Anthropomorphism is a form of personification that gives human characteristics to non-humans or objects, especially animals. It has some major benefits, such as helping to get complex ideas across, but it also has been met with criticisms. Examples are found throughout literature, the arts and everyday life, and experts believe that people have used the technique for over 30,000 years.
Purpose and Advantages
People use anthropomorphism for a variety of reasons, one of which is to disarm the audience and create a wider appeal. This is very common when dealing with children's characters. By using animals or other objects with human traits, an author can tell a story in a visually appealing, nonthreatening way without representing race, so it is suitable to more people. The goal is not to make the animals more familiar, but rather to draw individuals to the story and make specific points more memorable.
In many cases, people use personification of living or nonliving things to make things that are foreign or complex easier to understand. A cartoon showing ants with big muscles and lifting weights, for example, can help a child grasp the idea that the insects are very strong. As a result, many different topics can seem less intimidating, and people often learn very quickly.
Adults often use this technique to handle controversial issues. George Orwell’s Animal Farm, for example, is an exploration of dictatorship and a criticism of socialism — it was moved to the big screen in 1945 and redone in 1999. In his short story, A Dog’s Tale, Mark Twain deliberately relates events from a dog’s point of view in order to criticize humans’ behavior to animals.
Modern psychologists sometimes claim that people personify in some cases because it makes a creature or item easy to relate to, which allows a person to form a connection with it — in other words, some anthropomorphism happens because humans are social beings who don't want to be lonely. It fulfills, on some level, the need individuals have for interaction and understanding. The implication is that, the stronger someone's relationships to real people are, the less likely he probably will be to apply human characteristics to other things.
A big problem with personifying objects and animals is that it can deny their true function or nature, blurring the line between reality and fiction. In some circumstances, this can be dangerous or disturbing, such as if a young child sees the "loving" and "sweet" family cat attack and kill a bird or mouse on instinct. Putting human characteristics on other creatures and things also relies on the idea that everything else has to be like people in one way or another, which is tied to the concept that human beings are "at the top," the most important, strongest or dominant. Some critics argue that this hierarchy assumption is not necessary, and that it makes it difficult for people to respect the individuality or uniqueness of each species.
Examples from Literature, Film and Art
There are hundreds of examples of anthropomorphism in literature and television, and it is perhaps most common in children’s books. The television and book series Arthur is a good example, as are Guess How Much I Love You, Thomas The Train, Clifford: The Big Red Dog, Martha Speaks, and the classic animated films, The Land Before Time and Dumbo.
Writers and filmmakers also have used anthropomorphism with great effect for adults. Watership Down, which was made into a film in 1978, is a classic example in which rabbits are used to illustrate the hero’s journey, having discreet and separate personalities, a religion and a desire to form a utopian rabbit society. Human characteristics also appear with Mister Ed, a fictional talking horse who appeared in both short stories and a television series in the early 1960s, and many adults are familiar with the drug-addicted, socially awkward talking towel, Towelie, from South Park. In the 2007 film, Stardust, one of the main characters, Yvaine, is a star in human form who has fallen out of the sky. Similarly, an army of robots from another world fight valiantly to save Earth from the evil Decepticons in the 2007 movie, Transformers.
One of the most famous sculptures displaying human traits is The Lion Man. Experts think that it is at least 32,000 years old, and that it is one of the earliest examples of anthropomorphism. The famous picture by Ron D'raine, First Kiss, is a popular contemporary example of this type of personification, featuring an adult giraffe leaning down to "kiss" her resting baby.
Application to Pets
People sometimes apply anthropomorphism very heavily to their pets. They might dress a dog or cat in a sweater or other costume, for example, and they usually are strong proponents of the idea that animals have emotions just like people do. Many owners even refer to their pets as members of the family, asserting that, without anthropomorphism, it becomes far too easy for people to treat living things inhumanely.
Use in Religion and Nature
The gods of many ancient religions have anthropomorphic influences. The Ancient Greeks considered their gods to be divine, for example, but these deities also exhibited many traits and motivations such as jealousy, greed, lust and deception. Many of the quarrels described between them can be dated to more primitive religions attempting to incorporate the religious beliefs of different areas in Greece, but they also serve the purpose of making the gods seem very human. In fact, some of the gods, particularly Zeus, even fall in love with people.
Personification as it is used in religion ties closely to nature, because deities often were depicted as being part of or creating elements in the world and space. Many Native Americans, for instance, believe that each thing, be it a tree, mountain or the wind, has a spirit and is connected to and interacts with people. The concept of elements in nature being somewhat human is also found in more secular veins, such as in the famous song, "Ol' Man River" from Showboat.