Bio-anthropic bodies for conservation narratives
The creation of the non-human body in fiction has historically exhibited the potential to reflect as well as impact the public perception of the animal in question. This is evident in the changing equestrian laws after the publication of Black Beauty and how nationwide consumption of pork was affected by the popularity of the film Babe. Babe is an anthropomorphic pig, straddling the liminal space between human and non-human, with an ability to talk and demonstrate human-like emotions on screen – such endearing features on-screen helped to serve his case.
However, this task is made doubly difficult when we look at arthropods, pests, predators, and other creatures that have received the short end of the stick in literary/ cinematic depiction. Their bodies are monstrous, grotesque, alien – often reflecting and impacting popular human attitudes towards them. The amount of affection or care a particular kind of non-human received is often directly tied to how favourable it is in the eyes of human beings.
This has been proven by an experiment by Wojciech Malecki and her team, through the construction of different narratives featuring nine different animal species as their protagonists (Małecki 2019, 115) According to Steve Nash, this causes hierarchies of power to form which affect conservation-oriented outcomes for the depicted animals in question; as such, mammals and birds are much more likely to evoke empathy through their suffering than insects (Nash 2004, 487-494). Such biases point to an inherent speciesist sense which is highly anthropocentric, in that the value of a creature is often judged by the degrees to which it is favourable in the human eye.
Abby Walthausen points to this very organizing assumption of kid’s media, where a prerequisite of being loved is an entity’s perceived cuteness, thereby ensuring that “sweet and round and loveable” (Walthausen 2020) puppies are often favoured over arachnids. The scenario is worsened by the fact that several reptiles, amphibians, perceived pests and arthropods are often difficult to anthropomorphize. Furthermore, to appeal to this human gaze, the bodies of non-human animals are often structured and formulated to receive mass appeal – birds and mammals are often protagonists or creatures which are rescued throughout the film, while reptiles, amphibians and insects are animated in a manner which often raises abject disgust, and call for their culling.
Creating a Bio-Anthropic Body
Two films which have created bio-anthropic bodies which negotiate stereotypes about non-human animals
Recently, however, this anthropocentric status quo is being increasingly challenged by the post-human desire to accommodate the voices of non-human subalterns that have received less recognition in media. The purpose of my research is to look at instances of visual media where non-humans who generally elicit discomfort, repulsion or abject horror are portrayed in a positive light. As such, I also explore the psycho-evolutionary reasons that draw audiences to the visual depiction of one kind of creature over another (Tyler, “Why we find some Animals cuter than others”).
Such attitudes have often been extrapolated to encompass the non-human animals which are not traditionally considered cute, (or which do not evoke positive emotions in human beings) through the technique of anthropomorphism. However, not all kinds of anthropomorphism are favourable, and the technique has often been referred to as a double-edged sword, which can not only create unrealistic expectations regarding non-human behaviour but also counter-intuitively hamper the conservation-oriented goals it had set out to accomplish.
Thus, the second part of my research revolves around creating favourable anthropomorphic bodies for narrative depictions of non-human animals. I term these the bio-anthropic bodies, to locate these liminal entities in a place between human and non-human – where they share certain characteristics of human beings, but are still undeniably non-human. In other words, their humanizations do not detract from the conservation-oriented goals of the real creature in the wild, that they represent. These bodies become post-human in that they are non-human creatures filtered by the human gaze, and go beyond the ‘Anthropos’ to straddle the fence between the perceived dualism of the ‘Anthropos’/ ‘bios’ divide.
Using dioramas featuring small figurines, I had earlier managed to look at the responses of my followers with regards to parasitic animals (https://www.instagram.com/p/CILhKC-F8kq/?utm_medium=copy_link), spiders (https://www.instagram.com/p/CO-qscKFOhO/?utm_medium=copy_link), endangered creatures (https://www.instagram.com/p/BuSk-Vzltit/?utm_medium=copy_link) and more. The responses of my followers to these bio-anthropic bodies on screen, along with my preliminary research, have shown promise – and I hope to create more such works, based on the findings of my research and delineate how such media might function to promote post-anthropocentric, pro-welfare sentiments among consumers.
My story about a spider which had garnered favourable attitudes towards arachnids
I hope to address the role of language and text in creating such bio-anthropic bodies, both in my work and my study of pre-existing scholarship. The embodied material reality of the figures – my primary medium for creating such works – plays into how the bio-anthropic bodies are perceived and located in the digital space, and I hope to recognize the same in my findings. Finally, I hope to look at the implicit anthropocentrism that may have crept into my work, and look at possible solutions for getting around the same.
Małecki, Wojciech, Piotr Sorokowski, Boguslaw Pawlowski, and Cieński Marcin. 2020. Human Minds and Animal Stories: How Narratives Make Us Care about Other Species. London, United Kingdom: Routledge.
Nash, Steve. 2004. “Desperately Seeking Charisma: Improving the Status of Invertebrates.” BioScience 54, no. 6: 487–94. https://doi.org/10.1641/0006-3568(2004)054[0487:dscits]2.0.co;2.
Tyley, Jodie. October 6, 2015. “Why We Find Some Animals Cuter than Others.” The Independent. Independent Digital News and Media. https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/features/why-do-we-find-some-animals-cuter-than-others-a6683076.html.
Walthausen, Abby. 2021. “Finding the Right Face for Charlotte in 'Charlotte's Web': Abby Walthausen.” Catapult. Catapult. https://catapult.co/stories/abby-walthausen-illustrations-eb-white-charlottes-web.