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06 Jul

Panel on Animals in American TV at AAAS2016

Written by Michael Fuchs
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Animals in American Television

Nonhuman characters have been a staple of American television since its inception. From main characters such as Lassie (Lassie, CBS, 1954–1973) and Flipper (Flipper, NBC, 1964–1967) to secondary and tertiary characters such as the cat Lucky in ALF (NBC, 1986–1990), the Rottweiler Arnold in Entourage (HBO, 2004–2011), and the chicken and the duck in Friends (NBC, 1994–2004), animals have been regulars on fictional television shows. On the other hand, televised wildlife documentaries have virtually brought animals from across the world into American homes and introduced Americans to the problems faced by different animal species around the globe. Yet there is a somewhat paradoxical feedback loop at work in this context, as Akira Mizuta Lippit has explained in his book Electric Animal (2000): The vanishing of animals from the material world results in their preservation in (audio)visual media.

Despite the sheer omnipresence of nonhuman animals on television, (representations of) these furry, hairy, feathered, and scaly companion and non-companion species have barely been explored within a televisual context. However, our proposed panel seeks to do just that: approach the animal other. With contributions by leading and emerging scholars in the fields of Human–Animal Studies, Ecomedia Studies, Television Studies, and American Studies, the panel "Animals in American Television" will mark an important, interdisciplinary step toward understanding the social, economic, and technological networks influencing and feeding off of representations of animals on American television. The diversity of our papers testifies to the variety of paths that may bring us closer to answering the "animal question."

In a brief introduction, Michael Fuchs will survey some of the central questions that have occupied scholars' minds with respect to (audio-)visual representations of animals. In the first thematic paper, Stefan Brandt will read the horse starring in Mister Ed (CBS, 1960–1965) as a symbolic vehicle used to comment on the Civil Rights Movement. Alexa Weik von Mossner will query the ways in which the televisual apparatus allows humans to become emotionally attached to (fictional) animals. Brett Mills' paper on the death and resurrection of Family Guy's Brian will provide an exemplary case study of how attached viewers may become to an (animated) animal character. Manuela Neuwirth will continue this line of inquiry in the opening paper of panel #2, in which she will explore intersections between animals, pets, and aliens in American science fiction shows. In the following paper, Dawn Keetley will investigate the relative absence of animals in the TV shows belonging to the Walking Dead franchise (AMC, since 2010). Her paper will interconnect the human and nonhuman by arguing that the disappearance of nonhuman animals from our world also implies the disappearance of the human. Michael Fuchs' concluding contribution will read Hannibal Lecter's human cannibalism as an implicit support of animal rights. United as the papers are in their interest in nonhuman animals, one question will haunt the entire panel: Will our study of nonhuman animals always, inevitably, lead back to the human?

"I have no taste for animal cruelty": Human Cannibalism and/as Animal Politics in Hannibal

In Hannibal's (NBC, 2013–2015) season two episode "Kō No Mono" (2014), the titular character serves "a rare but debauched delicacy" to his significant other Will Graham. In line with the show's spectacularization of food preparation, Hannibal explains the process of preparing the ortolon bunting in detail (albeit only verbally): Catch a specific species of the bunting family of birds. Blind the six-inch-long animal using pincers. Put it in a small box and feed it until it has reached at least twice its normal weight. Drown it in Armagnac. Roast it. Eat it, "bones and all." The degradation of the animal-turned-food leaves an especially sour aftertaste when considering that Hannibal had proclaimed to "have no taste for animal cruelty" in the season one episode "Coquilles" (2013).

My paper will use this apparent contradiction as a launching pad for an exploration of the animal in Hannibal. While the show, true to its roots in the traditions of horror and the Gothic, employs animal imagery as a means to representing 'the monster within,' its titular anthropophagic serial killer transcends any easy binary constructions between the wild beast and cultured human, thus highlighting the constructedness of such binaries (see Fuchs 2015; Fuchs & Phillips, 2017, forthcoming). As I will argue, the randomness with which Western civilization draws lines in order to systematize the world becomes especially meaningful in relation to Hannibal's eating habits. While the show's eponymous character clearly eats meat, the implications of his food choices seem more powerful than a vegan diet could ever be: Hannibal's explicit rejection of accepting the line separating the edible animal from the inedible human truly raises the question of why we eat one and not the other.