Animals in Hollywood films
I’m just leading our students through some fascinating texts that debate the human relationship with animals, so Steve Rose’s recent article in the Guardian, ‘Are animals in Hollywood films too human?’, is timely reminder of the complexities of that relationship. The article is an interesting critique of attempts by film-makers to reconcile the demands of narrative coherence and audience engagement with some modicum, at least, of fidelity to real animal behaviour. But the problem of anthropomorphism is by no means restricted to animals, and sometimes looking at other situations in which it arises can help us understand why it’s a challenge when it comes to films about chimps and grizzlies.
Perhaps most obviously, we anthropomorphise our deities. They are often represented as having a particular physical form – a long white beard, maybe, or flashing eyes like Athena – as well as all-too-human emotions such as jealousy, rage, love and mercy. The first philosophical critiques of anthropomorphism actually targeted our misrepresentation of the Christian God, not animals. But if it seems obviously a trivialisation of divine power to paint the creator of the universe with a beard, it’s less clear which emotions he might legitimately retain. Can God be spiteful? And, if not, why should we imagine he loves us? On the other hand, if God has no feelings at all, what kind of personal relationship can we have with him? Benedict Spinoza memorably attacked the ‘blind cupidity and insatiable avarice’ that leads us to imagine precisely the kind of god that will love us the most.
The same problem afflicts our thinking about animals. Anthropomorphism can certainly be a mistake: I might think a dolphin seems friendly because it appears to be smiling when in fact that’s the unalterable shape of its mouth. The cowering dog that the owner assumes looks ‘guilty’ about the empty dustbin is much more likely to be scared. But if we try to strip away every anthropomorphic accretion we end up with nothing at all we can say about animals, except merely to describe their actions. In any case, we can’t help it: we anthropomorphise cars and computers, accusing them of perversity and spite, much as we can’t help seeing faces in clouds and on Citroen 2CVs as well as on human heads. Our need to identify and interpret human agency is so great we tend to find it even in extremely implausible places.
‘Critical anthropomorphism’, as opposed to the crude, unreflective kind, requires that we avoid both jumping to conclusions based on trivial resemblances to human behaviour and complete denial of animals’ emotions and their kinship with us. It’s a complex problem, and it’s perhaps unrealistic to expact DisneyNature to attempt it with much intellectual rigour.