Saturday, September 29, 2012

Where’d the Animals Go?

The dots are beginning to form up. I’m starting to connect them. Of course, that doesn’t mean that the pattern that emerges is really there. Is the Big Dipper really there? Or is it really a Big Bear? Or just stars?

What I’m looking at is the disappearance of animals from daily life and the rise of funny animal cartoons. Then we get nature films in the theaters and on TV and funny animals begin disappearing from cartoons. And then we have animal rights movements and animal studies begins showing up in the academy.

Causal connection or mere historical sequence?

Don’t know. For that matter, don’t really know if it makes sense as a mere historical sequence. But I’m thinking about it.

Urbanization and Funny Animal Cartoons

So, there’s a big migration from rural America to the cities in the first half of the 20th Century. At the same time animation gets invented and funny animals take over cartoons. There’s an argumentthat there’s a causal connection between the two–see Evolutionary Alienation for pointers. Funny animal cartoons are somehow a reflex of, compensation for, the retreat of animals from our lives.

Those cartoons were theatrical—had to be, as TV didn’t exist. They played before feature films, often as parts of integrated programs that included newsreels, short subjects of various kinds, cartoons, and two features, the main feature (an A movie) and a secondary feature (B movie). People of all ages went to see these programs. Cartoons weren’t for kids.

But cartoons WERE for things you can’t readily do in live action. That’s doctrine. Paul Wells quoting Chuck Jones (The Animated Bestiary, p. 108):
In animated cartoons, we do generally prefer animals to humans. First, if your story calls for human beings, use live action. It is cheaper, quicker, and more believable. If, as director, I could train a live coyote and a live roadrunner to act, I would use them. I am an animator and an animation director; therefore, I look for characters that cannot be done in live action. That is what animation is all about; it is an extension beyond the ability of live-action motion pictures.
Note Jones’ emphasis on economics. Animation is a ferociously expensive medium. Which implies, if only weakly, that society must really have wanted those funny animal cartoons or it wouldn’t have included them in the budget.
Cartoons are for Kids and the Retreat of Animals

That changed after World War II, and I’m not sure why. In Kiddie Lit: The Cultural Construction of Children’s Literature in America (2003) Beverly Lyons Clark specifically takes up the question of why Disney films were relegated to children after WWII (pp. 171 ff.). She quotes James Agee as complaining about Disney’s cuteness, Al Hirschfeld too. But Hirschfled was specifically complaining about Disney’s treatment of the human figure, which, of course, became central in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and was to become increasingly prominent in Disney features, especially those he made after WWII. Erwin Panofsky had the same complaint and Clark quotes him as asserting that Disney had abdicated animation’s responsibility “to endow lifeless things with life, or living things with with a different kind of life” (p. 172).

Of course, as human characters become more prominent in Disney features, animals must become less so. Were these critics also saying that they missed the animals?

Furthermore, Disney began producing very successful nature films after WWII, and others followed him in that. So, even as animals began retreating from cartoons, people could still get their animal fix in live-action nature documentaries.

For it is my impression that animals HAVE continued to retreat from cartoons, even from cartoons made for kids. While I grew up in the 50s and 60s on a diet of animal cartoons, many of them theatrical cartoons from the so-called Golden Age, but some of them produced in the 60s (e.g. Yogi Bear and Huckleberry Hound) the impression I get, both from sporadic viewing (as recently as a couple of years ago) and from Timothy Burke and Kevin Burke, Saturday Morning Fever (1999), is that animals are on the wane even in cartoons.

That’s obvious in prime-time shows like The Simpsons, Futurama, Family Guy, and King of the Hill, but seems to be generally the case, though I’d like to see numbers—I’d like to see numbers on ALL of this. Parenthetically, I note that Japanese anime is mostly about humans, though there are some animal-based titles.

Why have animals been disappearing from cartoons? Not completely of course, and some new features HAVE been built around animals, e.g. Finding Nemo, Ratatouille, the Shrek series, Happy Feet, Fantastic Mr. Fox (not so funny animals in that one). But cartoons aren’t as ‘dense’ with animals as they once were. And, I suspect, the continued existence of animals in cartoons has more to do with the existence of animal cartoons in the tradition than with a positive need to animal surrogates through art and entertainment.

Demographic WAG

I’ve got a wild-ass guess (WAG) that goes like this (numbers from The First Measured Century, it’s online): In 1900 60% of the American population lived in rural areas, down to 40% or so in 1940 and 30+% in 1960. Further, in 1900 42% of men worked in primary occupations (defined as farmers, fishermen, forestry, miners, etc.), down to 20+% in 1940 and dropping below 10% by 1960. Thus, during the Golden Age of cartoons, when funny animals dominated the screen, we have a population that’s rapidly moving away from ‘the land,’ but where many people are still ‘on the land’ and many remember it. Think of funny animal cartoons as a Winnicottian transitional object writ-large, society-wide.

By 1960 ‘the land’ was but a memory for most adults and most of the children growing up were doing so entirely within urban and suburban areas. For these kids animals, real live animals, exist as pets, and in zoos, circuses, and special places you visit on vacation (national parks, wild life preserves). Or you can go to a Disney resort and see animatronic animals. Animals are ceasing to be real enough to be missed. If they’re not missed, then we don’t need surrogates for them in cartoons.

Animal Rights and Animal Studies

Now, let’s look at a different line of cultural development.

A quick blitz through the Wikipedia article on animal rights suggests the 19th century is more or less when it began. A convenient touchstone:
For Kant, cruelty to animals was wrong only because it was bad for humankind. He argued in 1785 that “cruelty to animals is contrary to man's duty to himself, because it deadens in him the feeling of sympathy for their sufferings, and thus a natural tendency that is very useful to morality in relation to other human beings is weakened.”
The SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) was founded in 1824 in Britain while the ASPCA (American SPCA) was founded in 1866. Things pick up in the 20th century yadda yadda.

[Note that Hindus and Buddhists stopped eating animal flesh and abandoned animal sacrifice in the 3rd century BCE.]

Humans have been studying animals ever since they’ve been human. You have to study them in order to hunt them, use them as work animals, use them as pets, and to make pictures and sculptures of them. In particular, Paul Wells (The Animated Bestiary) note that animators have to study live animals and their movement in order to make convincing cartoon animals.

And then we have animal studies. Just as cultural studies isn’t any old study of culture, but a particular intellectual movement with a particular history, so it is with animal studies, which emerged in the last quarter of the 20th century. I don’t know whether or not the animal studies folks have yet tipped to cartoons and animation, though there are some provocative remarks in Akira Lippit’s Electric Animal (2000).

Where are we?

The first argument says that as animals disappear from direct human experience they show up in cartoons as compensation. Then, when all that’s left of animal experience is cartoons and pets, they begin disappearing from cartoons as well, though certainly not completely.

It’s THEN that they show up in animal studies.


Animal studies seems to be linked to the treatment and mistreatment of animals, which is in turn linked to the factory farms.

At the moment I’m inclined to think that the disappearance of animals even from cartoons is one thing while their appearance in the discourse of animal studies is another. These two things just happen to coincide.

What’s the next step of the line that’s led to the disappearance of animals from cartoons? I think that leads to the retreat of humans from bodily existence and into the web. That’s a dead-end fantasy.

But animal rights will get nowhere in a world where that fantasy seems plausible and even attractive. Whatever else they did, funny animal cartoons made us remember that we too are animals. We’re in danger of forgetting that. If we do, we’re lost.


  1. Interesting, Bill. I wonder if the rise of the "sophisticated" human character cartoons that appeal to adult tastes, e.g., The Simpsons and other cartoon series on TV, is responsible for removing animals. My son Jason is very familiar with a bunch of them. One of them has a talking dog in it! Unfortunately, I'm such a serious person that my one hour of daily TV consists of looking at a news show! (What's wrong with me?) Oh, and the Colbert Show which I much prefer to The Daily Show where the host just can't help laughing and being smug about his own humor. The few times I've looked at The Simpsons, I have thoroughly enjoyed it. I should loosen up.

    Nice that your blog accommodates comments.

    1. The interesting thing, Frank, is that a lot of these adult cartoons place a very heavy emphasis on dialog, so much so that they'd almost, but not quite, function as radio dramas. Compare this with the Roadrunner cartoons. There's no dialog at all. Every once in awhile Roadrunner will give us a "meep meep." Otherwise the soundtrack consists of music and special effects other than the "meep meep".

  2. "Paul Wells (The Animated Bestiary) note that animators have to study live animals and their movement in order to make convincing cartoon animals."

    I kind of doubt anyone studied the movement of mice to draw Mickey or dogs to draw Huckleberry Hound. Back in the sixties, striving young animators were told that no one drew humans because it was easier to draw animals. Human animation was too hard to get right.

    But then came 101 Dalmatians.

    (By the way, Frank, I can't watch The Daily Show for the very same reason you expressed: Stewart's laughing at his own humor is annoying.

  3. Too hard to do humans--I CAN believe it, sorta. Isn't that why Disney went to rotoscoping for Snow White? When did Disney animators start looking at animals? I know they brought a deer to the studio for Bambi.

    But then, half way around the world, in the 60s, you have the emergence of anime in Japan. Now Astro Boy (one of the earliest series) wasn't a human, he was an anthropomorphic robot. And many of the characters in that series were robots, anthropomorphic and not, but there were many humans in there too. Anime is not, for the most part, about animals. In terms of quality, anime's all over the map, and most of it is limited animation, some very limited (and some of that is quite good, e.g. Azumanga Daioh). The best of it is very good But even Miyazaki doesn't do really rich character animation like the best classic Disney.