I assigned students in the seminar that I teach on minorities and minoritized groups to connect to a local minority advocacy or social group. Students were supposed to talk to the group’s members, attend events, and write a journal about how the members interact with the culture around them and how they construct their identity. All students were happily surprised of the warm, welcoming response by these groups—from an LGBTQ network and an Islamic community center, to students for Israel and a Hindu society. The only exception to the general kumbaya were the two students who had decided to connect with the local animal shelter. After a brief meeting, the shelter’s employees told them they couldn’t interact with them anymore. What does it tell us that students who reached out to human-centered advocacy groups were invited to a pride film festival, the world hijab day, a Krav Maga workshop, and a multi-course Vasant Panchami feast, yet those who reached out to a nonhuman welfare facility didn’t even show up to class on the day when they were supposed to present their reports? What does this tell us about the broken connections between the overworked, underpaid, and under supported staff of nonhuman welfare groups and the interested general public who feels at a loss how to make a difference?
Such disappointing disconnections are common. In her chapter on media depictions of nonhuman violence and social change in the Critical Animal and Media Studies collection, Nik Taylor reports that when members of the general public witness nonhuman suffering and are willing to change their behavior as a response, often times they find that there is no infrastructure, or a culture of scaffolding, to support their change to a set of new nonhuman-friendly habits. The question of how to link one’s understanding of nonhuman suffering and real-world advocacy is of tremendous importance. In fact, it’s the single most important issue that nonhuman advocates are facing. The 17 chapters of Critical Animal and Media Studies tell us a great deal about this issue.
There is a large body of scholarly work that studies how the media participates in a process of producing consent for the oppression of many different marginalized and disempowered groups of humans. Critical Animal and Media Studies adds to exposing the production of consent not for humans but for nonhumans. While it’s not the first volume to engage with how humans treat and conceive of nonhumans, it’s a groundbreaking work because it’s the first collection that focuses on how the media conceives of and represents nonhumans. It’s also a remarkable volume because it analyzes the media’s engagement with nonhumans from a critical point of view, meaning that it raises very uncomfortable questions about how the media participates in the oppression of nonhumans and how it tries to conceal its bias and involvement. The volume’s engagement with critical perspectives on nonhumans and on media addresses an urgent need in the field of Critical Animal and Media Studies (CAMS) of responsible, serious academic work that can build up a corpus of knowledge to help inform multiple users – from CAMS scholars, scholars outside CAMS, to journalists, advocacy organizations, and the general public.
The biggest contribution of the work, of course, is that it’s a pioneer in the field and will make future studies of this nature easier to initiate, publish, and consume. Its second biggest contribution is that it’s written as a socially responsible scholarly work, meaning that it blends fairly and seamlessly both analysis and advocacy. Including advocacy addresses a fundamental disparity in contemporary progressive movements, which are focused more on regulating language and representations of minoritized groups and less on changing the conditions which allow their oppression. As a form of advocacy, the collection offers academics, journalist, and advocates tips for conceiving of, depicting, and connecting to nonhumans in non-speciesist ways. For example, chapters by Freeman, Friedman, Linné, Cole, Freeman and Merskin among others are rich in helpful advice. In addition, its advice links to the website animalsandmedia.org that offers a free guide for to avoid speciesist representations of nonhumans in the media geared towards journalists, advertisers, public relations specialists, entertainment media, and the general public. A minor observation is that even this volume occasionally struggles to completely avoid speciesist language – a few slips were “human-animal encounters” (p 154), “wild, natural animals” (p 156), even in the guidelines for non-speciesist news coverage “wild animals in their natural habitats” (p 212). Even when “wild animals,” is used in parenthesis (1), a substitute would have been preferable e.g., “free-living animals.” Also, using “creatures” instead of “beings” to refer to nonhumans conveys the idea that they were created by deities and implies their framing as objects to be used and dominated by humans as in scripture.
The collection is divided into three parts. Part I Foundations includes theoretical texts that study the origins, political economy, and theories about media’s engagement with nonhuman oppression. Part II Representation discusses how different types of media represent nonhumans and their relationship to humans. Part III Responsibility discusses the changes needed so the media can perform a “critical and transformative role as a major producer of cultural norms and values related to nonhuman animals and how we treat them” (p 5). There is also an Introduction, a Conclusion chapter, and a useful appendix with discussion questions for each chapter.
Popular entertainment has significant effect. In “Media Theories and the Crossroads of Critical Animal and Media Studies,” Debra Merskin observes that the release of “101 Dalmatians” and “Lassie” triggered a spike in the demand and adoption of Dalmatians and collies who were quickly abandoned with the end of the fad. Yet, scholars have not studied such media effects. Media effects is a major area of traditional communications research and CAMS can benefit from applying that area’s established methods. This observation leads Merskin to discuss other major approaches and critical insights that CAMS should borrow from other fields that critically study race, gender, sexuality, age, or disability, for instance, because like CAMS, they all explore relations of power and oppression. For example, post-colonial scholars critique Eurocentrism because it sees humans in the global South only as a collective and not as individuals. CAMS can apply similar critique to the study of nonhumans and theorize them as individuals with unique characteristics, desires, and histories instead of only as a collective group.
A central concern of animal advocates and scholars is how agribusiness influences policy. In “The Political Economy behind the Oppression of Other Animals,” Nuria Almiron tries to understand why only a tiny percent of the world’s population do NOT participate, condone, or benefit from the exploitation of nonhuman animals for food. What prevents the rest, she argues, is the enormous power the agri-food industry and four other industries closely connected with it (GMO crops, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, and oil) wield over shaping public policy. With the support of the state and the global economy, agri-food shapes the social environment and manufactures consent for the exploitation of nonhumans. Almiron explores agri-food’s strategies – forming international interest coalitions and lobbying via policy/research institutes and think tanks that influence government policy and promote agri-food’s positive image among the public. Identifying these discourse strategies will help CAMS researchers to understand and challenge the production of social consent. The chapter also has helpful data about agri-food market shares, largest conglomerates by sales, and the subsidies they receive (p 28-30).
The media occasionally covers nonhuman abuse but this coverage maybe less helpful than we expect. In “Suffering Is Not Enough: Media Depictions of Violence to Other Animals and Social Change,” Nik Taylor argues that such coverage is framed in a way that reinforces speciesism more than it challenges it. For instance, she remarks, documentaries about Temple Grandin replace questions about how the system supports the suffering and death of farmed animals with a soft human story about Grandin’s “empathy” in making their deaths easier instead of focusing on their suffering and murder. Taylor is most powerful on pp. 50-51 when she poses a key question about the role of images of death and suffering: Why are images of nonhuman suffering not enough to end it? She argues that images of suffering neutralize any empathy they may hope to trigger because they become overly aesthetic and because they aren’t supported by a system of cultural scaffolding that can transform outrage into action. She is optimistic that scholars can nonetheless promote alternative visions of nonhuman suffering in a number of ways, including by problematizing the authority of research “experts” who tend to objectify nonhumans or by looking at suffering as a social rather than private experience.
Misogyny and speciesism reinforce each other. In “Consumer Vision: Speciesism, Misogyny, and Media,” Carol Adams argues that the media uses the lower status of farmed animals to dehumanize women, while chauvinistic fantasies that women want to be sexually violated are borrowed to justify nonhuman oppression (p 59). Adams describes how the media talks about nonhumans as “absent referents,” e.g., “grass-fed beef” to transform humans’ morally disturbing contact with nonhumans into morally undisturbing contact with food. Women’s bodies are objectified and fragmented to render women less threatening (e.g., referring to females in combat as “boobs on the ground”) in ways similar to farmed animals (e.g., in menu items like “the double D cup breast of turkey sandwich”). Adams has called this “sexual politics of meat” and argues that it stems from the social myth that masculinity requires meat-eating, which is unstable and therefore constantly needs to be reproduced to remain in circulation. With copious excellent examples, she demonstrates that gender and species reside in dominance, not in difference.
Support for oppression and speciesism in film, radio, and television aren’t new. In “Origins of Oppression, Speciesist Ideology, and the Mass Media,” David Nibert explores their historical origins. Early advertisement and public relations campaigns on popular American shows increased the rate of farmed animal consumption (e.g., the consumption of SPAM in the US increased from 18% to 70% when it was promoted on the George Burns and Gracie Allen Show [1936-1950] for three years). Like other oppressed groups such as people of color, nonhumans appeared in the media only as material products, background, or dangerous others, except for a couple of idealized cartoons or living animals like Lassie. Nibert drives an excellent comparison between the objectification of nonhumans and indigenous groups with an example from the 1935 Clark Gable movie “Call of the Wild” where Gable’s character refers to an Alaskan woman as “it” (p 79). Another great example is a series of 1970s advertisement campaigns for Burger King, which began targeting children and increased the public’s awareness of the company by 50%. Later that technique was copied by McDonalds which uses clowns, children’s playgrounds, product placements, and sponsoring children’s shows like Sesame Street to attract children and their parents.
Big business and the media aren’t alone in using speciesist framework and language; advocacy groups still use it too, albeit less frequently. In “Mixed Messages: Opinion Pieces by Representatives of US Nonhuman-Advocacy Organizations,” Joan Dunayer discovers that US nonhuman-advocacy organizations use a combination of nonspeciesist and speciesist language when they write opinion pieces or letters to the editor, e.g., using phrases like “humane standards” to describe forms of abuse such as large-scale dog-breeding operations. Dunayer also gives excellent suggestions about how to decrease or altogether omit speciesist usage, e.g., instead of speciesist terms like “brutal” and “inhumane” that devalue nonhumans and flatter humans, she suggests using “cruel.” Only 2% of all opinion pieces or letters to the editor written by nonhuman-advocacy organizations that she analyzed recommended a vegan diet, while only 4% advocated “respect” for nonhumans. In comparison, a whopping 90% focused on human interests or consequences. Dunayer concludes that these organizations currently fail to communicate or model the urgently needed nonspeciesist discourse.
Environmentalists are often hostile to nonhuman advocacy, despite the many common interests between the two. In “Getting (Green) Beef: Anti-vegan Rhetoric and the Legitimizing of Eco-friendly Oppression,” Matthew Cole discovers that prominent environmental writers from journalists to academics find ways to use environmental arguments to rationalize eating nonhumans and vilify veganism. According to Cole, nonhuman advocates should challenge the environmental movement by exposing violence and oppression in any system of nonhuman exploitation, by exposing social scripts that glorify and normalize eating nonhumans while vilifying veganism, by insisting on the use of nonspeciesist language, and by highlighting the risk of being coopted by systems of oppression such as the nonhuman industrial complex.
While humans often directly exploit or kill only some species but see others as cute, no species is safe as rhetoric can shift rather quickly. In “The Creation of a Killer Species: Cultural Rupture in Representations of ‘Urban Foxes’ in UK Newspapers,” Kate Stewart and Matthew Cole discuss how after an alleged 2010 fox attack on London twin girls, the UK print media created a new killer species—the “urban fox” for the popular imaginary. The two authors compare news coverage directly before and after the attack to develop a conceptual map of the relations between nonhumans and humans reflected in that coverage. Foxes were ambiguously narrated as threatening and unclean transgressors into urban spaces and simultaneously as lovely. Such coverage, they conclude, plays a key role in justifying violence against foxes since shifting values about family space and children have had violent consequences for nonhumans (p 136). They suggest that nonhumans can suddenly be redefined and that their benevolent treatment can easily be abandoned.
Nonhuman advocates often meet strong resistance from other discriminated and vilified groups such as blacks or Jews if they compare nonhuman oppression to that suffered by these groups. In “(Black) ‘Man v. Cheetah’: Perpetuations and Transformations of the Rhetoric of Racism,” Emily Plec observes how speciesist metaphors like “animal” and “beast” are often used to describe black athletes with the result of dehumanizing them in support of a racist system of oppression. To rehumanize themselves, blacks separate themselves from nonhumans and objectify the latter in speciesist terms. Plec argues for pulling the two discourses of racism and speciesism together, painful as it might be, because both require a critique of white supremacy and capitalism. She suggests that using speciesist discourse to support racism oppresses both blacks and nonhumans.
Visual images might be as damaging as language in promoting speciesist worldviews. In “Looking at Humans Looking at Animals,” Randy Malamud discusses how visual culture looks at nonhumans. In 1877, Eadweard Muybridge invented a “zoopraxiscopic” film-like technology that allowed humans to see nonhumans in motion for the first time. Malamud argues that since then the human gaze has reified and reduced nonhumans to a pet/monster dichotomy like the male gaze objectifies women and caricatures them through an angel/whore dichotomy. The “good” nonhumans in visual culture are those like Lassie, Flipper, and Old Yeller, while “bad” nonhumans are King Kong, Jaw’s shark, or Hitchcock’s birds. After a horse was forced to jump to her/his death from a cliff in the making of the 1939 film Jesse James, the American Humane Association was founded to monitor animal cruelty in filmmaking through a toothless advisory rating system. With the rapid increase of audio-visual and multimedia technologies that record and broadcast, an ever increasing number of media industry workers and amateur everyday individuals are able to produce and consume nonhuman images. These images are stamped by the objectifying human gaze which alters the perception of the very nature of nonhumans. Malamud pushes the envelope asking readers to rethink statements like “No animals were harmed in the making of this movie.” Since profit-centered media genres are at odds with conveying nonhuman stories informatively and authentically, he suggests we ask if animals were helped rather than simply harmed in the making of movies. Finally, he proposes two documentaries as good “counter-movement” alternatives to the human gaze because they “don’t flatter our omnivisual fantasies but instead suggest that we are not meant to see [nonhumans] and explain why”—“The Lord God Bird” (2008) and “Silent Roar: Searching for the Snow Leopard” (2007).
News coverage is deeply speciesist and anthropocentric. In “This Little Piggy Went to Press: The American News Media’s Construction of Animals in Agriculture,” Carrie Freeman discusses how anthropocentric news coverage misses the opportunity to balance agriculture stories with an animal rights or welfare perspective (p 169). It should be the goal of any socially responsible journalism to present the treatment of farmed animals fairly for public debate because it’s an issue of public concern. As humans don’t have much direct contact with nonhumans, responsible representations of nonhumans in the media are crucial. Looking at major US outlets, Freeman discovers that 90% of all coverage reinforces speciesism by objectifying nonhumans and favoring human interests, while only 10% frame nonhumans from the perspective of inherent rather than instrumental nonhuman value. This pioneer study suggests that more in-depth or comparative future work is necessary.
Just as foxes are represented through ambiguous and conflicting frames, so are dogs. In “Puppy Love? Animal Companions in the Media,” Erika Cudworth and Tracey Jensen identify two conflicting themes: the ‘cute Disney family dog’ and the ‘killer-in-the-home dog.’ The authors observe that breeds deemed biologically safe like golden retriever have been envisioned as ‘cute Disney family dogs’ in popular culture and the media, while breeds deemed dangerous like pit-bulls have been vilified as ‘killer-in-the-home dogs.’ These recent developments suggest that forms of racism aren’t only applied to humans and that class also intersects with “bad” breeds by connecting them to poor and dysfunctional human homes. By contrast, an innovative UK fictional series called “Puppy Love” doesn’t see dogs within the framework of the two conflicting themes. Nonhumans in the series aren’t the ‘cute’ trained “animal-actors” typical to the movie industry but “co-actants” and “co-producers” because human producers often amend the script in response to the dogs’ behavior rather than training the digs to “interpret” the script. This allows the dogs to be “less human” (e.g., they aren’t magically talking dogs), while humans learn to be “more dog” by abandoning the constraints of middle class heterosexual respectability. Although the series eschews broader questions such as problematizing the human-dog relationship, it offers new less speciesist ways of being and seeing dog and human.
Given the ubiquity of such negative representations of nonhumans in the media and the tiny number of less speciesist portrayal, what should advocates do to change the status quo? In “Respectful Representation: An Animal Issues Style Guide for All Media Practitioners,” Carrie Freeman and Debra Merskin develop separate lists of detailed guidelines to avoid speciesist representations of nonhumans in the media geared towards journalists, advertisers, public relations specialists, entertainment media workers, and the general public. These guidelines are inspired and build on journalistic guidelines for representative and inclusive coverage of human minority groups and can be found also at animalsandmedia.org.
Advocates can often shape their own language and behavior or use undercover footage and social media strategically to reach out to audiences even in a saturated mediascape. But gag laws may render them unable to do so. In “Media Activism and Animal Advocacy: What’s Film Got to Do with It,” Loredana Loy explores the ways in which advocates can use mainstream films and videos for nonhuman advocacy in order to get around gag laws. Popular movies can erase nonhumans by not mentioning them; they can also represent them as embodied beings instead of dismembered parts. For instance, “The Rise of the Planet of the Apes”  reached 55 million viewers in just a few months and provided a platform for substantive discussions in the press about nonhuman issues like vivisection, although it reinforced some anthropocentric stereotypes. The movie also provided advocacy organizations with an opportunity to publicize their message and engage politicians to work with advocates on policy. Loy concludes that movies like this help create a momentum for advocacy organizations, which are already working on these issues. In the ag-gag era, as some believe, the only visual materials advocates can rely on for the advancement of the movement might be popular movies, which we shouldn’t forget are products of a profit-driven industry.
The media plays also a key role in covering lawsuits, so advocates should learn how to increase the chances of a media coverage that helps nonhuman advocacy. In “Adidas’s Black Market Goes to Court: Media and Animal Advocacy Lawsuits,” Jerold Friedman discusses the media coverage of a 2003 lawsuit against Adidas’ illegal sale of kangaroo skin shoes where he and the animal charity organization VivaUSA were plaintiffs. A California state court and a court of appeals ruled in favor of Adidas, yet the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs because the prior courts ignored state sovereignty in order to excuse Adidas. Following their loss, Adidas issued a statement that they would continue to break the law. As advocates typically have puny advertising budgets and corporate businesses have monstrous budgets, media coverage can improve advocates’ access to the public and decrease the wealth-access disparity. Friedman argues that if advocates understand the different roles the media plays in such cases, then they would be better able to frame their advocacy for a more nonhuman-friendly media coverage. He identifies five roles: propagandist, investigator, impeacher, historian, and biographer. For example, the media acts as a propagandist when it interviews biased third-party sources as if those were neutral (all interviewed sources after filing the lawsuit supported Adidas). When the media acts as a historian, on the other hand, it provides the public essential background to understand speciesism as a system of oppression. Finally, Friedman offers tips to advocates to diminish biased media coverage.
Educators can also inspire change. In “Tears, Connections, Action! Teaching Critical Animal and Media Studies,” Tobias Linné provides examples based on his experience as an educator how to teach critical animal and media studies in a way that creates a supportive environment that allows students to expose and rethink human supremacist ideologies. Linné talks about what worked in his classes and what issues students encountered in their attempts to grasp the field. The first step in creating a successful nonhuman issues curriculum is provide students with opportunities to tear apart illusions about happy nonhumans promoted by the media and to experience compassion for their suffering. The second step is to connect media representations of nonhumans to students’ and nonhumans’ real lives. The third step is to teach alternatives and incentives to action on behalf of nonhumans (e.g., invite activists to guest-lecture on their own activism, or involve students in figuring out alternatives).
CAMS scholars face many challenges in combatting a pervasive system of speciesist oppression perpetuated by the media. In the conclusion, Carrie Freeman addresses some of them. A major issue, for instance, is whether the capitalist media can be reformed to become less speciesist and if not how can it be sidestepped to reach the public. Another issue is the need for more intersectional research that deconstructs the links between speciesism and other systems of oppression like sexism, racism, classism, etc. Further, activists should consistently avoid speciesist frameworks. To that end, Freeman suggests that if CAMS scholars want to change the anthropocentric bias of scholarship and elevate CAMS into a broadly acceptable academic field, they need to actively become part of the editorial boards of media journals, publish on CAMS issues in edited volumes on related fields, develop textbooks to teach CAMS, and request videos from large organizations such as Media Education Foundation on CAMS topics that can collectively open the door for discussions of speciesism and ultimately stimulate social change.