This essay, from my University course a few years ago will look into the forms of medium that, from a personal perspective, has influenced the public attitudes towards wildlife and nature. The media is found to use stereotypes to appeal to a target audience, and it does this by enhancing a character’s features and playing upon them. It will show how anthropomorphized characteristics of an animal can bond to an audience. The history of stereotypes and how perceptions have changed over time will also be explored.
Natural history plays a key part in how wildlife is represented; as film producer, Richard Brock says, “It’s a good subject”, (Brock, 1995) meaning the ideologies it carries are interesting for a broad audience. Humans are becoming increasingly separated from the natural world, and nature-based wildlife media offers a way to regain some form of connection, for example BBC’s ‘Life’, with David Attenborough. We expect to see something enthralling maybe as a means of escaping from our everyday life. We like seeing things that are rare and unusual, (Bousé, 2000). Bousé (2000) states that the footage you see in wildlife films has been shaped into what the audience will find interesting. Which makes sense, as it would be tedious to watch an un-inspirational film.
“If you watch animals objectively for any length of time, you’re driven to the conclusion that their main aim in life is to pass on their genes to the next generation”. – David Attenborough
Our modern day interpretations of animals are down to two main men; Marlin Perkins and Walt Disney (Davies, 1997). Mitman (1999) says that Disney represents the ideal family through animals. Where Disney started with his longer films aimed at children, Perkins created television programmes that show the domestication of these previously seen animals, for example, ‘Zoo Parade’ (1950-57) whose message was to appreciate the animal kingdom and ‘Wild Kingdom’ (1963-82). Mitman (1999) says that Perkins expanded upon Disney’s work. This is an interesting phrase, as the ideologies are perceived differently, yet both give animals a sense of anthropomorphism.
“Movies can and do have tremendous influence in shaping young lives in the realm of entertainment towards the ideals and objectives of normal adulthood.” – Walt Disney
As seen in this clip (see link 1) Perkins has visited the countries that Disney portrays in the early films. The audience ‘knows’ from previously seen medium that the alligator is a dangerous animal that then makes the men in the clip above look very ‘manly’ when strangling it to get it out of the water. If broadcast now this would end in many lawsuits and animal right complaints, and not only is the alligator perceived to follow its stereotype, but man tries to show off his testosterone levels too.
This clip (see link 2) is a rather interesting episode of ‘Wild Kingdom’ (1960+) by Perkins. Its focus is on the myths and superstitions the public have towards animals. Perkins uses staged experiments to find out whether they are true. For example, are elephants scared of mice? In this clip of ‘Dumbo’ (1941) (see link 3) at minute 21.23 Disney uses the mouse perfectly when scaring the elephants. This has shown a development of awareness about animal behaviour in a short space of 20 years.
There is also a use of binary opposites in this film of Dumbo making friends with the mouse and the older female elephants being scared of him, thus portraying anthropomorphic behaviour. It is stereotyped that humans perceive mice as scary as seen in this poster of a housewife. However there is no evidence that a mouse has ever killed or eaten a human… or elephant for that matter.
According to Bignell (2002) the dominant ideology of society changes with the economic and political conversions. Thus media plays the main role when developing the public’s views on a species, including though television, newspapers and fiction. It allows a vast range of knowledge to be available from all over the world without leaving the house. It can then develop the public’s understanding of any socioeconomic and political problems that affect a species and their natural habitats.
Without a variety of medium, the effect we are having on the world would go unknown. For example, the effect of plastic pollution, as seen in the images below, animals mistake these for food and can die of strangulation or suffocation. Strong images can play a key part on the public and motivate them to make a change.
Philippon (2002) says, each of Disney’s films has an ecological and social conservative ideology that you particularly see in ‘The Lion King’ (1994). This clip from ‘The Lion King’ (see link 4, 6 seconds in) is where the female needs the males help to escape the hyenas, who are portrayed in a negative light throughout the whole film. In order for Disney to sell his ideologies to the audience he will need to act upon an already established stereotype. Here he is using the damsel in distress to provide a ‘function’ for the male character. A theory originated from Vladimir Propp – every character has a purpose.
It was Walt’s drive for perfection that sold his stories, (Finch, 1995). Persuasion involves shaping, response reinforcing and response changing and this can be applied to how the stereotypes of animals in the Disney films are shown. Perception management conveys selected information in order to influence the audience’s motives and emotions towards the certain species, (Balnaves, et al 2009). If Disney’s message was motivated to such a degree that it leads to the audience processing it deeply then the perception of an animal will lead to a lasting change, (Petty and Cacioppo, 1986). In this context, stereotypes can be effective.
“Let’s do things in the proper way and try not to save a penny here and there” – WaltDisney
A strong technique to unite an audience to a film is to produce an infant, as seen in ‘The Lion King’. The audience then feels a part of that characters life; they like to see how he develops into an adult as it brings out a maternal instinct that engages the audience. The public will have empathy towards an animal if it is representative of something important to them. Lions are seen as majestic and patriotic to the British and are seen in our coat of arms. In the Lion King, lions are the protagonists and hyenas play the antagonist.
The audience perceives certain ideologies depending on the filmmaker’s aims and objectives. The characters have been represented in a way that appeals to the target audience be it simple stereotypes or complex representations of a character (Bennett, 2005). Character can mean an animal, an ecosystem or place. If the filmmaker wants empathy from the audience he will create a character that includes these basic features; a softness in facial expressions, big eyes giving a sense of vulnerability, and small in size when compared to others. According to Kelly (2010) the higher abundance of features the advertisement has, the more successful will be.
The audience is guided to believe the media’s own codes and conventions. If an animal is portrayed in a negative way, and is established at an early point, both in the film and in the audiences life, any future feelings of that given animal will be associated with that first experience. ‘The Jungle Book’ (1967) uses stereotypes perfectly. A main stereotype developed from early years includes the snake, represented negatively because of the bible. A more recent example is this clip of Kaa (see link 5) trying to eat Mogli, representing snakes perfectly in a negative light.
Disney had strong religious beliefs and they are seen throughout his work. He was even named after the local preacher, Walter, his father’s good friend (Thomas, 1994). He portrays high morals in each of his films; they can particularly be seen in ‘Bambi’, ‘The Jungle Book’ and ‘Snow White’. ‘Bambi’ (1942) represents a key figure and influences the audience’s perception on deer (Lutts, 1992) and at such a young age the audience are very passive to accepting ideologies.
Stereotypes give the audience an automatic perception of that animal’s behaviour and characteristics, reinforcing their perception of the natural world and the species within, (Jowett and O’Donnell, 2006). They thrive because they are based on a grain of truth and over re-presentation in the media. It is easier to relate a negative behavioural concept with an animal or human than it is with a positive, as you see with vultures scavenging or Pitbull terriers biting, or Doberman dogs being fierce. There has however been a development in the media that plays upon these stereotypes of certain animals, and this is now done for a comedic effect, as seen in this link (see link 6) from the film ‘UP’ (2009). The ‘Alpha’ Doberman dog has high pitch voice, and works because the audience expected a deep one.
However, a prejudice is more an attitude and harder to change than a stereotype that could be molded over time. The public has a negative attitude towards sharks, because of the strong portrayal of the 1975 film ‘Jaws’. Watching and listening to this trailer, (see link 7) the audience doesn’t have the opportunity to think anything other than a negative thought. This is an example of the hypodermic needle theory in practice, where an ideology is fed into the passive audience, (Bennett, 2005). However if aimed at an active audience then the two-step flow concept comes into play, and this can be applied to documentaries. Where the topic at hand is received by an active audience and ideologies acted upon, for example, with conservation documentaries, it influences the audience to care a little more and possibly make a change in their lives.
When the media uses strong images as seen in the film ‘Jaws’ it is those strong images that can change ones perception on a subject and / or character, mainly negative from this film. A wildlife documentary however, can provide a healthy understanding of a lesser-known animal and it can raise awareness and learn about the animal’s characteristics. It can change this one way, with intimate close up shots of eye contact; showing a mother and baby together will work too, Bousé (2003).
Public perception of a species can change. Images and characters that represent freedom, patriotism, safety, prosperity and happiness will be beneficial for a medium to use and sell its ideas. The government could utilize them in a positive way, thus the public should have confidence in the message being portrayed. So for example, the Gray Wolf went from a dangerous antagonist in films to a loyal symbol of patriotism in America. Two very different attitudes all developed because of the media’s portrayal.
There are many animals that have had scientific research carried out and they have been found to be highly intelligent and sociable as seen in cetaceans for example. Many centuries ago and still in some countries today, it is socially acceptable to hunt them yet the media has helped protect and conserve them.
There have been many influential films such as ‘Flipper’ (1963) that have shown dolphins in a positive light. Ric O’Barry who used to capture dolphins helped with the 2009 documentary film ‘The Cove’ (see link 8 – trailer – nb please be aware, that link has disturbing footage) with the aim to make the public aware of what was happening in the Japanese fishing industry. This powerful film shows what the Japanese do is very unethical and cruel. The public perception from this film should encourage the audience to care about what they eat and create a movement to hopefully shut down this sort of ‘fishing’.
Kirkwood & Hubrecht (2001) state the media can affect an audience’s point of view on occurrences such as those shown in ‘The Cove’. Conservation methods are developed, based upon people having a keen interest in understanding why a species need to be conserved and the public attitudes and opinions have been influenced by what they see in the media.
The filmmaker behind a wildlife documentary will have an agenda and hopefully the audience will absorb the information being represented and act upon it (Serpell, 2004). As well as the explicit ideologies portrayed there will be implicit ideologies within the text; this could add a variety of aspects to the narrative. If a filmmaker were to leave out an important aspect of a story then that could bring up certain questions, depending on whom it affects. For example an animal might be great at hunting but its key characteristic that it is known for is it’s ability to run then it will be portrayed as a fast runner, as seen with Cheetahs (Snaddon, Turner, and Foster, 2008).
The majority of the public care about animals, yet in todays busy schedule ‘animals’, as a collective term, might not be at the top of their list of priorities. The Government is expected to provide services to address the needs of society; in many ways the media influences what society requires. The Government will consider the needs of the public depending on social, economic and environmental factors and act upon what is seen as the most important. Thus, the media can determine what the public perceive as important. It will do this by acting as an opinion leader, (Bennett, 2005). It is these ideologies that might spark a public reaction and therefore create an appeal that will then get noticed by the Government and create a spark to make a change (Kelly, 2010). This is one factor that has led to wildlife documentaries becoming so popular.
There has been research into a study by Ms. Wong-Leonard (1992) about a child’s perception of an animal, and why. Their knowledge was from what they watched throughout their childhood, such as ‘Sesame Street’ and other cartoons (Cea, 2010). Disney played a key part here too. The film ‘Bambi’ (1942) gave a somewhat realistic scenario to children about animals in their natural habitat and portrays man as the villain (Booker, 2009). It develops an interest at an early age about nature and the animals that live in the ‘wild’ and will lead the children to gain an interest in wildlife documentaries as they get older.
The David Attenborough series document the beauties of the world and enlighten people to care a little more. The main purpose of a wildlife documentary can vary, depending on the order of ambitions. Its main priority could be to educate, then to encourage a movement and finally to entertain and this order varies between programmes. This will depend if it’s from a well-known institute whose job is to provide the public with a level of educational programmes like the BBC, or a Channel 4 independent company produce solely to entertain.
Wildlife documentaries have represented animals for the last 100 years, and the means of how they are portrayed has developed as the science has developed too. A better understanding of behaviour is seen and the audience learn the reasons as to why they do this, for example the courtship ritual of a male bird, (see link 9).
Over the last 100 years, the relationship people have with the natural world has changed. It has divided into three directions – urbanized areas, farmland and a small percentage natural. The media is a tool to educate, entertain and inform, (Bennett, 2005) ironically, at the same time the media is being abused and direct exposure to the natural world is being lost. Children are spending more time indoors utilizing a variety of medium whilst the open fields and surrounding woodland are being forgotten.
The media portrays a mix of implicit and explicit ideologies that the audience will subconsciously be fed and it is these that are developed upon in the audience’s lifetime by them being repeated throughout the years and spreading through the genres. With most of us, it began with Disney.
As scientific research methods have developed, the media has moved from representing animals for entertainment, and become a perfect tool to educate. As a result of advances in filming equipment in the last 13 years there has been an interesting change towards a more aesthetical approach.
Most animals are now portrayed more equally than before, as a whole they are together fighting the battle against climate change and global warming. They all have one common “enemy” and that is us humans; this is a concept seen through the media. The media therefore is the tool that can create a difference; it can encourage the audience to, for example reduce, reuse and recycle and develop conservation techniques.
With the public gaining a clearer understanding about the effect they are having on Earth as an ecosystem and how it is affecting the wildlife, there should be a developing movement towards helping recover and conserve the species of critical numbers. It is up to the media to sell fair representation of the natural world to the public in order for a wholesome decision to be made on their behalf as to what steps should be taken.
The path wildlife documentaries will take over the next 20 years is likely to be an innovative and exciting process and one that is of high interest. After being brought up surrounded by nature it only comes naturally to share thoughts and beliefs to enlighten others to see the natural world for themselves.
To be part of how the future generations perceive and understand the natural world would be an area I am keen to learn about, and to create a career within. Not only broadening my own ambitions but enhancing those of others and motivating a movement.
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