Laughing at Animals. Humor at the expense of animals
Speciesism and fiction
What is true for jokes at the expense of people, is just as true for jokes at the expense of other species, so-called speciesistic jokes. I am neither referring to mythical animals nor to completely stylized cartoon characters who have hardly anything in common with real animals like Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny. In most (American) cartoons you can see that the 'animals' portrayed therein are not only ridiculous and dumb, but can also have smart, sympathetic and even endearing qualities. This has little or nothing to do with jokes at the expense of animals.
By speciesistic jokes, on the other hand, I am particularly referring to jokes about farm animals that point directly or indirectly at their exploitation. Like I said, this doesn't happen in most cartoons, yet I know of at least one striking exception, namely the series 'Cow and Chicken' broadcast by Cartoon Network. As the title suggests, this series is about a cow and a chicken who are brother and sister and about the children of a human couple, whose faces you never see. It is not entirely clear to me what the hidden meaning of this is, but it strengthens the caricatural aspects of the characters, as do, of course, their very impersonal names Cow and Chicken.
This tekst was written by Titus Rivas and is the final part of a larger article (only available in Dutch) published in the quarterly magazine Healthy Idea! of the Dutch Society for Veganism of October 1999.
Speciesism is discrimination on the grounds of (animal) species.
Many picture books for toddlers, which in part help them build their vocabulary, are about farm animals. It is macabre to realize that children learn words such as 'pig' or 'cow' in a guarded instead of an explicit speciesistic context. Just as in the pictures of butcher's shops they are told that the animals in question are happy and their dependence and exploitation are completely glossed over.
A tasteless example of speciesistic humor based on (imaginary) cruelty to cats can be found on Bonsai Kitten. Here pets are portrayed as creatures you can bend to your will, physically and mentally.
The esthetical qualities and the amount of absurdist humor in Cow and Chicken is, I think, rather high, which makes it all the more distressing that the series is full of speciesistic jokes. Cow and Chicken (farm animals) both love 'pork butts and p'tatoes', which are, at the end of an episode, catapulted by their parents and which they voraciously catch in their mouths. In a certain episode Chicken finds himself in a nightmarish 'poultry factory' en is almost slaughtered himself, within the framework of a hilarious situation, of course. (Chicken thought he could earn money in that factory), i.e. completely without critical overtones. In yet another episode Cow and Chicken are sick of all the meatless ketchup meals that are available in the school canteen and therefore decide to start selling miscellaneous meat products themselves. In addition, every now and then Cow is some sort of 'super woman' referred to as 'Super cow' and in those situations she only speaks Spanish (correctly), accompanied by the tones of some kind of toreador's 'paso doble'. This makes 'Cow and Chicken' without a doubt the most speciesistic cartoon series I know of. I believe it is extremely detrimental that children (and adults) by the humorous qualities of this show are, as it were, being confirmed in the naturalness of eating (a lot of) meat and that humans have great power over farm animals. Great wrongs and systematic exploitation of animals are in this show implicitly portrayed as completely innocent and even funny. According to me, the sickest example of this is when Cow and Chicken chase a 'piggybank' (of flesh and blood) to slaughter it themselves and are reprimanded by their human parents because… the pig wasn't to be slaughtered until a few days later!
More realistic humor
'Humorous' commercials can be very speciesistic as well. Like the tv-commercial for milk in which a cow, like a dog, is chewing on an enormous bone, while such a bone in fact comes from slaughtered cows. Or the one with the turkeys who 'swallow' when they hear that it's almost Christmas.
Even more shameless are, in my opinion, the 'humorous' advertising boards and shop windows of butcher's shops where you can see (sometimes young) animals that are meant to be slaughtered, yet happily recommend their own meat products. My most poignant personal confrontation with this type of humor was when I watched a truck loaded with meat products arrive at a butcher's shop and subsequently watched how the still clearly recognizable corpses were being unloaded. The truck was decorated with a colorful portrait of a contented, lively 'family' of pigs, consisting of a father, mother and child, all three of them dressed as people and all of them laughing happily.
The worst jokes against humans are in fact variations on plain sadistic humor. This phenomenon, sadly, is also well-known in the context of speciesism. To what extent people working in butcher's shops and meat transportation are aware of this, I do not know, but it is certain that the phenomenon exists. In Spain, for example, all sorts of 'primitive' versions of the 'serious'-sadistic bullfights still exist, in which various animals are tormented mercilessly before being actually tortured and killed. But misleading bulls during bullfights in an arena, with a cape and the like is nasty at heart.
The speciesistic Uncle Tom-effect
Well-known, radical advocators of equal rights for African Americans, such as Malcolm X, have turned against the idealized picture that used to be accepted of the 'good' black man as he was personified in the fictional character of Uncle Tom. Uncle Tom is in fact a slave who accepts his fate and is honest and devout and 'for that reason' deserves better treatment. As if he were an obedient young child that has to 'earn' good things, instead of being entitled to them as a matter-of-course like everyone else.
Something similar can be seen within the scope of speciesism. Farm animals are often portrayed as a sort of 'funny' friends of humans, especially in children's books. Depending on how you define 'humor' you could consider some 'humorous' picture books that have no words as speciesistic. The uncomplicated, 'innocent' humor, especially where it concerns farm animals that are kept solely kept for slaughter such as pigs and turkeys, disguises time and again that the conditions of farm animals are anything but funny. It creates a smokescreen of peaceful 'fun' co-existence between man and animal which - just as in the case of Uncle Tom and racism - throws insufficient light on speciesism. The more amusing the portrayal of a piglet like Babe in a family-film, the less one's consciousness sees the consumption of pork as an actual problem. The effect resembles that of 'privileged' Jewish comedians (and other artists) who were allowed to provide entertainment for their executioners -as long as it lasted!- and in this way unwillingly contributed to keeping up a semblance of humanity during the Holocaust.
Jokes on antispeciesism
Speciesistic jokes are not limited to the travesty of the animals themselves but extend to ridiculing the opponents of the exploitation of animals. This may concern the practicalities of our diet, for example in the form of satirical songs about the presumed tasteless 'bean menu' of vegetarians. But it can go much further, for example when it is humorously assumed that vegans are probably scary misanthropes. Or in the form of humorous remarks that are supposed point out how unreal and naive veganism is.
Someone's preferences can tell you a lot about a person, for example how intelligent, imaginative, open-minded or sharp-witted he or she is, or to what extend they appreciate absurdism, but also to what extent they distinguish between creatures who are more and who are less valued. Speciesistic jokes in this way reflect an underlying speciesism. Naturally it is possible, as it is with racist or sexist humor, to see the absurd aspects of it in a distanced manner and appreciate the humor as 'humor as such' without agreeing with the underlying message. It is also possible to make some sort of parody on racist or sexist humor as happens all the time in the British comedy 'Blackadder'. Personally, however, I find it much harder to muster up such distance when it comes to speciesistic humor, because there is still hardly any emancipation of the exploited animals, which makes their caricaturizing all the sadder.
For more sympathetic humor about animal( right)s see these flash-movies.