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'Watching Wildlife', by Cynthia Chris

Rebecca Onion

In Watching Wildlife, Cynthia Chris tours through the early history of the wildlife film genre, including adventure films from the '20s and '30s that juxtaposed "exotic" peoples with animals. To date, she argues, little has changed.

Watching Wildlife

Publisher: University of Minnesota Press
Length: 269
Price: $19.95
Author: Cynthia Chris
US publication date: 2006-03
Amazon affiliate
Animals are good to think.
-- Claude Levi-Strauss

On the surface, productions about animals are the blank slates of the entertainment world. Here you have the nature show about the Serengeti that you watch when you feel like clearing your mind, or the moving, life-affirming film about penguins that you take your kid sister to when you need something neutral to connect over. In her book about the history of films and television that use wildlife as actors, Cynthia Chris wants to disabuse you of your idea that this genre is harmless or devoid of human meaning, while drawing some interesting conclusions about human relationships with animals.

Early on in the book, Chris takes on racial meanings of these forms of entertainment. She tours through the early history of the genre, including adventure films from the '20s and '30s that juxtaposed "exotic" peoples with animals -- a good example would be the 1922 movie Nanook of the North, which spliced shots of Inuits with shots of arctic animals; or 1931's Ingagi, which salaciously played on the fear of white women being abducted and raped by wild apes. (Two guesses as to what those apes were meant to symbolize.)

Chris ably demonstrates that the deeper social implications of the genre didn't disappear as the history moved away from that "distant" racist past toward the present day. In a fascinating chapter about sex and animal films, she demonstrates how producers of nature films during the '70s used the fascination with what Chris calls "pop sociobiology" in order to drum up interest in their work. "Wildlife was a genre already loaded with natural history facts, preoccupied with reproduction ... and through its anthropomorphizing legacy, rife with loose associations between animal and human behavior," explains Chris, describing the genre's readiness for exploitation by those who sought find genetic bases for differences between the (human) sexes, and to normalize destructive human sexual activities such as rape. Chris analyzes several nature films from this era, a couple of which depicted rape as a "natural" occurrence in such species as elephant seals and koalas.

Describing the koala film, in which the narrator explains that the koala forces sexual intercourse on a female because koala society does not allow him enough opportunities to have sex, Chris points out that in sympathizing with the rapist koala, "the same logic, and the same permission to try to get away with it, is extended by the narrator to the male viewers invited to identify with him, exemplifying the kinds of quick slips between animal and human behavior that ... [can be] dangerous rationales for criminal behavior among humans." In this section, Chris successfully points out the greater dangers of anthropomorphizing, beyond the simple weakmindedness of movies such as March of the Penguins, which transpose our own fears and desires onto the animal kingdom.

The other problem with March of the Penguins was glaringly obvious to environmentalists, who watched in awe as the film failed to mention the possible effects of global warming on the penguin population. Satisfyingly, Chris' analysis rips open the dubious contributions of wildlife films to the environmental movement. Chris describes a special named "Wild Jewels," a show about Iranian wildlife which ran on the Discovery Channel, describing how the cursory bit of attention that the narrative paid to the environmental dangers to habitat was overwhelmed by the footage of exotic Iranian birds and megafauna. "The 'Wild Jewels' narrative," Chris writes, "insists that whatever adversity human culture produces, nature in its precious, aesthetic splendor remains resilient, even eternal, thus relieving humanity of any immediate obligation to restrain abuses of it."

Make no bones about it -- this is an academic book, written by a professor of media culture, and will probably best serve those who are willing to approach it as such. Occasionally, as when Chris analyzes the recent MTV show Wildboyz, which features several members of the cast of Jackass traveling to exotic locations and getting bitten on the ass by exotic animals, the reader will find herself suppressing an urge to laugh: "If in daily experience, most contact with 'the wild' has been lost, in Wildboyz it is a voraciously consumed and disposable backdrop for the exhibition of white, masculine physical prowess and cultural mobility." It's true enough, sure. But did you have to say it like that?

However, if you're willing to swallow some of this jargon, the conclusions Chris comes to in the course of her analysis will definitely stun and fascinate you into a reconsideration of this not-at-all-bland genre.

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