Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Animal activists need their own Bechdel test

Animal activists need their own Bechdel test
By Jon Hochschartner*

Animal activists need their own rubric to assess anthropocentrism in fictional work that's similar to the Bechdel test employed by feminists to gauge gender bias.

Named for its popularizer, the Bechdel test has three requirements an artistic piece must meet in order to pass. First, it has to include at least two women. Second, they have to speak to each other. Third, they have to speak to each other about something other than a man.

Despite its limitations, this simple test has proven effective at highlighting sexism in films and other works of fiction. Animal activists would benefit from something similar. I'd like to put forward what might be the basis for such a test. The standard would be simple. To pass, any work with unnecessary violence by humans against animals would have to include some kind of editorial signal that the practice is wrong. Now what exactly does that mean? Because I write about video games, I will use examples from that medium, but the test could easily apply to others.

To begin, the categories of humans and other animals would not be limited to their existing forms. For instance, the creatures of the "Pokémon" series, who are captured in the wild and trained to fight, are clearly analogous to animals. Similarly, despite looking feline, the Khajiit of "The Elder Scrolls" series, who ride horses and practice religion, have far more in common with humans than other real-life species.

Let's clarify some more terms. What's unnecessary violence against animals? An example can be found in "The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time," in which Link can catch fish with a rod. The fish pose no immediate, unavoidable threat to Link, and there's no indication he's incapable of surviving on plant-based foods. This is unnecessary violence against animals. In contrast, in 2013's "Tomb Raider," Lara Croft need not seek out wolves for them to pursue her and cause her lethal damage if she doesn't kill them first. Though wolves don't actually behave this way in life, within the game this violence against animals is much more necessary.

But artists often want their work to reflect the reality of today or the past. And those realities unfortunately include a lot of unnecessary violence by humans against animals. The test would make room for the depiction of these, so long as the work includes editorial signals the practice is wrong.

Some readers may rankle at the idea that games should take a position, however subtly, on anything, let alone unnecessary violence against animals. But like it or not, games transmit value systems. Even games that are infamous for their supposed nihilism, like the "Grand Theft Auto" series, do. While the criminal franchise revels vicariously in the wrongness of its protagonists actions against other humans, it's generally clear their actions are wrong. In contrast, unnecessary violence against animals in video games typically isn't portrayed as problematic. Unlike, say, shooting pedestrians in "Grand Theft Auto," unnecessary violence against animals in video games generally isn't a knowing transgression of moral boundaries. This needs to change.

Editorial signals that unnecessary violence against animals is wrong can be communicated in a number of different ways. Some games, such as the "Fallout" series, include a morality meter, which, based on a player's in-game actions, will assign players an ethical status that will effect how their character is treated. More often though, value systems are transmitted through plot, dialogue, character development and other methods. Most obviously, one knows the villain's actions are wrong because of his or her role in the story. Editorial signals, however subtle, that unnecessary violence against animals is wrong are limited in form only by artists' imaginations.

That would be the test in a nutshell. To pass, any work that features unnecessary violence against animals would have to include some kind of editorial signal the practice was wrong. Further, unnecessary violence against animals does not include defense against an immediate, unavoidable threat. Editorial signals can be conveyed in a variety of ways. But some additional factors must be added that have so far been left out for the sake of simplicity.

For the test's purposes, the definition of violence would need to be expanded to include confinement and involuntary labor. Otherwise, for instance, the "Zoo Tycoon" series, which centers on unnecessary confinement of animals, could potentially pass so long as, within the context of confinement, minimal welfare needs are met.

Some animal activists might believe the depictions of unnecessary violence against animals requiring negative editorial signals should include not just the actions themselves, but the human-desired results of these actions, such as meat, leather or eggs. Ideally, this would be the case. But my initial thought is that, given our society's current anthropocentrism, passing the test would be seen as unattainable and artists would not attempt to do so.

If adopted, hopefully this test would help identify the ubiquity of speciesism in fictional works in much the same way as the Bechdel test does for sexism.

*Jon Hochschartner is a freelance writer from upstate New York.
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