The Portrayal of Other Animals In Children’s Media

The new on-demand streaming service from The Walt Disney Company, Disney+, continues its advance across the globe.

The service has racked up an impressive 28.6 million subscribers in the four months since launch. For many, it will be their first encounter with Steamboat Willie (1928), one of the first fully synchronized sound cartoons and the debut of iconic Disney mascot Mickey Mouse. The description for the short film warns that the “programme is presented as originally created. It may contain outdated cultural depictions.”

what once was considered acceptable and comical changed as society developed

Unlike other Disney content such as Dumbo or Lady and the Tramp, which both earn a warning for racially insensitive characters, the outdated cultural depictions in Steamboat Willie concern cruelty to other animals. In the past, Disney cut more than 30 seconds of instances of this unpleasantness, with the film only recently released in its original form. Featuring Mickey swinging a cat by the tail, wringing a bird’s neck, kicking piglets and harassing a nursing sow, the film (while technically impressive and culturally significant) will make most modern viewers wince.

We can contrast how Disney depicts other animals by comparing this early work to two of their more recent releases: Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) and Moana (2016). In Star Wars, one of the main characters, Chewbacca, is seen roasting a bird over a campfire. Depicted as cute and endearing, one of them looks on, eyes full of tears, at their relative about to be eaten. Encouraged to make the connection between the living creature and their fate as food, we feel a sense of relief as Chewbacca has a change of heart and doesn’t eat the bird.

In Moana, the main character’s companion is a chicken unwittingly along for the adventure. Compelled by other characters to kill, cook and eat the witless yet endearing chicken, Moana refuses to hurt her loyal friend. Instead, she points out that sometimes our strengths lie beneath the surface, and there is more to her companion than meets the eye.

For over a century, animals depicted in media for children have been consistently given human-like characteristics. At times appearing as what is essentially a human in the body of a dog or a cat, they often appear in service of a story intended to teach a life lesson. Children are known to be incredibly fond of and curious about other animals. Relating to them as friends, they develop relationships with them very different from those they grow with the adults in their lives.

Whenever we see depictions of non-human animals in children’s media, we can think about the messages we are sending our children

As they age, the media children consume depicts other animals as characters less and less. In come the new fairy tales of animal agriculture: the happy cow making milk just for us, the chickens fluttering happily through endless green fields. By adulthood, our relationship to other animals changes, with our once-powerful bond retained primarily for companion animals and the charismatic stars of David Attenborough documentaries. By contrast, most other animals are never considered at all; they are out of sight, out of mind and used for food, clothing and cosmetics.

As our children grow, their increasing distance from other animals reinforces a lesson we have unwittingly taught them since birth: that some are friends worthy of our attention and affection, while others are barely worth a second thought.

In the case of Disney, what once was considered acceptable and comical changed as society developed. Initially condoned, animal cruelty was noticed, reconsidered and censored. Now, the uncut version has arrived in our homes with a content warning, a curiosity from a bygone age.

The recent output of this one company alone reflects our changing attitudes towards other animals. As more and more people become aware of issues of animal exploitation, and as we see greater adoption of vegan lifestyles, this trend will only continue.

By nurturing the compassion inherent in our children and their deep connection to all animals, we can avoid hardening their growing hearts to animal exploitation. We can reflect together on how we were convinced to stop caring as we grew up, rediscovering our own deep and meaningful connection to animals, buried in our memories like a half-forgotten bedtime story.

Leigh Venus

Originally published in 2020 as a thought piece for The Vegan SocietyFuture Normal‘ campaign

Photos: Norman Rockwell Museum, Disney, Priddy Books