saying that humans must be on top and other intelligent species must be beneath them. In the real world, it makes sense to have humans on top because no other animal has demonstrated equal intelligence. In the stories, though, we know the animals do and yet we still insist that it’s natural order for humans to be in charge and everyone else to be their dominion.

This is especially problematic in stories where the humans know the animals can think. In Up, the dog Dug can speak thanks to a translation device. Though Dug’s thought process is simplistic, it is clearly better than most dogs to the point that he can count as an intelligent being. And yet, it’s accepted that he must be a pet. He needs a master. It’s a heartwarming moment when Carl refers to himself as Dug’s master. Why does he need to be a master? Why can’t they just be companions? Why does man’s best friend have to be beneath him?

The way to make it better, I think, is to make a positive depiction of humans as pets. The idea seems absurd on its own. Humans can’t be pets! If humans are treated as pets, then there’s something terribly wrong! Think about that reaction. Why is it okay for Tramp to be broken when he’s not a pet but noble when he is? If he’s intelligent, he should have the right to live on his own if he wants to and not live in fear of being locked up and maybe killed because he doesn’t have a license. Tramp is like a human man, and Lady is like a human woman.

Lady likes being a pet. She makes a great one, all cute and lovable. She’s clearly happy as one. Even though Tramp tries to get her to run away with him, she’s committed to being the pet of Jim Dear and Darling. And that’s fine. She’s making an informed lifestyle choice. More power to her! Or less. But why couldn’t a human woman do the same thing and have it be okay? Outside of a few BDSM movies, that never happens. Instead, it’s consistently portrayed as demeaning for a human to be compared to a pet. In New Moon, Laurent calls Bella a pet and she takes offense, even though she kinda is the Cullens’ pet. The ideal scenario would have humans and nonhumans be at the same level and have the element of coercion removed, and anyone could choose to be a pet of anyone. I’m not quite sure how to build that world, but I think that’s the real way to remove that problematic element of slavery.

Now, I like Lady and the Tramp, and Up, and Bolt, and all these kinds of films. I think the concept can produce great movies. However, it’s a problem that this kind of slavery issue can be depicted positively and no one raises an eyebrow at all. I mean, the real world doesn’t have that problem, but when you imbue animals with sapience you have to be willing to deal with the new implications that could arise. I think this anthropocentric mindset is bad. In the case that some animal is discovered to have human-level intelligence, or if some alien spaceship lands, or an artificial intelligence is created, we have to be willing to amend our views of what makes a person. Even in the real world, we need to keep our minds open and be skeptical of conventions. So many horrible racist/homophobic/sexist policies are justified on the basis of convention and because people don’t think about them critically. We need to think about these things critically to grow as a civilization.

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