Animals in Media [October 4-8, 2010]

Avi Santo's picture

Monday October 4, 2010 – Holly Kruse (Rogers State University)  presents: Race Horse as Rock Star: Fandom, Memory, and Zenyatta

Tuesday October 5, 2010 – Brett Mills (University of East Anglia) presents: When Foxes Attack

Wednesday October 6, 2010 – Candice Haddad (University of Michigan, Ann Arbor) presents:Talking Through Feminist Critiques of PETA: A Call for Animal Rights to be a Project of Media and Culture Studies Scholars 

Thursday October 7, 2010 – Susan Nance (University of Guelph) presents: Dumbo: Then and Now

Friday October 8, 2010 – Lisa Uddin (Corcoran College of Art and Design) presents: Birds in Oil and Watercolor


Theme week organized by Jeremy Groskopf (Georgia State University)

Picture from Okinawa Soba via Flickr, used and altered under Creative Commons License permission.

  • Race Horse as Rock Star: Fandom and … by Holly Kruse

  • Six days before the movie Secretariat was scheduled to open in the United States, another star racehorse graced American screens. On October 2, 2010, in a race televised on ESPN and on cable and satellite racing network TVG, Thoroughbred racehorse Zenyatta remained undefeated by winning an unprecedented 19th consecutive top-level race.   Secretariat’s owner and breeder, Penny Chenery, joined Zenyatta in the paddock before the race and the winner’s circle after the race.  Most Americans have never heard of Zenyatta, a six-year-old mare owned by A&M Records co-founder Jerry Moss and his wife Ann Moss and named for a 1980 album by The Police, a one-time A&M act.  Zenyatta gained more widespread recognition when Oprah Winfrey revealed her 2010 “O” Power List,” which urged us to “Meet 20 women (and one amazing horse) who blew us away this year.”

    Zenyatta is a site of meaning creation: she is alternately and simultaneously a feminist icon who in 2009 was the first mare to beat males in the year-end headlining race, the Breeders’ Cup Classic; a savior of a dying sport; the subject of fierce debate among racing fans who disagree about whether she should have won the 2009 “Horse of the Year” title instead of the actual winner, fellow female Rachel Alexandra.  She is a star, albeit one with a small – but wildly devoted – fan base. Richard Dyer tells us “Star images are always extensive, multimedia, intertextual,” and the proliferation of digital tools and online social platforms enables fan co-creation of stars.  Participating fans include Zenyatta’s trainer, John Shirreffs, who has uploaded videos taken from her exercise rider’s perspective to YouTube, and scores of others, mostly women and girls, who create video tributes, including “song videos” like the one on this page.

    Like most Zenyatta fan videos, this example highlights the qualities that caused veteran turf writer Steve Haskin to state that more than any horse, Zenyatta transcends mere racehorse-ness because of her “diva-like presence and prima ballerina moves,” “her uncanny showmanship and ability to take on human traits.” The articulation of Zenyatta with Lady Gaga, whose song “Starstruck” provides the fan video’s audio track, is intriguing.  Both are stars with niche, femininely gendered fandoms; both are symbols of female empowerment; both are subjects of passionate debate; both have fandoms that believe their stars, and thus the fans themselves, occupy marginal social and cultural roles; both are Other yet one of us; both are becoming-human and becoming-animal.  Although relatively few people have heard of her, Zenyatta matters.

  • When Foxes Attack by Brett Mills

  • As the video summary by Newsy shows, international news coverage followed the mauling of two nine-month old twins by a fox in the UK in June 2010. The fox is assumed to have entered the suburban home in East London via an open patio door, and, by the time it left, the twins had arm injuries with one child also injured on the face.

    But why is this a news story (especially when far more people are killed and injured in the home by domestic animals than by wild ones), and what does it tell us about the complex ways in which animals such as foxes are understood by humans?

    Running through the report is an assumption about space. That is, that the home is a private space, where we should be able to feel secure. That a fox can wander in and injure members of our family in such a protected area is deemed to be threatening, and undermines the urban/nature distinction which defines contemporary city living.

    But the urban fox confuses such a distinction anyway, by its very existence. Do we think of the urban fox in the same way as a fox living in the countryside? How can humans come to terms with the other species that they co-exist with, even if urban living often proposes the myth that wild creatures are not in our domain?

    And these news reports keep returning to the same word; ‘attack’. This term suggests some kind of deliberate motivation on the part of the fox, and implies an intention of harm. Did the fox ‘attack’ the twins, or merely injure them as it went about its activities? Fox experts are in disagreement over this, but the majority seem to see this as an extremely rare event, and most reject the idea that this was a motivated ‘attack’. So why is it that animal-human interactions, in which humans come off the worse, always seem to be categorised as ‘attacks’?

  • Talking Through Feminist Critiques … by Candice Haddad

  • Animal rights activism faces an interesting predicament when trying to rear its head (no pun intended) into the realm of mainstream media and, subsequently, mainstream politics. Various PETA campaigns are one of the most prominent and highly visible outlets for animal rights activism in the mainstream media. Using the tired tactics of sex and shock, PETA’s “I Rather Go Naked Than Fur” campaign uses nude or semi-nude models, often celebrities, in an attempt to draw attention to animal rights issues, particularly issues concerning the violent and inhumane practices of the fur and food industry.  Subsequently, this campaign has invoked numerous feminist responses to its objectifying and degrading ads. (For examples, see Jezebel and Feministing.)

    This rupture between feminists and animal rights activists caused by this highly visible campaign brings to the fore its contradictory nature, ultimately displacing and sidetracking the project. By using the proverbial master’s tools of patriarchy, sexism, and consumerism to dismantle the capitalistic project of keeping the distance, both mentally and physically, between consumers and their food (which relies on similar dominant ideologies to keep its hegemonic status), PETA’s campaigns sever ties to a political group that essentially works for similar social change. By stripping women down to their skins, there is a visual connection being drawn between women and animals as both objects meant to be ogled and consumed.

    When discussing the PETA campaign in various media and culture studies circles, I see the message of animal rights becoming lost in the controversy; thus, its validity is often dismissed. A basic premise of media studies and cultural studies scholarship is to unveil, critique, and question hegemonic cultural power relations.  If the underlying project of cultural studies is to do such things, I believe, animal rights and, subsequently, food politics are projects that are incredibly underdeveloped and often disregarded.  Therefore, I believe there needs to be a refusal to see animal rights as a movement that naturally rests on the hinges of sexism and patriarchy, and an effort in our inquires of power and culture to integrate animal rights into our scholarship and politics.

  • Dumbo: Then and Now by Susan Nance

  • Dumbo is a darkly subversive film.

    To be sure, the 1941 Disney “classic” is a tale meant to boost young Americans’ self-esteem. It tells the story of an awkward young elephant with gigantic ears who becomes the star of the circus when he discovers his unique ability to fly.

    Yet, like much circus fiction, Dumbo also contains a comment on circus animal use. The film’s miserable elephants struggle to squeeze into tiny rail cars ill-suited to house them; they labor sullenly in a storm to erect the circus tent; they snipe in resentment over dangerous acrobatic tricks they are forced to perform in the ring. Indeed, Disney made Dumbo for audiences at once nostalgic about the circus as popular entertainment and cynical from a century of witnessing circuses demonize and publicly execute elephants made unmanageable by captivity. Dumbo’s mother is locked away as just such a “mad elephant” after a chilling scene in which she assaults a visitor (who ridiculed Dumbo’s ears), then goes berserk as the circus’s ringmaster and his men confront her with whips, ropes and elephant hooks.

    A couple of years ago viewers began exploring this critique by re-shaping Dumbo’s professionally-produced representations of animals as user-generated content on YouTube. A number of people extracted and posted the film’s “Baby of Mine” sequence on the site, suddenly revealing the clip as a long-time fan favorite. Countering the circus-friendly hopeful individualism of the film’s resolution, a multitude of users have commented on “Baby of Mine” to express identification with subjective elephant experiences of grief and loss:

    - JimmySteller: “Can you imagine watching those scenes after your parents had passed on? It would be unbearable. That’s what makes me weep when I see this.”

    - TinyRagdoll, “it also makes me a little mad to see the injustice on how they would imprison and chain Mrs. Jumbo for protecting Dumbo.”

    - Papillion1986, “Makes me cry everytime I see this. Not just the fact he can’t be with mommy but also because she’s chained up. :’( ”

    - osunason: “i love you mom!!!”

    Do we see here new public attitudes about performing animals? Or is the creative environment of YouTube simply helping consumers voice attitudes they have had all along, attitudes that in the past were drowned out by circus advertising and a complicit press?

    And what does Dumbo mean to you?


  • Birds in Oil and Watercolor by Lisa Uddin

  • Steve Mumford traveled to Venice, Louisiana last spring to document the Deepwater Horizon calamity. Published in the September 2010 issue of Harper’s Magazine, the resulting series is classic oil spill imagery, but in the unexpected genre of tourist art. These are pictures you might have purchased from a local artist on the boardwalk, or maybe would have captured yourself in a well-worn sketchbook. Either way, they both comfort and disturb me.

    There is a quietness to these scenes that gives relief not only from the spill, but from the six months of glossy, high-resolution views at multiple scales and sites that have intensified it; views that return again and again to oil-coated pelicans — dying and dead — as a barometer of and catalyst for our collective horror. Mumford’s birds inhabit a different Gulf Coast whose sweet spots are generated not from spectacle but sincerity. With the authenticity of the brushstroke, the painter depicts these creatures in a crisis mitigated by the seemingly transparent and spontaneous charms of the watercolor medium. Watercolor makes the human-technological response, from Coast Guard helicopters to plugged-in reporters, appear as pleasantly fluid as the sea. When the abnormality of the situation is discernible — specifically, in the eye of the pelican being washed — the humble postures of the surrounding figures and low-tech look of the cleaning equipment reassures us that wildlife rehab is good, honest work. The subsequent image of three cleaned birds continues to soothe, placing them amid merry red, green and yellow and close to clear running water. A concluding picture shows a pretty “oil-soaked coastline” in earthy browns and purples with a small gestural line of a bird flying low across the land.

    Mumford has done this before, with the war in Iraq. His series in Harper’s March 2005 issue rendered those grim events — military attacks and imprisonment, for instance — easy going, if not quite cheerful. I wonder about his gentle eye. I wonder what Iraqi civilians, U.S. soldiers and Gulf Coast pelicans stand to gain or lose from art that humanizes what we call inhuman and that which is other-than-human. Between disaster porn and disavowal, is there not another way to describe the lives of the injured?

Publication date (from feed): 

Mon, 04 Oct 2010 20:20:55 +0000