I wonder how many other people’s gateway into a fascination with material culture was sparked by the Little House books. Or similar historical narratives that involved a lot of details about daily living, homemaking processes, etc.
As long as I can remember, I’ve felt that objects have a particular power and contain multiple meanings. “It’s only stuff” was never something that resonated, and I struggle to give that statement weight to this day. Because stuff is hardly ever just “only” itself. Objects can transport us to the past (our own or an imagined someone else’s), to different cultures and ways of being in the world. Time travel made manifest.
As I made my way to one of my regular dog-walking clients yesterday, I caught a story on the radio about a new study out of the Rand Corporation. Contrary to what the authors call “a widely held belief that children’s general and psychological health benefits from owning and/or interacting with pets,” there was no statistically significant difference between the health of children who lived with pet animals and those who lived solely with other humans.
Let’s side-step an interrogation of the study’s assumption that children’s health is a major reason adults adopt cats and dogs. We all have assumptions about the motivations of other people in our culture. For example, my assumption has long been that some parents and guardians see pets as a way to teach their children responsibility, aside from perhaps enjoying the company of companion animals themselves or wishing to reproduce the conditions of their own childhoods for their offspring. I cannot access the full study to see whether the authors cite any sources that back up their particular assumption. A quick glance at the references section indicates both an explosion of scholarship on pet-human relationships and that the authors likely have research to back up the assumption stated above.
Back when I spent a lot of time researching U.S. pet-keeping practices, I don’t recall reading or asking my informants about the reasons they chose to bring pet animals into their homes. This not only seems like a significant oversight on my part, but an intriguing line of research to pursue in the future. At the very least, I’m considering subscribing to Anthrozoös.
Earlier today as I stood in line at checkout, I overheard one of the cashiers at another line ooh over a customer’s baby. “Look at her, she’s like, ‘I just wanna go back to sleep,'” the cashier said.
I thought about how quickly we map our expectations onto other beings, how easily we imbue them with personalities of our own designs. And how we tend to do this for those who can’t “speak” for themselves: babies and animals.
My pets have distinct personalities, but I’m not fooling myself. I know these personalities spring not from them, but from my idea of them. My interpretations of their behaviors. I speak for them in silly voices, attributing reactions and thoughts that they very well may not have.
I’ve caught myself doing the same thing to babies. My friend and I were hanging out with her toddler, and I found myself saying things like, “he’s like, ‘mm, mysterious berries!” or “he says, ‘I dunno about this strange lady.'” How presumptuous of me!
When we speak for animals and for babies, we privilege our interpretation of them over the ways in which they are already communicating with us. They have personalities, but can we recognize them? How much of a being’s personality originates with them, and how much is in the mind of the beholder? This is back to the classic conundrum of intent vs. interpretation, which I tried to suss out a few weeks ago.
And how can we even begin to untangle this when considering cases of pet personality development, much less human personality development? Luckily, I think humans are pretty good at asserting themselves when push comes to shove, outsider interpretations be damned. But until they can do so verbally, they’re at a disadvantage. Those of us who can speak tend to do so for them unless we really check ourselves. Hopefully their development isn’t too much at our mercy.
When I was about 6 years old, I used two paper bags from the grocery store to make myself an “Indian” costume for Thanksgiving. (It was the early 90’s. “Native American” wasn’t in use among 1st graders yet.) I was, and am, very white. No one in my family thought this home-made costume was problematic. On the contrary, I remember being praised and photographed for being cute and creative.
Wearing that costume was wrong. I wish I hadn’t done it. I wish someone had pointed out why this was an offensive sartorial choice.
As we near Halloween, we’re seeing the yearly outpouring of thoughtful articles about costumes, sexualization, and cultural appropriation. I hope, if I have kids, that I am able to communicate the importance of cultural respect and appropriate costume choices. Why wearing another person’s heritage is racist, violent, and erases their humanity. It reduces identity to a commodity, to something a white person can put on and, crucially, take off, because a white person has the power to remain unmarked.
It only gets worse when you consider the difference between costumes designed for women. Alden Wicker wrote recently about the intersection of sexist & racist costumes. Though not simultaneously, I, too, have been guilty of both. I hope to teach my children that “sexy” costumes are yet another way for our culture to control women and tell them that they only have value insofar as they cater to the straight male gaze.
With knowledge and respect for people of all cultural backgrounds and genders, perhaps my future children won’t make the kinds of offensive, dis-empowering mistakes I have.
I must do better than younger me, for future us.