Children as Animals in American Culture

Regular readers of my twitter stream probably know that I am the father of twin boys who are now crawling all over me and everything I own. I don’t generally blog about my family since I feel it is their right to leave their own data trail on the Internet, but I wanted to make an exception in this case and talk a little about how Americans dress their infants. Like many couples, my wife and I have purchased practically none of the clothing out children wear. Instead, we’ve been relying on hand-me-downs and gifts from family and friends — a pretty typical situation when kids are at an age when they outgrow clothes every couple of weeks, and families with older kids are desperate to get rid of all the stuff they accumulated when their kids were small. As a result of this, I’ve had the unusual experience of seeing what people have decided my children should wear (or, in the case of hand-me-downs, what they thought their children should wear).

I’m sure the sorts of things we’ve been given are marked by my demographics: educated, white, above average income, politically on the left, and so forth. So it’s not surprising to me that no one has yet given the kids a “gimme my shotgun” onesie or a “can’t wait to treat women as objects” shirt. Nevetheless, I still think some of the trends I see are generalizable for a lot of the country.

For instance: Why are kids so crazy about dinosaurs? Answer: because we begin covering our children’s bodies with them before their eyes can focus properly. I can’t count the number of items we’ve received with prints of animals and dinosaurs on them. Typically these are brightly colored and in graphic, even extremely abstracted form. I personally like the look. As a kid who grew up in the halcyon days before we knew dinosaurs had feathers, I sort of wish that it was acceptable for me to show up to class wearing a white blazer with red and purple happy/cute velociraptor faces all over it. Alas, apparently that is hors d’categorie for adults.

It might seem shocking that we so closely associate our children with carnivores, given our tendency to imagine children as innocent and non-predatory. The happiness of the animals seems to be essential here — the more carnivorous they are the more they are portrayed as harmless and friendly. It might also be that the presence of these dangerous animals near infant bodies is meant to have an apotropaic function — as does the frontlets full of spiders and scorpions that chinese children wear — but I really don’t think that is what is going on in this case.

This identification of infant and wild animal can be seen even more clearly in clothing where the child is literally dressed in animal costume. In the case of infants, reptillian identification seems to be key: I’ve seen hoods with ridges down the back, and we’ve also received green socks with three clawed toes, designed to make it appear as if my children had reptilian feet. The impulse seems similar to the trend (hopefully now extinct?) of hipster women wearing hoods and hats with small animal ears protruding from them: a riff on the ambiguous cat-as-cute cat-as-dangerous/agentive trope which seems never to get old in American culture. Much more common than dressing the children as if they were animals is putting animals body parts over their body parts, but in a non-homologous way. For instance, pajamas where the childrens feet are covered with smiling monkey heads (non-human primates are also a big theme in children’s clothing). In one remarkable piece we were given, the seat of a pair of pajamas has a large monkey face on its seat, giving the impression that my child’s GI tract terminates in the head of a large primate. Personally, I found this a little weird, but I think I do have a basic understanding of why people think it is cute to put non-matching monkey parts on baby parts — a sort of Bakhtinian carnivalesque aesthetic at work here, some sense that the mismatch of body parts is cute. but honestly, my grasp on this one is a little tenuous.

I think a major reason that Americans think that ‘culture is something other people have’ is because we do not look hard enough at our own culture. Many people see Americans — and perhaps all humans — as rational actors seeking to maximize their wealth/utility. But really — how many acultural rational actors choose to disguise their infants as giraffes? Because let me tell you something: that is something Americans love to do. You only have to quint a little, shift your perspective a bit, and you can see both that there is a cultural logic to much of our lives and that this logic is, if you stop to think about it for a second, pretty unusual. There is nothing natural and inevitable ‘in human nature’ that makes people put monkey heads on baby behinds. One of the great parts of being an anthropologist is the way an awareness of cultural logics enriches your everyday life — even if one of the downsides is explaining to people why you are so preoccupied with the fact that they just gave your child a pair of alligator socks.

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

12 thoughts on “Children as Animals in American Culture

  1. I don’t think it’s the adults who are fascinated with animals; I think it’s the children. I noticed this when my daughter was very young. We’d look at Tana Hoban books together, books that were all pictures. She was just learning to speak. She responded strongly to two kinds of images: faces (especially baby faces) and animals. I wasn’t pushing her to focus on animals. The only animals with which she was in close contact were the household cats, and her interest in them was hobbled by anxious parents who hovered over her saying things like, “No, no, don’t pull kitty’s tail. Don’t hit kitty!”

    She liked the zoo; the petting zoo; videos about animals; books about animals.

    I know this is heresy, but I do think that just as humans are primed to notice faces, even to see faces everywhere, they are primed to notice animals. Which would be evolutionarily useful.

    I’m not sure that this priming comes to anything for modern urbanites. We don’t need it, it isn’t reinforced, it’s dormant.

  2. Amazing. I’m actually in the process of writing something about children and animals, and why we associate the two. Sadly, I don’t know the answer yet.

  3. One possible answer is that children are not regarded as fully human. Another is that referring to them as animals may be seen as a way to ward off affliction by evil spirits. Both are common in premodern societies with high infant and toddler mortality rates. In both Japan and the USA today, as seen from my grandparent’s perspective, the common denominator is “cute.” Both baby humans and baby animals are perceived as cute. There is also the important role that animals play in children’s literature.

  4. I assume that at least part of what is being flagged with the animal clothing is the fact that Americans think of children as wild. Even more interesting to me is the fact that domestication seems to be taking place at two levels—the parents’ process of cooking the raw child (as it were) simultaneously works to further domesticate them.

  5. Blame the adults who make themselves vulnerable to media and marketing. For their kids, they choose TV shows where animated animals speak, sing, and dance; illustrated books to read where animals become princes or friends of princesses; and theme parks to go to where giant mice exhibiting human behavior jumpily welcome children with wide frozen smiles. Also, animals like birds, dogs, Barney, and Donald Duck are children’s friends not Brussel sprouts, broccoli, the old witch’s tree, and the giant bean stalk Jack felled.

    Parents extend their choices to clothes, accessories, utensils, and milk bottles, I believe, out of continuity, their idea of simplified or balanced living and rearing that manifests in continuous loyalty to specific brands of baby milk, stuffed toys, and baby foods. They even let their kids use stinky pillows for years until they outgrow them.

    It seems familiarity is comfort. Parents trust what their kids are habitually accustomed to. I, too, wonder why plants are seldom seen in the picture. I wonder if it is the working of the subconscious– that plants and fruits are only good for bibs because they mean food. I also wonder if putting a baby with animals-printed clothes on in a crib is somewhat a creation of a mini-zoo, where his parents do not feel he is alone in the cell-like crib. Usually, there are birds and beautiful insects above the crib that complete the scene.

    Because of SIDS, parents avoid placing dolls beside their babies. I don’t wonder why they don’t hang them. Again, parents’ choice is at play. They have their own notion of symbolic violence even though their children or babies are too young to understand it. Barbie dressed in white and up in the air can be a beautiful angel. Besides, isn’t Dora an explorer?

  6. I wonder if the association of “cute” animals with large eyes and non-natural coloured fur paralells Lacan’s notion of the mirror stage. wherein the child acquires its first complete ideal image in the full length mirror. In this case, the animal, if it is a toy, becomes an idealized image of the child as an other. The process would involve transference of traits from the child to the object, helped along by the parent who encourages this transference (how many actually name the toy, thereby lending it an independent identity).

    Personally, while I do like bears or anything with four limbs, I am somewhat repulsed by stuffed spiders, sharks and snakes (lizards and geckos seem okay). As for animal part printed on shirts and clothing, the child’s earliest reference to itself is of parts of itself as they pass into view before its eyes.

    The choice of animals is culturally based, and even so how long parents allow children to continue wearing these animal based clothing. Similarly, I suppose you could extend this to bedspreads, with their gender based distinctions (ie. cars, princesses, to be obvious about it). But speaking of images on clothing, I keep thinking of Bart Simpson and his Krusty the Clown pyjamas. The digetic nature of the show invades real life through commercial sales in American culture–is Krusty sold outside of the U.S.?

  7. Don’t you think the gender of the children is significant with the cute animal thing?

    Looking at my kids clothes I notice that they are decorated with flowers. The real question to my mind is: why do Americans associate their children with plants?

  8. You’re right with flowers, but I seldom see trees and shrubs as prints. I think the association is more on the femininity and cuteness of flowers. Clothes for baby girls usually have tiny flowers with sparse petals and subdued colors like pink as prints. I haven’t seen a baby shirt with big, bright sunflowers all over it. I think gender is at play too.

  9. I certainly liked Izabel’s idea of creating safe zoos for children in their cribs. The idea suggested that these images may have more of a linguistic element: metaphor identifies object A with object B: “my love is a red rose” for example. I wonder if something like this is happening here, that parents are making (metaphorically) the child into that image. Afterall, as Izabel notes it is the parents who make the choices of images worn by the child.

    But this also operates well with another linguisitic form, namely jokes. We don’t pick plants for our child because we really believe our child to be plant-like, but there is something of an element of jokiness in choosing plants. Jokes are very public things, as well as cultural. To dress a child in plant wear is not just an in-joke but also a public-joke (what parent doesn’t want to hear other strangers say, “Oh, how cute”). Does this imply parents are putting their children on for display, and if so for whom then? Rex titled this as “Children as animals in american culture,” but we could also add “Children as accessories” (how far are we away from that chiuahua in a purse).

  10. I think you’re right with linguistic elements involved in the use of flowers as images and prints in baby and child stuff. If a girl’s name is “Rosa,” I will not wonder if all her clothes have rosy prints.

  11. know the system and the ways and means to use it to your end. frustrating, huh? dynamics of things and the laws is growing. we can always ask maybe on how to use such ‘smart’ systems, too…you know? i’d find out more about such new innovations before me in these times, even to come. wait ’til we reach the opcoming 3D imaging.

  12. Just to reflect linguistically: Have you thought, in the context of this post, about the etymology of the word “kid”?

    According to Webster:
    Definition of KID

    1a : a young goat
    b : a young individual of various animals related to the goat
    2 a : the flesh, fur, or skin of a kid
    b : something made of kid
    3 : a young person; especially : child —often used as a generalized reference to one especially younger or less experienced

    Curiously enough, Chilean Spanish Slang has the exact equivalent for naming, well, kids: to say “child, kid, young man” in Chilean Spanish Slang, you say “CABRO” (literally: male goat). I am pretty confident this coincidence is due to convergent evolution rather than a borrowing, and this would help prove your hypothesis.

    http://buscon.rae.es/draeI/SrvltConsulta?TIPO_BUS=3&LEMA=cabro

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