When I was younger, I didn’t think twice about the fact that Peter Rabbit wore a jacket, or that Simba talked and sang. It was entertainment. It was just how the stories were told. Through animals.
As a writer, I began wondering the benefits of such a ploy. What did talking animals do for the story that made them so enticing? Why was this the chosen medium for telling children about life? Is it just an entertainment thing? Talking animals make up so much of the media consumed by children, and I wanted to know why.
When I began my research, it became clear that anthropomorphism was not a new practice. It was a concept used to teach children since ancient time. The most readily accessible example is Aesop’s Fables, all the teachings Aesop wrote used animals to relay moral messages. As I looked back on the fables, and remembered reading them as a kid, I found minimal humans in the stories. If it went back this far, I thought, there had to be an explanation.
I think I found it in the article Animals and Anthropomorphism by Sonia Vogl. It basically breaks down children’s literature into three types of anthropomorphism:
- Those in which animals behave like humans
- Animals behave like animals, but talk and wear clothing.
- Animals that behave like animals.
Each type referred to the chronological order of child development. The first category was used for smaller kids, as they get older animals become animals. This long-term end goal basically summed up the why factor of talking animals. Anthropomorphism is a way to ease a child into the realities of the world without shocking them early on.
Comparing each category to Aesop’s Fables, I found a truth in what Vogl was saying. There seemed to be a Fable that aligned with each category and fit into the developmental descriptions within the article.
The more I read, the easier it was to find answers to my other questions. The following is a list of the main benefits authors use anthropomorphism:
- It uses humor as a teaching mechanism
- The use of animals adheres to a child’s imagination, who at this point in their developmental stage would identify more with a talking animal than a human
- Children connect easily with animals, by making them wear clothing it humanises them in such a way that the children are able to identify with the character more.
- Teach children about the world around them with characters and give them a respect for people that are different to them.
- Allows space for reflection and a distance that gives children the ability to put the story into their reality.
When analyzing the stories I read as a child, all these points made sense. I had easily related to Winnie the Pooh, sympathized with Peter Rabbit, and wanted to be like the Aristocats. The lessons all stuck, because of the anthropomorphism.
One research done out of the University of Toronto that argued against anthropomorphism, that compared a story about sharing told with animals and told with humans. The results basically told me the opposite of what I had been reading and concluded that stories with humans are more beneficial.
This got me confused, because up until that point I was on board with anthropomorphism because it made sense when I compared it to my own childhood. Even stories that centered around humans, had bits of anthropomorphism that made the story better. Mowgli couldn’t have survived Sher Khan without Baloo and Bagheera.
Many articles saw humanizing animals as a cause of displacement in the child’s mind as they will become unable to differentiate between a talking animal in a story and one in real life. Which, I found to be an odd sentiment, given that I grew up with such stories and am able to tell the difference between Simba and a real lion.
The research ignored the three long-term stages of anthropomorphism Vogl outlined, and merely focused on the immediacy of the results. Chris Haughton, author of Shh! We Have a Plan, has stated that using humans is good for a short term effectiveness, but in the long-term the anthropomorphism provides a more memorable, complex way of imparting teachings and morals.
Having science and research back-up what looks like just entertainment, and to know both sides rounded out my own feelings about talking animals. Knowing the reasons behind anthropomorphism gave me a better understanding of the psychological values anthropomorphism has, as well as a better understanding of my own childhood development.
Meet the blogger:
TAYLOR ELGARTEN recently graduated from at Hamline University with a BFA in Creative Writing. She owns three cats, and will one day open a book and coffee “food” truck.