As a girl, I grew up in a family that owned many animals—eighteen cats, four dogs, two lizards, eight fish, two crabs, six rabbits, and a hamster. These were all animals I felt very close to as a child; I thought my affinity for animals meant that I was a princess. Animals knew I loved them, and would do my dishes and my laundry…
I think we owned a hamster. Maybe my neighbor had a hamster? Snow White would remember if she owned a hamster, right?
Did you catch the word “owned”? For most of my life I referred to non-human animals as property belonging to me. My dogs were my “man’s best friend.” If you sense the contradiction in calling a life that you keep for pleasure (regardless of if the animal wants to be there or not) your “best friend” then you are way ahead of where I was until last year.
The discovery of this contradiction has directly led to what I am working on right now. I study power dynamics, hybridity, and the portrayal of non-human animals in nineteenth century literature. I have slowly come to discover that one of the only ways to draw attention to the plight of animals in Victorian novels was to change the animal into a human in some way—we had to anthropomorphize them physically or emotionally.
Fun fact: if you google “anthropomorphize” the results will be about the Easter bunny.
Less fun fact: I used to feel really guilty about my research. I did it because it was fun, but I thought it didn’t matter and that I was just selfish. I believed that other people studied Important Stuff—disability studies, pedagogy, really old books, publishing, helping writers find their voice. I studied representations of animals. For kicks, you know. But for a long time I didn’t feel like I was contributing to the world.
Then I stumbled upon a quote by Jed Mayer when I was doing my CP research. He was explaining the difference between the othering of people and the other of animals; he wrote that “humans are silenced—animals are silent” (349).
Animals are silent. Bodies denied a voice, and also incapable of providing their own voice. Consequently, humans write any message we want onto them. Even speaking ideas we perceive as favorable to animals is still speaking our ideas. And that was when it clicked for me; I began to understand why I am studying English through an animal studies lens.
As a woman who grew up in poverty, I knew I was silenced from the first moment I stepped foot on a college campus. I also knew I could work hard enough to eventually be heard. Now, I try to use my identification with animals as a way of raising awareness about the rhetoric surrounding animals, while also feeling comfortable with my decision because I can also explain that I am in no way attempting to speak for animals but only for myself.
Mayer, Jed. “Ways of Reading Animals in Victorian Literature, Culture, and Science.” Literature Compass. 7.5 (2010): 347-357. Print.
Tara Lawson is a second-year student in the MA program.