In the season finale of TNT’s “The Alienist,” a serial killer slams a burlap sack containing a cat repeatedly on the wall, killing the cat as it shrieks in pain. On Netflix’s “End of the F***ing World,” a boy kills animals growing up, and several episodes later, a dog is carelessly run over by a truck and must be put out of its misery. In the second season of “Stranger Things,” one character’s cat is found partially eaten by an otherworldly monster. And regularly on shows like “The Magicians” and “Game of Thrones,” animals often perish in horrifying ways.
The depiction of animals being abused or killed isn’t anything new in Hollywood, though for a while, this seemed acceptable to the public as long as those animal actors weren’t harmed in real life. Lately, however, it seems as if there’s been an uptick in these violent portrayals on TV, increasing in frequency and the level of brutality. This rise simply could be owed to the fact that peak TV means more shows, which in turn means more violence overall and more extreme attempts to stand out from the pack.
Increased Intolerance by Viewers
That doesn’t make these portrayals any easier to watch though. And in fact, critics who watch the most television in a concentrated amount of time are starting to notice and alert each other about such scenes. Sites like Does the Dog Die? and Movie Paws also provide this service for consumers who want to know whether they should brace themselves or skip watching altogether.
Movie Paws founder Sharon Knolle communicated with IndieWire through email about the overall impact of the depiction of animal violence on audiences:
An animal being killed (even in a fictitious setting) is often a dealbreaker for many viewers, just as serial killers aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. And of course, the two go hand in hand.
Even when you know it’s fake, it can still be incredibly upsetting, especially if the killing is being done by someone you’re supposed to be identifying with. It can depend on how graphically it’s represented, but just the suggestion of an animal being tortured or killed is going to be too much for a lot of people. Many fans were just as upset over Ned Stark having to kill his daughter’s pet direwolf as they were over some of the human deaths on “Game of Thrones.”
But if you’re watching something that’s horror or a thriller, it’s almost built into the genre that animals are going to killed. The first episode of “The Walking Dead” had Rick Grimes heroically riding a horse into the city — and then watching in horror as the horse is eaten by a horde of zombies. It’s a way to throw the audience off balance and let them know no one is safe.
But being able to deal with the dog dying in, say, “The Babadook” or “The Conjuring” (or “John Wick”) is a far cry from watching a show where the main character actually enjoys killing animals.
“John Wick” in particular was notorious for the portrayal of a puppy’s murder early on in the film. In a way, its sequel course-corrected by having John Wick’s (Keanu Reeves) new dog be his pal, and not die this time around.
When Bad People Hurt Animals
When IndieWire contacted PETA and the Humane Society, both animal rights organizations felt that certain portrayals of humans hurting animals — specifically by serial killers and would-be serial killers — were acceptable because of their ethical messaging.
“While gratuitous violence against animals leaves compassionate viewers shocked and sickened, Stephen King, ‘The Alienist,’ and ‘The End of the F***ing World’ have all accurately depicted how future serial killers often start by abusing animals,” said PETA senior vice president Lisa Lange. “As long as no live animals are involved in filming, PETA is all for realistic on-screen portrayals showing what animals endure in real life at the hands of evil humans.”
The Humane Society’s Special Projects senior director Beverly Kaskey said, “These stories use [animal violence] to show the psyche of the disturbed characters. There is increasing evidence that shows that violent serial killers generally do start out by torturing and killing animals. If these stories are meant to reflect the mentality and violent tendencies of their characters, then these portrayals are sadly representative. Hopefully, the way these situations are portrayed, the viewer will be horrified and find the behavior despicable.”
The Last Acceptable Victims
As stated above, the increase in animals being harmed on TV could simply be the result of a crowded market. But it’s happening with such regularity that it smacks of lazy storytelling. The site TV Tropes points out that it’s often used as a shortcut to indicate that someone is villainous at heart.
But animals are also the final frontier of convenient victims, especially since they don’t have voices to protest such depictions. TV shows have at times overly relied on mistreating certain groups as easy storytelling devices, but the backlash against using rape cavalierly, fridging, and the Bury Your Gays trope has led to thoughtful discourse about how these negative portrayals can affect these communities in real life. In addition, the #MeToo movement has been a long time in coming and has had to battle against decades of women being harassed or abused as simple plot points, or worse, as fodder for jokes.
The puppy in “John Wick” and the cat Mews in “Stranger Things” are nothing more than examples of dog or cat fridging. The pets were only introduced in order to be killed, and both deaths served as the catalysts for the hero to take action, whether it’s through revenge or putting together elaborate schemes to save the world. Despite the fact that Mews’ death inspired the hashtag #JusticeforMews, somehow we doubt that the kitty will get the same season-long tribute that Barb did after her sacrificial death.
And while it’s important to make sure that no animals are harmed in making these movies or shows, the violence on screen can affect how the public views animals. As it is, many people still view animals as disposable property, and often abuse, abandon, or dump pets at the shelter daily.
Brutality and cruelty are part of reality, and they shouldn’t be completely ignored on TV. The answer here isn’t to scrub all animal violence from TV content but to be more aware and responsible about how it’s being used and portrayed, because the opposite portrayal can have an effect also.
The Humane Society recently announced its Genesis awards winners who were honored for their “creative portrayals of animal protection issues in 2017.” Among the fictional portrayals of animals and how humans treat them were Netflix’s “Okja,” which examined the treatment of animals raised for food, “The Simpsons” for “its focus on the value of pet companionship and the difference in human attitudes and practices when it comes to the treatment of pets and the animals we raise for food,” and Nickelodeon’s “The Loud House” for its episode “Frog Wild,” which featured a “charming story of student opposition to dissection.”
Life does not always imitate art, but art can inform and change perceptions in real life. It’s just a matter of caring enough to change the art.