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Media Monsters: When movies cast animals as villains

Media contorts our view of the world. Sometimes the distortion caused by a certain story can emphasize a point and bring into focus a truth rarely seen.  Other times, the media can seriously twist the truth, creating irrational fear, distrust, or hate. How the media shapes our worldview can be evident in portrayal of male vs. female gender roles, race and ethnicity.  It’s hard to watch a movie like the 2013 cannibal horror film, Green Inferno without seeing how unfair some representations are.  The film villainizes a South American tribe’s people to the point of dehumanization. But in addition to affecting how we see other people, media also plays an important role in how we view the natural world.

The problem of media’s role in seeing wildlife and the environment is as old as storytelling.  It’s easy to ignore the underlying messages in stories like Goldilocks and the Three Bears or Little Red Riding Hood only because we don’t often encounter bears or wolves in our day to day lives.  Upon consideration, many fairy tales take dim views of undisturbed landscapes and wild creatures.  Hansel and Gretel is another example, the forest being a fearful, dangerous place where cannibal witches live.  I think as a whole we’ve become more thoughtful of newer stories told to children, but the portrayal of animals and ‘wild’ places as evil lingers in film.  

The classic of animal horror films is the 1975 Steven Spielberg movie, Jaws.  The tragedy of Jaws is multifaceted; it’s a minimalist psychological horror film that seems to have just enough realism to make it believable.  Many consider Jaws one of the greatest movies ever made; based on a novel, it’s often erroneously thought to be based on factual events.  According to the Florida Field Museum’s International Shark Attack File, there were only 88 cases of unprovoked shark attacks on humans in 2017 worldwide.  There were also 38 provoked shark attacks on humans. Of the attacks, 53 were in the United States but there were no fatalities in the US, there were only five unprovoked fatal attacks globally.  It’s not that Jaws was wrong in showing shark attacks, it’s that given billions of people in the ocean each year, 88 attacks is an incredibly small number.  Jaws insinuates that sharks are scarier, more dangerous than they are, making them into monstrous caricatures of themselves. National Geographic points out that annually, that 100 million sharks are killed by humans, and such statistics beg the question of who is monstrous.  

Newer films like 2011, The Grey, starring Liam Neeson portray controversial and endangered wolves as uncharacteristically diabolical killing machines.  The hero works in Alaska for an oil company protecting workers from wild animals. When he and others are in a plane wreck, they must fight to survive against a malicious pack of giant wolves.  One by one the characters are killed off, leaving only Neeson standing for a last fight with the wolves.

In a 2012 piece for Psychology Today, Marc Bekoff reports that only two wolf attacks on humans have been recorded in North America in recent years. In his classic book Of Wolves and Men, Barry Lopez notes that the story is more complex through history.  There are strong oral traditions of wolf attacks that shouldn’t be altogether discredited but nothing comes close to the gross exaggeration of The Grey.  Today wolf attacks on humans are rare enough to be almost non-existent and wolves have never engendered the evil shown in film.        

Showing the literalism of the film is the fact that the crew on set actually ate wolf stew during production.  The timing of The Grey was also especially poor for wolves and their advocates.  In 2011, wolves were delisted as endangered species, pushed mainly by legislators seeking re-election in western states.  Science didn’t support delisting wolves, and it’s easy to see how films like The Grey can fuel more wolf hating and then newly legalized wolf slaughter.  

There are plenty of more examples of animal demonization in popular films like the 1997 movie, Anaconda, classics like Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds and the absurd like Sharknado and Three Headed Shark Attack.  Some movies are better than others, The Ghost and the Darkness does villainize lions but it’s also somewhat based on first-hand accounts of extremely rare incidents.  The important thing is how do fictional portrayal of animals affect human thought and more importantly, action towards non-humans.  

In an article in the scientific journal Plos One, Stephen R. Ross et. al, wrote that humans viewing photos of Chimpanzees standing near a human are 35.5% less likely to think of the Great Ape as endangered compared to people viewing photos of Chimpanzees standing alone.  This is important because it highlights how even wild animals used as heroes in film can have real world negative implications (perhaps 1951’s Bedtime for Bonzo or the use of a Gorilla in George of the Jungle).  

A personal discovery of mine highlights how one film can capture the imagination in bizarre ways more than the reality.  When I was preparing to visit Madagascar, I was stunned to see most people’s reactions. The shadow of Madagascar the 2005 DreamWorks Animation cartoon loomed large over views of one of the world’s most fascinating islands.  I remember one person singing, “I like to move it move it” when I told him I was going to Madagascar as I was getting photos for my visa application.  In the original cartoon, Madagascar itself being nothing more than a prop, is portrayed as stunningly wild and filled with anthropogenic (and yes, dancing) lemurs.  Live Science reported in July 2012 that 91% of 103 known lemur species are threatened, making them the world’s most endangered mammal.  All of the world’s lemurs are endemic to Madagascar. About 80% of Madagascar’s original forest has been destroyed.

Besides the inaccuracies in fictional film, documentaries have equally shared blame in misconceptions.  Disney’s Academy Award winning 1958 documentary White Wilderness supposedly showed lemmings naturally swimming out to sea where they die en masse.  The only problem is this isn’t natural lemming behavior. The film was actually shot in Alberta, Canada where lemmings don’t naturally live, so they were imported.  Lemmings were put on turntables and herded off a cliff into a river that was shown as a sea in the film. A handful of lemmings was skillfully made to appear as hundreds of suicidal rodents on screen and thus a mythic creature was born in the American imagination.

Since White Wilderness, Disney films have become a staple of American childhood and newer documentaries have their own flaws.  In an April 2014 piece for the New York Post, Kyle Smith points out that Disney’s Bears is more anthropomorphism than fact.

A more omnipresent facet of American culture than Disney documentaries are Disney cartoons, in this category, Bambi is a classic familiar to most.  Few think of Bambi as controversial, but it stirred up plenty of resentment among sportsmen at its release.  After watching a preview of Bambi, Raymond J. Brown, then editor of Outdoor Life, a sporting magazine, sent Walt Disney a telegram.  Among other points, Brown said that it was illegal to hunt deer in the spring as shown in the film, underscoring Bambi’s supposed dependence on his mother when she was killed.  In 1943, the year after Bambi was released, Aldo Leopold pushed for a season on antlerless deer to reduce an overpopulated herd in Wisconsin.  Opposition to Leopold’s proposal killed it and some have suggested that Bambi played an influential role.

It’s nearly impossible to view nature without the influence of media, as we are language based animals and it influences our thoughts and actions at the deepest levels.  It is possible to filter the media you consume and temper it with firsthand experience. I know of Madagascar as I myself saw it despite watching the cartoon previously. I understand that Bambi is a caricature of reality and I watch documentary films cautiously, understanding that they are also a product of the entertainment business.  If you want to understand the world, put down the remote and step outside.

By Zach Fitzner, Contributing Writer               

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