Sunday, August 24, 2014

One Gorilla, Two Gorillas, Three Gorillas, Four. Gorillas are for laughs? Or to abhor?

Hollywood has fed an unforgettable image of gorillas to audiences of King Kong for generations.

Zoos display gorillas in both live exhibits and as climbable statues.

Environmental stewardship organizations present the amber-eyed faces of gorillas with pleas for support.

A life-size concrete gorilla (undoubtedly with a backstory) even stands at the corner of an Arby’s parking lot in Madison, Wisconsin.   

The gorilla image is also used to sell products from glue to horticultural tents (both emphasizing strength and toughness), and from children’s cereal to candy bars.  Of these last two, the former – a mural-like rendering of an adult gorilla seated behind a photographed bowl of EnviroKids Organic Gorilla Munch – has experienced its own popularity as an Internet meme with iterations of the phrase, “That really rustled my jimmies.”  The latter gorilla image comes from a 2007 commercial for Cadbury’s Dairy Milk chocolate and features a male actor in a gorilla suit.

With appearances in these various places, products, and representations, how are we to know what a gorilla is  A vehicle of entertainment?  A messenger for conservation?  A mascot, and if so, to be feared or endeared?


Janine Benyus reflects upon historical presentations of gorillas in her recently published book The Secret Language of Animals: A Guide to Remarkable Behavior.  She writes:

Don’t you wonder how anyone could have portrayed this peaceable animal
as “nature’s most savage beast” for so many years?  The answer, of course, was in the profits.  Circuses that housed a “dangerous killer” drew record crowds...  As a result, fears and myths about gorillas became embedded in our culture.

History has shown that gorillas need not be present for audiences to find “them” amusing.  Enter the infamous man-in-a-gorilla-suit.  Whether at a circus, like the one shown below in Calcutta, or in advertisement, like Cadbury’s Phil Collins mimic, gorilla antics – even of human invention – are fair game for derision. 

Despite laughter and media playfulness surrounding gorilla images, it seems the “savage beast” representation endures most strongly.  “Not too long ago,” Beynus adds, “a survey taken among British schoolchildren showed that gorillas ranked right up there with snakes and rats as the kids’ most hated animals.”

Does hating this mostly vegetarian, sociable, intelligent, curious being cause us any conflict?  
Or can we separate the Kong and gorilla-suits from true gorillaness?

Benyus, Janine M. (2014). The Secret Language of Animals. Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, Inc.
New York. 

2.  Brookfield Zoo (the author's)
3.  Madison, WI (the author's)
5. Gorilla grow tent poster (the author's)
6.  Cadbury's Gorilla video on YouTube (screenshot by the author)
7.  Mark, Mary Ellen. (2014). "Plate 86: Twin brothers Tulsi and Basant, Great Famous Circus, Calcutta, India, 1989."  Man and Beast, Photographs from Mexico and India. University of Texas Press

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

STK Open Call: Exploring Species-Gender Intersections in DC Steakhouse

A new steakhouse  has opened in Washington, DC that relies heavily on sexualized women to glamorize animal flesh as sexy, trendy, edgy, and available.  Many of the photographs used to promote the restaurant utilize thin, young, and mostly white female models.  This is done to create a sense of pleasurable consumption. As Carol Adams has argued--sex and animal foods are often overlapped to give an impression to the privileged consumer that the products of oppression are given freely and happily. Just as patriarchy convinces us that women really want it (sex, rape, violence, humiliation, etc.), it also convinces us that other feminized bodies really want this violation, too. Indeed, this fetishization becomes marketable.

Unfortunately, what this means for women and animals is that the violence enacted against them is sexualized, romanticized, and normalized. Notice the disembodied woman in high heels with a meat cleaver--extreme violence is being associated with sexual desire. Given the epidemic levels of violence against women, this should be serious cause for concern. As for Nonhuman Animals, like the woman in this image, they are fragmented and only made visible in consumable pieces of chopped up flesh.  These images want us to stay focused on meat; they don't want us thinking about the woman or cow they were attached to. That isn't sexy--that makes us think, and thinking interferes with sales.

Customers can come to STK to get their meat served up pretty. The website is careful to frequently juxtapose human meat with nonhuman meat. Human and nonhuman bodies are presented as interchangeable, fragmented, and completely and utterly objectified.

Models hired to promote the restaurant are literally branded with the store logo, marked as STK property as cows are in the feedlots of STK suppliers.  Again, this logo is quite indicative of the close association between the oppression of women and other animals. With a pouty lipsticked kiss, the mass murder of Nonhuman Animals and the objectification of women is made flirty and sexy.

Sexualized women routinely show up in STK adverts as well, even when they have nothing to do whatsoever with the product. Notice there are not even any pictures of food or drinks in the Apple Pie Day advertisement. In the happy hour advert, it is suggested that female customers at STK drink booze in positions of sexual availability (the mixing of alcohol with the sexual availability of women, incidentally, is the symboblic language of rape culture).  Women are used as signifiers:  Enact your privilege here.

A sexualized woman is even used to sell dead animal parts for charity. Ironically, the charity, UNICEF, is concerned with childhood hunger...and the Western animal-based diet that STK satiates is one reason why this hunger exists. Third world nations are often left unable to provide food for their own inhabitants, as much of the food they grow is used as feed for those Nonhuman Animals destined for Western consumption.  The violence enacted on these colonized peoples, like that which is enacted on women and Nonhuman Animals, remains largely invisible behind the glamour of youth, beauty, sex, and money whipped up in STK campaigning.

The vegan-feminist critique featured in this essay is based on the work of Carol Adams.  Thanks to Ivy Collier for bringing this steakhouse ad campaign to my attention.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Cats and War

We all know by now that the Internet is run by cats. But the social media accounts of Islamist fighters in the Middle East?

Apparently, some ISIS fighters have been posting these provocative images of cats posed with guns and other weapons recently on their Twitter and Instagram accounts, accompanied by the hashtag #CatsOfJihad.

While these strangely cute photos may be useful as a recruiting tool to incite more young people to join the Jihadist movement, and may even be moving Westerners to join, there is something ironic about using images of soft and cuddly animals posed with deadly weapons to advertise war.

We all know how deadly war is to humans. But many people don't stop to think about how deadly it is to non-human animals. Both domesticated and wild animals are dragged into, harmed by, and killed by wars. Dogs, horses, cattle, bees, pigeons, elephants, dolphins, and countless other animals have been used as military service animals for thousands of years, and there is no way to know how many have been "sacrificed" in all of the wars in which they have "served."

And then as "civilians," they have suffered just as civilian humans have from bombing and fighting in their lands and homes, as well as from the needs of both the soldiers and refugees who often feed on them. Not only that, but they are affected by wars for years afterwards, thanks to the environmental consequences of chemical weapons, burning of fuels, dumping of ammunition, testing of bombs, and radioactivity.

War means death--death to humans, and death to animals. And no amount of squee photos of kittens hugging grenades will change that sad fact.

Friday, June 13, 2014

A Dog in the Yearbook

Service animals have been getting increasing attention lately; a story went viral last month about a US Airways flight that had to make an emergency landing after a service dog pooped in the aisles (not once, but twice), and the smell apparently sickened a number of passengers.

Recently there have been conflicts and even lawsuits over whether service animals can enter certain businesses; many people feel that there is quite a bit of ambiguity over what the term "service animal" actually means, what functions they serve, and how those animals are trained and identified (and to make it more confusing, the law does not require either the person to carry a certification nor the animal to be identified with a special harness or collar). But in the United States, the law is clear: trained service animals are given legal protections by the Americans with Disabilities Act, which means that businesses and government agencies must provide accomodations for them.

Some agencies go further and embrace these animals and the important work they do.

Taxi, who works with 14-year old Rachel Benke, who has a seizure disorder, accompanies Rachel to all of her classes at Hector Garcia Middle School in San Antonio Texas every day. He's been working with Rachel for the past four years, notifying her when she's about to have a seizure, which has helped to save her life on more than one occasion.

Even though the principal at Rachel's school was originally unhappy about Taxi's presence at the school, today he's such an important part of Rachel's life as well as the school community that he got his own picture in the school yearbook, right next to Rachel's.

Service dogs perform incredibly important services for people with physical and emotional issues, filling a need that it seems that no human or machine can fill. While most are no doubt loved for their work, it is nice to see a highly visible acknowledgement like this once in a while, especially at a time when their status is being debated so publicly.

Not only does Taxi's yearbook picture demonstrate his importance to and participation in the lives of the students and faculty at Hector Garcia Middle School, it also, like the increasing prevalence of pet obituaries in our nation's newspapers, begins to move animals like Taxi every so slightly into the category of person.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

What Makes a Family?

Clearly, at least in the wealthy countries of the industrialized and post-industrialized world, our pets are our family. For millions of people today, we dote on our companion animals, buying them the best food, toys, and beds (when they are not sleeping in ours), taking them on vacations, and including them in our family photos.

Fighting over catnip sprouts. by Jason Houge
But what about feral cats?

The very definition of feral--from the Latin fera, meaning "wild beast"--suggests that they are clearly not members of the family. These domesticated (but not tame) cats, who live around the periphery of human societies, are viewed as pests, disease hosts, wildlife killers, and worse by most observers. They are subject to a wide variety of control and eradication policies around the world, up to and including killing them, although in the United States, it is still illegal to intentionally kill a cat, even if feral. But that doesn't mean that it isn't done.

Diane ran past some visitors who came to see the kittens. By Jason Houge
Still, many animal lovers care for the cats in feral cat colonies, feeding them, and catching them in order to have them spayed and neutered or given medical care. 

But one man, photographer Jason Houge, who shares his rural property with a colony of feral cats in Green Bay, Wisconsin, takes "family photographs" of them as well.

His lovely, and often intimate photos of the many cats on his property, all of whom he cares for, makes them feel as if they are truly part of his family. This is so different from the way that feral cats are usually seen; to borrow a phrase from anthropologist Mary Douglas, they are "matter out of place"  (1966).

Like dirt, to which Douglas was referring, they are not just dirty, but they literally don't fit into our conceptual categories; they are not cute and cuddly, you cannot hold them--they are not PETS. Like pigeons, another culturally problematic animal, they are hated.

Family Portrait: Ernie, Mumma and their 9 kittens. By Jason Houge
But Houge doesn't just not hate them, and he doesn't just care for them. His photos almost re-domesticate them, making us remember what makes us love cats in the first place, and want to bring them into our families in the first place--their playfulness, their lovingness, and yes, a bit of their wildness too.

This last photo he's titled "Family Portrait," and it includes the entire kitty family.