By Loredana Loy on
Humane Research Council (HRC)
Social issues portrayed in a motion picture’s narrative can resonate with audiences and generate discussion around these issues. This discussion, or discourse, can help construct new ways of thinking and talking about social issues or it can perpetuate the manner in which these issues are already being discussed. So how are nonhuman animal (hereafter animal) issues in mainstream cinema portrayed? And do the discussions originating from positive portrayals of animals and animal related matters have the power to create social change?
The arrival of industrialization and modernization prompted a dramatic shift for animals—they became marginalized both physically and culturally.  Physically, urbanization removed animals from sight and obscured their exploitation, while industrialization reduced them to mere raw material, commodities, and property. Culturally, animals were rendered invisible because they were defined solely through anthropocentric lenses and denied a meaningful symbolic presence in culture. Anthropocentrism is the cultural ideology that assigns humans the utmost importance in human society. The ideology of anthropocentrism permeates our society and is fundamental to the process of making animal exploitation invisible and acceptable by casting it as natural and necessary. Because, as identified above, the animals’ marginalization and removal from sight has contributed to their invisibility, and hence to their unchallenged exploitation, movies might be a particularly powerful way to create resistance by reinstating the visibility of animals into cultural context.
However, with few exceptions, when animals do appear on screen, their portrayals reinforce anthropocentrism. In this view, animals are depicted as objects to be exploited and are used as elements of the cinematic narrative without being given meaningful consideration. Ultimately though, the dominant way of representing animals is not representing them at all. This virtual invisibility teaches audiences that the animals’ lives and experiences are insignificant. Furthermore, because of the power of the media conglomerates and their continuous efforts to manipulate consumers and influence cultural ideas, values, and norms, society sees animals in corporate terms and experiences them as commodities. Thus, representations of animals in cinema matter, because these representations are a way for humans to experience animals as individual entities rather than dismembered products. 
While cinematic representations routinely reinforce anthropocentrism,
there have been select movies that have challenged the traditional matrix
and which signify the power cinema has for defying dominant ideas about
animals. Despite the difficulty of transcending the dominant ideologies,
these films have the opportunity to create a space for the introduction of a
less anthropocentric stance of viewing animals and enable the discourse
related to the social change that the animal liberation movement seeks.
In 1949 the filmmakers of Gone to Earth were prevented from shooting a final scene of their movie by an association of foxhunters. The scene depicted the heroine and her “pet” fox fleeing from a pack of foxhounds. The association claimed that the film would encourage anti-fox hunting sentiment: “it is surely absurd to create propaganda out of a work of art and to create the most undesirable publicity,” stated their letter. Similarly, Disney’s 1942 Bambi, labeled at the time by the American hunting lobby as “the worst insult ever offered in any form to American sportsmen.” The severe reaction of those who profit from animal exploitation to the pro-animal sentiment contained in these movies suggests the power that cinema can have.
More recent examples of films representing animals positively include films that aim at delivering an environmental message to audiences. Nonetheless, the connection between protecting the environment and animal liberation is missed by most movies in this genre resulting in movies that deliver a conflated message about protecting the environment while continuing to exploit some species of animals. In Avatar (2009), humankind has exhausted Earth’s resources and is now exploiting those of Pandora, a planet populated by a humanoid species that holds a special connection with nature. However, this special connection does not stop the natives from hunting some species of animals and from using others as means of transportation, thus perpetuating the human model of domination over nature. Paradoxically, individuals belonging to the animal species that are killed for food join the natives in the fight against humans to save their planet. One is left to wonder if these animals will return to their “submissive” roles once the humans have been driven out and the original “balance” has been restored.
Other examples are movies that attempt to deliver a well-crafted pro-animal message, such as the Year of the Dog (2007). In this movie, the heroine Peggy (Molly Shannon) quits her bank job and becomes an animal rights advocate after being exposed to the realities of animal exploitation. This movie attempts to push an animal rights message by hiding it behind a plot that revolves around society’s generally accepted love for dogs. In the final scenes, Peggy is on a bus with other advocates going to a demonstration. When the bus passes by a truck with chickens heading for slaughter (unprotected from the elements and cramped in cages), she cringes at the sight and her thoughts are delivered to the audience: “I believe life is magical. It is so precious. And there are so many kinds of love in this life. So many things to love. This is my love. It is mine. And it fills me and defines me. And it compels me on.”
The educational strength of Hollywood is well documented, with some
scholars claiming that cinema influences its audiences to the extent of
consciousness building. Other scholars have noted that Hollywood has the
potential to shape or shift paradigms on a global scale and is capable of
exercising its pedagogical power towards the integration of eco-centric and
animal-centric ethics into society. Indeed, it seems that film is an
effective way to create resistance by making animals and animal issues
visible and by placing these issues in people’s consciousness.
In the next two installments of this blog I will discuss the animal-centered cinematic discourse created by movies and the manner in which animal advocacy organizations have engaged with it.
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2. Nibert, D. (2002). Animal rights/human rights: Entanglements of oppression and liberation. Lanham, Md.: Rowman Littlefield.
3. Hirschman, E. & Sanders, C. (2009). Motion pictures as metaphoric consumption: How animal narratives teach us to be human. Semiotica, 115 (1-2), p.58.
4. Nibert, D. (2002). Animal rights/human rights: Entanglements of oppression and liberation. Lanham, Md.: Rowman Littlefield.
5. Porter, P. (2006). Engaging the animal in the moving image. Society and Animals. 14(4).
6. The preferred non-speciesist term is “companion animal.”
7. Burt, J. (2002). Animals in film. London: Reaktion.
8. Burt, J. (2002). Animals in film. London: Reaktion.
9. Giroux, H. A. (2002). Breaking in to the movies: Film and the culture of politics. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers.
10. Kashani, T. (2010). Hollywood and nonhuman animals: problematic ethics of corporate cinema. In Frymer, B., Kashani, T., Nocella, A., & Van Heertum, R. (Ed.), Hollywood's exploited: public pedagogy, corporate movies, and cultural crisis. p.219. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
- Algar, J. (1942). Bambi. Motion Picture. Walt Disney Studios. USA.
- Cameron, J. (2009). Avatar. Motion Picture. Twentieth Century Fox. USA.
- Powell, M. (1949). Gone to Earth. Motion Picture. London Films Productions. UK.
- White, M. (2007). Year of the dog. Motion Picture. Black & White Productions.
GO TO Part 2
Loredana Loy is a graduate student at New York University. Her research is focused on cinema as a potential tool for the promotion of the animal liberation movement. Loredana is currently an intern at the Humane Research Council.