In this subject of my studies of Communication and Media, the theme is ‘Media Lives’. In this subject we will be analysing how the media affects lives, for better or worse. We have been examining a whole range of groups, and how the media shapes the ways we look at ourselves, other people, and other species.
This week we have been looking at animals and their representation in the media. In his essay, Why Look at Animals, John Berger’s analyses the way that animals have an omnipresence in our culture. They have evolved from wild creatures of mystery, to our sources of food, clothing, transport and protection, to our companions. They are in our books, movies, TV series; they are our soft toys, our pets, and even our entrainment.
For this topic, we were instructed to watch Gabriela Cowperwaite’s film, Blackfish (2013). For those who are yet to watch the film, Blackfish is the story of Tilikum, a performing orca that has killed a number of people while in captivity, specifically 40-year-old, experienced trainer, Dawn Brancheau. In the documentary, ‘Gabriela Cowperthwaite compiles shocking footage and emotional interviews to explore the creature’s extraordinary nature, the species’ cruel treatment in captivity, the lives and losses of the trainers and the pressures brought to bear by the multi-billion-dollar sea-park industry.’
I had always been hesitant to watch this documentary, as I assumed it would make me very upset, however I am glad I have watched it. This powerful and emotive documentary has generated an immense amount of media hype since it was released. In his article David Hickerman, Senior Lecturer in Film & Television Production, University of York, uses Blackfish as an example of how a documentary can be a powerful force for change. Although an impact of this magnitude is a rare occurrence, Blackfish has placed the ‘plight of the captive orcas in the spotlight’. Although amusement parks and zoos have faced condemnation from animal welfare activists in the past, suddenly they were backed with credibility from celebrities such as Matt Damon, Harry Styles and Willie Nelson.
Since the release of the documentary, and the welfare of these animals being thrust into the spotlight, SeaWorld has experienced an 84% plunge in profits as customers desert the controversial aquatic theme park. The company has experienced a significant drop in attendance, sales, market value, and profits because of the issues raised in Blackfish.
I would assume that this was the hopeful result for the documentary, as it employs numerous strategies to generate sympathy for these orcas in captivity. These strategies include the anthropomorphism of the orcas. As the audience, we are given the back story of these orcas, we learn about their personalities, their relationships with their trainers, and their relationships with each other. This follows the typical conventions of wildlife documentaries (Evans, 2016): following a traditional narrative structure, the vicitimisation of a species, the vilification of another, and the anthropomorphism of the orcas. Blackfish utilised these strategies and conventions in order to evoke emotions and stimulate change.
After the reaction caused by Blackfish, the SeaWorld company launched a nationwide campaign to try and convince the public that they treat their whales well. Due to the mounting pressure from activists’ groups and the general public, last November the chief executive, Joel Manby, announced that the California theme park will be phasing out the public displays by the orcas. After facing harsh criticisms, he said that the move was part of an attempt to reverse the rate of falling visitors at the company’s 11 theme parks across the United Sates.
The main thing I took away from watching the documentary was the irony in which people express their adoration for animals. I admit that even I am guilty of this. People say that they love animals, they are fascinated by them, and care about their welfare, but will still go and see them in captivity, and watch movies and documentaries they are in, with little reflection of the wellbeing of the animal and the lives they lead. As a society, many people try to do best by the animal, but end up only doing what we “think” is best, and not what is truly best for them.
Evans, N 2016, ‘Looking at Animals I’, lecture, UOW, presented 23 March, 2016.