Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Revisiting 'Jurassic Park' in light of 'Blackfish'

By Jon Hochschartner

With next summer's release of 'Jurassic World,' recently teased with a trailer starring Chris Pratt, I think it's worthwhile to revisit the original film in the paleontological franchise in light of the 2013 SeaWorld-documentary 'Blackfish,' with a focus on the inherent abuse captivity represents for wild animals and the potential dangers it creates for human handlers.

While I think it's safe to assume most readers have seen 'Jurassic Park,' for those not familiar with the other title, 'Blackfish' centers on Tilikum, an orca currently living in SeaWorld Orlando, who has been held captive for more than thirty years. During that time, he has killed three humans. The movie, which was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, suggests Tilikum's aggression was the result of his imprisonment. As journalist Jane Velez-Mitchell asked, "If you were in a bathtub for 25 years, don’t you think you’d get a little irritated, aggravated, maybe a little psychotic?” Since the documentary's release, SeaWorld has posted dramatic financial losses.

Interestingly, the inciting incidents for Steven Spielberg's 1993 blockbuster and 'Blackfish' are remarkably similar. 'Jurassic Park' opens on an island off the coast of Costa Rica with a captive velociraptor killing an employee of InGen, the bioengineering company responsible for the titular resort. It's this specific action that puts the entire plot of the film in motion. Paleobotanist Ellie Sattler, mathematician Ian Malcom, and paleontologist Alan Grant are invited to the island in the wake of this episode to assess the park's safety. Correspondingly, Gabriela Cowperthwaite's documentary begins with the brutal drowning of an experienced SeaWorld trainer, Dawn Brancheau, by Tilikum. From there, the remainder of the film seeks to answer the question of why this happened.

Dismissing conservative accusations of anthropomorphism, historian Jason Hribal encourages us to see such acts of violence not as random occurrences, but as intentional rebellions against speciesist confinement. "Through my research, the resistance became ever more evident. Captive animals escaped their cages," Hribal said. "They attacked their keepers. They demanded more food. They refused to perform. They refused to reproduce. The resistance itself could be organized."

Obviously there are differences between real-life orcas and fictional dinosaurs. As researcher Howard Garrett states in 'Blackfish,' there is no record of orcas attacking humans in the wild. And given the speculative nature of 'Jurassic Park,' we have no idea how various ancient species would interact with humans. Existing predators, such as tigers, generally attack humans only if they can't meet their dietary needs otherwise. But say we concede, for the sake of argument, that free-living prehistoric animals would choose to hunt and kill us, absent unique circumstances. I don't think such predation would invalidate the view that specific non-human violence in 'Jurassic Park' could be interpreted, to one degree or another, as an intentional form of resistance.

Jeffrey Ventre, a former SeaWorld trainer, says that Tilikum, an animal who should be traveling 100 miles a day, is kept in what amounts to a small, concrete swimming pool. Similarly, in 'Jurassic Park,' the resort's 'game' warden Robert Muldoon states that, like cheetahs, velociraptors can run 50-60 miles per hour, which presumably means the species would be accustomed to free access to large swaths of land. And yet the velociraptors are kept in a ludicrously small cage, about the size of a hockey rink, which they clearly do not enjoy. "She had them all attacking the [electrified] fences when the feeders came," Muldoon says, referring to the leader of the pride. "But they never attack the same place twice. They were testing the fences for weaknesses systematically. They remembered."

Indeed, the desire of these animals to escape is so great the owner of the resort, John Hammond, concedes InGen has been forced to take extreme precautions to prevent this from happening. "The viewing area below us will have eight-inch tempered glass set in reinforced steel frames," Hammond says.

One must assume that Spielberg and others involved in the creation of the box-office smash that was 'Jurassic Park' did not intend it to be a sci-fi parable of non-human revolt against captivity. The filmmakers' view appears to be expressed through the voice of Dr. Malcolm, who has nothing to say regarding animal treatment or use, and sees the threat posed by the island's dinosaurs purely as a result of scientific arrogance run amok. But I'm not sure that authorial intent matters that much. Ultimately, there's enough evidence in the film to make credible an anti-speciesist interpretation of 'Jurassic Park' as a sort of fictionalized 'Blackfish.'

Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Zoo as Animals' "Natural" Home

The Los Angeles Zoo has just unveiled a brand new, $1.2 million advertising campaign aimed at both bringing in visitors to the Zoo's "Rainforest of the Americas" exhibit, and, presumably, discouraging people from stealing these often cute and cuddly animals and bringing them home with them.

The campaign is called "Every Animal Has a Home, Just Not Yours," and through print media and television commercials uses humor to show wild rainforest animals living in a human home, albeit not very successfully. Each ad ends with the campaign tagline: "Every cotton top tamarin/giant river otter/harpy eagle has a home. Just not yours."

The ads are cute, and are hopefully effective in keeping the moronic bro's who occasionally break into their local zoos and steal penguins and other cute animals for their girlfriends from doing so.

But they're also terribly ironic. In this print ad, which shows a river otter taking a messy bath in your bathroom, the point is made that he doesn't belong in your home. But read the fine print below, and what does it say?

"See these and other exotic species in their natural habitats at the Rainforest of the Americas Exhibit at the LA Zoo" (emphasis mine). So apparently the Los Angeles Zoo is now the natural habitat for these rainforest animals, who live, as with the cotton top tamarin, in the treetops of Colombia, while the giant river otter swims in the Amazon River.

Zoos today claim that they are primarily about two things: education and conservation, even though the public goes to zoos for entertainment. And yet the Los Angeles Zoo is spending over $1 million not to educate the public nor to conserve any species, but to tell the public that rainforest animals belong in the zoo.

What kind of a message is this?

Sunday, March 9, 2014

The Nonhuman Disney Princesses

Deconstructing Disney

Feminists have long been critical of animated Disney films1 for promulgating outdated gender roles that see women as subservient, dainty, perpetually sexualized, and overly fixated on romance and the "happily ever after" with their dashing prince. Sleeping Beauty and Snow White have been criticized as evidence of rape culture (anyone who is unconscious cannot consent), while Beauty and the Beast romanticizes domestic violence. The Little Mermaid encourages little girls to give up their voice and change who they are for men. In most of the princess movies, the story's grand finale is the magical marriage. After that, the story ends. Youth, love, and matrimony are portrayed as the end all be all for women. Women don't have interesting adventures, their male counterparts do. Female characters are only the objects of rescue and the trophy to be won. Magic and romance control their destiny; they are rarely the determiners of their own lives.

Source: Sociological Images

Many have also criticized the Disney princess collection as overly white. Very few women of color are featured, and those who are tend to be stereotypical or otherwise lacking in depth and cultural sensitivity. Because the media is an important agent of socialization and these images are heavily marketed to young children, feminists and critical media theorists are right to be concerned.

In this essay, I extend this gender and race critique to explore the representation of nonhuman species in Disney princess films. While women of color are grossly underrepresented in Disney animations, nonhuman princesses do star in several films.Unfortunately, the diversity ends there, as many of the same gender scripts persist.

Nonhuman Disney Princesses

Bambi (1942)

Perhaps the first nonhuman Disney princess was Faline in Bambi. After meeting as fawns, she and Bambi begin a courtship that necessitates Bambi battling another buck to "win" her. He will later face a disastrous forest fire and rescue her from hunters and their dogs. Following this, he becomes the "Great Prince of the Forest" and starts a family with her.

The Aristocats (1970)

After their wealthy mistress bequeaths her vast wealth to them, Duchess and her kittens are ousted from their Parisian mansion by the jealous butler. Stranded in the country and handicapped by her femininity and hyper-daintiness, Duchess and her children are rescued by tom cat Thomas O'Malley. It is indicated that some sort of romantic relationship forms between Duchess (who is lonely after the loss of her former male partner) and her hero.

Robin Hood (1973)

Disney's animated version of Robin Hood features a fox princess who is trapped in the court of the miserable and murderous King John. Robin Hood faces certain danger to participate in an archery contest to win Marian's affections (and "earn" the prize kiss). As King John's sights narrow in on Robin Hood, Maid Marian's situation becomes increasingly precarious. Robin Hood eventually liberates the kingdom and marries his damsel in distress.

The Lion King (1994)

The Lion King features a relatively strong nonhuman princess, Nala, who struggles to keep the pride afloat in Simba's absence. A bit of a "manic pixie" character, she encourages Simba to "find himself" and be the man he is destined to be. As a result, she is relegated to sidekick status. We never learn much about her own interests, desires, challenges, or background. Predictably, she also becomes a love interest, and soon realizes her other primary female role in producing an heir to the kingdom.

The Princess and the Frog (2009)

More recently, Disney's The Princess and the Frog sees a young Creole princess transformed into a frog and partnered up with her obnoxious amphibian prince. This film has been criticized as squandering the only Disney princess film to date that features an African American girl by presenting her as a frog for most of her screen time. This film is also problematic because this young girl is basically preyed upon by a man who exploits her empathy for his gain. Of course, he also uses her forced time with him to woo her and they are eventually married. Unique for Disney films, we are at least left with the understanding that Tiana has a life after marriage, as she founds her own restaurant.

Gender Norms and Anti-Speciesist Values

Sadly, then, we see many of the same gender norms perpetuated in films starring nonhuman princesses. They remain side characters who must be rescued, who must encourage and inspire the more important men, and who must be won and married. Love is always the end result, with romance and marriage the epitome of a happy ending. And, though these characters are illustrated as deer, foxes, cats, lions, and frogs, they are overwhelmingly white normative. That is, epistemologies of whiteness structure the characters in speech, behaviors, and values.3 Of course, most of the voice actors are also white. Though Nala is supposed to be an African character, adult Nala is voiced by a woman of Irish decent who identifies as white.These films are also representative of Disney productions in that they are painfully heteronormative. That is, they present romantic love and marriage as an institution only applicable to opposite sex couples.

However, anthropomorphized as they are, these films are important for granting personhood to other animals. For the most part, respectful attention is paid to their unique challenges as nonhuman "others" in a human world. We learn to empathize with "stray" cats, scorn hunting, take forest fires seriously, and see frogs as complex individuals.

Like many children, my concern for other animals was greatly shaped by the animated films I grew up with. A child of the 1980s, my family only had a handful of VHS tapes, two of which were Charlotte's Web and Disney's Honey I Shrunk the Kids . Charlotte's Web tells the story of a runty piglet who didn't want to become bacon and a wise spider that craftily saved his life. Honey I Shrunk the Kids featured Anty, the courageous ant that befriended the shrunken children over an oatmeal cream pie, eventually giving his life to protect them from danger. One blogger admits:
It is hands down the bravest thing ever done by a fake insect and as much as one may hate to admit it, it made you cry… Or at the very least made your eyes fill with tears. The noble ways of Anty made many; myself included, really reconsider how we treated ants. I’ll admit, as a kid I liked to play Godzilla and stomp on bunches of innocent bystander ants from time to time, but seeing Honey I Shrunk The Kids changed all of that.
Honey I Shrunk the Kids (1989)

My brothers and I watched these movies over and over. I didn't come from a vegan or vegetarian family and I grew up in rural Appalachia. My anti-speciesist leanings came from somewhere else. Children's media acted as a window into the outside world, shaping my values and raising my awareness.

Nonhuman Animals hold a special place in many children's stories, which is especially helpful for challenging speciesist ideologies in a very animal-based world. The problem arises when other animals are used as vessels for oppressive norms that marginalize women, people of color, homosexual persons, and other vulnerable groups. I would like to see more nonhuman Disney princesses that exhibit egalitarian values. Strong female characters that control their own lives and are not fixated on men and romance would be a great improvement. A better film would not anthropomorphize other animals as white, straight, subservient women or hyper-masculinized, entitled men. bell hooks reminds us that media of all sorts is a kind of fantasy. It reflects the world we idealize and constructs political narratives. Disney films specialize in fantasy-making and are especially well suited to using the magic of the movies to inspire social change. I want to see Disney princesses taking on human supremacy without appealing to white supremacist patriarchy.

Corey Lee Wrenn
Founder of Vegan Feminist Network & Council Member for the American Sociological Association's Animals & Society section.

In cooperation with the Animals & Society Institute, ASA's Animals & Society section facilitates improved sociological inquiry into issues concerning other animals and is currently seeking members. Membership is $5-$10; you must be a member of the ASA to join.


1. See Jezebel's "Feminist Guide to Disney Princesses," The Root's "Enough with the Disney Princesses!," Sociological Images' "Disney Princesses, Deconstructed," and Feminist Disney Tumblr.

2. Many animated Disney films have nonhuman main characters that would be relevant to this discussion, but were not included as they were not considered "princesses." For instance, Lady from Lady and The Tramp is not exactly "royalty," just a dog from "better breeding."

3. Aristocats explicitly draws on many racist stereotypes.

4. Especially curious is the fact that juvenile Nala is voiced by a Jamaican American girl. This seems to suggest that ideal womanhood actually reflects white womanhood, with blackness associated with immaturity and lack of development.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Blackfish: The Conversation Continues

Awards Season is approaching and both sides of the Blackfish conversation are certainly preparing for the public's renewed enthusiasm regarding the film. While some might expect that scientists and social scientists remain neutral on such a delicate issue, as an anthrozoologist, I see great benefits for society in the conversations ignited by the film.

The Blackfish story offers us lessons in the importance of researching the facts and the power of marketing and story-telling. The greatest success of this film is igniting a timely conservation about the implications of keeping animals in captivity and the extent to which human influence, whether positive or negative, can impact the future of human-animal coexistence. 

Watch and share the film. Discover the reactions by students and professionals on both sides of the debate. Even those of us who struggle to "choose a side" might find strength in knowledge and confidence in curiosity.