Saturday, April 18, 2009

the savage pit bull

Cultural representations are primarily viewed as mere reflections of lives. While it is true that cultural representations reflect lives, they also help create and shape us; our relationship to culture is not one-way, it is symbiotic and multi-directional. Representations both create and reflect us.

I see this frequently on television. Wal-Mart--no, really--does a superb job of creating the (ideal) family in their commercials. Their commercials always show hetero-normative nuclear families, shopping (often together), and then together using the items bought at Wal-Mart, while the mother expresses appreciative delight over the time and money she saves at Wal-Mart; time and money, she adds, that enable her to spend more time with her family, which is, of course, her number one priority.

Similar families are seen in myriad advertisements; to me, they seem particularly apparent in automobile commericals. Regardless of whether there's a luxury sedan parked in the driveway of a home with a white picket fence or a rugged vehicle navigating the great outdoors, a family dog is frequently included in advertisements as well. I think this is because it helps establish a more whole idea(l) of acquisition and affluence. The family dog represents the proverbial cherry on top of this family's sundae of middle class life.

The dogs I frequently see in cultural representations of the family or affluence are overwhelmingly labradors and golden retrievers. By registered ownership, these two are among the most popular worldwide. And what kinds of people have the time, money, or interest in registering their dogs? I'll give you a clue: not the poor kind.

When I think of the ways in which dogs have been used to help craft an image, President Clinton comes to mind. If you'll recall, Clinton got himself a nice chocolate lab, Buddy. He came into office with the family cat, Socks. (This was very scandalous in my small Southern rural, working class, Southern Baptist family. The feeling among the burly hunting men in my family was that real men didn't have cats, they had dogs. They felt that his adoption was disingenuous and that he only got the dog to boost his image and ratings. Of course, they are rabid ultra-Christians who despise President Clinton to this day). I remember hearing that shortly after Clinton's presidency ended, the media reported he gave Buddy to his secretary, Betty Currie, and that it had been hit by a car and killed. That totally bummed me out that he abandoned his dog that way. But I digress.

The point being, arguably the most affluent and powerful family in the country chose a chocolate lab. Can you imagine the Clinton family's image had they chosen a pit bull? Seriously, use your best tools to imagine this. Bill Clinton's poor Southern heritage and vices (e.g., junk food, infidelity, drugs) would have been used to deride him for having low class, white trash tendencies--which sometimes happened anyway. Clinton may have been embraced more in the media than other presidents (and this has nothing to do with the so-called fucking liberal media;it has to do with the fact that the other--yes, irrelevantly conservative--presidents were wack) but there were still snide comments here and there, in television and print, about his country ass. (As a country ass bitch myself, I am ultra aware of the ways in which Southern accents and other markers of this type of difference are used to demean and de-legitimize us). It was a shrewd decision; the labrador functioned as a way to class him right up.

Labs are so popular, in fact, they're being used to create all kinds of new and trendy dogs, such as Labradoodles (lab and poodle) and Labradanes (lab and Great Dane). When you add "lab" or any other number of "respectable dogs" to a create a designer dog worth high prices and social acceptance. When you add "pit" to a dog you create a pit mix, a preternaturally vicious creature that is, way more often than not, automatically and without consideration or evaluation, considered un-adoptable and then euthanized.

My ideas about this are not only based on my observations of media and culture; they're based on the experiences I've had in over 4 years of employment in the doggie daycare industry; my beliefs are also informed by my experiences in the animal welfare industry. The clients for these businesses were almost entirely upper class and had dogs to reflect their status: lots and lots of goldens, labs, vizslas, weimaraners, and toy breeds of all kinds. My ideas are also informed by the reactions I've received from strangers, or those who don't know me well, when they ask me about my dogs. When I proudly and enthusiastically tell people I have two rescued pit bulls, the reactions have primarily been surprise, shock, disbelief, and suspicion. What would a nice girl like me want with (it's especially effective if you whisper it) those dogs? You see, those dogs belong to those people, a group of people from which I am considered separate because I am white, female, queer, and femme.

The sea change in our country's pereption is glaringly apparent when considering the pit bull's cultural significance and representation. During World Wars One and Two, they were mascots of America and symbols of our most esteemed characteristics: tenacious, courageous, brave, loyal.

Think of representations of them today. Local and national news regularly report stories of savage pit bull maulings, and images of pit bulls are popular in hip hop music videos and the like. Cellular telephone giant Verizon even recently featured a commercial where those coveting their "LG Dare" telephones came face to face with two snarling, chained junk yard pit bulls in order to touch the phone.

Because the broader society associates pit bulls with the poor and/peoples of color, and these people are seen as Other/savage, so too are pit bulls, a member of America's most beloved domesticated animals, turned into savages and others. This, I firmly believe, is part of why we as a society don't want them. As expected, spotted dog farm brilliantly touched on this in the initial post when referencing BSL (breed specifical legislation). If we can successfully legislate against those dogs, we may be on our way to finding successful ways to rid our good nation of those people. Pit bulls are largely seen and characterized as being unstable, vicious, dangerous, aggressive. Interestingly enough, these traits are also frequently attributed to the poor and peoples of color. Those people are considered menaces to society, and so are those dogs.

What else could be the source of such WILLFUL ignorance? White middle class America touts education and learning as being essential components of self and success. So what else explains the seemingly deliberate ways broader society ignores their own advice when it comes to these dogs? Their respected history is there if you look for it. The dogs themselves are there, the vast majority of which are waiting to kiss you into seeing the truth of their nature. In the words of my daddy, "They're just dogs." (Actually, they're the best, most exceptional dogs, but we'll address that in future posts). His point being, of course, is that pit bulls are simply dogs and not killing machines. While they are simply dogs, as you can see, the ways in which pit bulls are entangled in public, political, and cultural discourses are anything but simple.


  1. Hi honey,
    So what do you make of Bobama? No doubt that Lassie, Get Help and Wonkette have got it covered, but I couldn't help but wonder at the strange split-the-baby symbolism of a black and white (really? black and white?) breeder-cum-rescue PWD. I don't want to jump on bashing the poor cutey, but there's something odd about his tale; it's too carefully constructed, too perfectly calculated to please everyone (and no-one).

  2. Good post. An interesting perspective you have given into the outlook of dog breeds.

    Just one thing ... Clinton didn't give away his dog Buddy, he gave the cat to the secretary after she asked to adopt it. Clinton and Hilary kept Buddy who, at 4 y/o ran off property and was hit by a car.

    You have some interesting points and I look forward to reading more