Monday, July 29, 2019
Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.
DISNEYFICATION OF NATURE
I’ll try to be brief, because I have a simple point to make.
One of the most lamentable features of our current culture is the Disneyfication of Nature. I am referring to the way the animal kingdom is depicted, for children, in exclusively sentimental and human terms, ignoring the realities of what Tennyson accurately called “Nature red in tooth and claw”.
Anthropomorphising animals is as old as human story-telling and has informed many great works of literature and art, from Aesop's fables to Chaucer's Chaunticleer to Orwell's Animal Farm to Art Spiegelman’s Maus. In oral story telling, on the printed page and in cartoons this was acceptable, because these media never pretended to be realistic. Besides, it was always understood that “animal fables” were really comments on human behaviour, not on wildlife.The fox who said "Sour grapes" when he couldn't reach them? That's us. The animals whose farmyard utopia turned into a totalitarian nightmare? That's us.
It was understandable that little children thought of nature in terms of bunny-rabbits trespassing in Mr MacGregor’s garden, wise bears and she-wolves nurturing Mowgli, baby Bambi avoiding forest fires and so forth. This was healthy as story-telling for small children.
The downside was that at least some children never modified their views of nature, even when they had grown to be adults.
Think, in New Zealand, of the emperor penguin dubbed “Happy Feet” (after a character in a cartoon, of course). Washed ashore half-starving in 2011, thousands of miles from its Antarctic home, it was cared for by specialists at Wellington Zoo, fed well and restored to a healthy state. And then, with much fanfare, it was released back into the ocean with a tracking device attached to it.
There was nothing reprehensible in all this, of course, and those who attempt to help suffering animals are much to be praised.
But what was bizarre, to the point of stupidity, was the reaction when “Happy Feet’s” tracking device went dead after a couple of days, obviously because some bigger creature in the oceans – probably a shark – had made a meal of it. Oh the grief! As if grown people were not aware that predation is built into nature, big sea creatures eat smaller sea creatures, sharks eat penguins and of course penguins eat fish (just as we do).
I wouldn’t make an issue of this if only little children lamented, but some editorials reacted as if this banality of nature were a tragedy.
I find myself wondering if such sentimentality doesn’t arise from the way most of us now are quarantined from the realities of nature. After all, the great majority of us human beings are now housed in cities, far even from the realities of farm life, let alone wild nature.
I am not suggesting that small children be deprived of their pleasant daydreams; but I am saying that at some point, a more realistic view of nature has to be instilled. I suppose a good diet of the better wildife programmes (David Attenborough et al.), served to older children and teenagers, would make an excellent antidote to the Disney view of nature.
I have my dander up about this because, in the age of CGI, we are now being assailed with apparently “realistic” images of animal life which present the cartoon daydream.
Latest offender is the Disney CGI remake of The Lion King.
The lions look like real lions, the lion cub looks like a real lion cub, the assembled monkeys and zebras look like real monkeys and zebras etc. etc. And so children are further encouraged to see this as all being true to nature.
So allow me to make a few obvious statements about the real communal life of lions.
Little baby lions are not held up by wise old primates to be proclaimed as heirs to the pride before a throng of all the animals. Reality: when the alpha male lion is getting too old, two younger lions will challenge him, harrass him and chase him away (so that he becomes a solitary "rogue male" - and fair game to all other lions who wish to kill him). They will then fight each other to see who becomes the new alpha male of the pride. The first action of the new alpha male is to KILL ALL THE CUBS (to which the lionesses do not object - in fact they are by this stage all on heat and ready to mate with the new alpha male).
Why does the new alpha male do this?
Because nature / evolution has arranged it so that the alpha male is not wasting his time helping to raise the product of another male's DNA. Or, to put it another way, so that the pride does not get too inbred (remember, alpha male will readily mate with his own mother and / or daughter). Of course none of this reality can be suitably conveyed to children; but quarantined in cartoon form (as in the first version of The Lion King), the fantasy-version is acceptable. Transferred to CGI, however, it becomes deception - a pretence that an American-devised fantasy is reality. (Incidentally the story is NOT a traditional African folktale, but there are persistent and credible rumours that much of it was plagiarised from a Japanese cartoon series.)
In reality, if a variety of the animals gathered to honour the new heir to the "lion king", half of them would at once be pounced upon and devoured by all the carnivores present. And in reality, the fate of the little lion cub would be to be summarily killed by the new male leader of the pride – unless its father managed to stay in charge for a few more mating seasons.