When anthropocentrism meets androcentrism: KA-POW!

March 5th, 2009 9:59 pm by Kelly Garbato

Last week, while bored and browsing the Flickrs, I stumbled upon a collection of academia-themed photo sets, uploaded by a user in Germany. Most of the photos are of various conferences and lectures, hosted at the University of Heidelberg. One particular set caught my eye: “The Myth of Animal Rights,” with Professor Tibor R. Machan, Ph.D.

Now, I don’t know much about the man, nor do I care to. His Wiki page is rather sparse, and barely touches upon his animal rights views, except to say

Machan has also argued against animal rights (in his widely reprinted paper “Do Animals Have Rights?” [1991] and his book Putting Humans First: Why We Are Nature’s Favorite [2004]). His full ethical position is developed in his book Classical Individualism: The Supreme Importance of Each Human Being (Routledge, 1998) and it is applied in, among other books, Generosity: Virtue in Civil Society (Cato Institute, 1998).

As if the shameless anthropocentrism evident in Machan’s book titles isn’t ridiculous enough, behold the flier which advertised his appearance on the University of Heidelberg campus:

For those who can’t view the image, a diminutive lil’ chimp sits – in a diaper!? – next to a towering Brandon Routh-as-Superman. Completely breaking with reality, Superman stands at least ten times taller than the “lowly” chimp – no doubt meant to represent MAN’S superiority to mere beasts. A bunch of text offers conference details, with the title of the lecture – “The Myth of Animal Rights” – front and center, in outlined font (lolcats styley, natch: seriousness, ur doin it rong!).

Clearly, this ad reeks of speciesism: though humans are just one of millions of animal species which inhabit the earth, Machan apparently thinks that we’re the only species that matters: we’re “nature’s favorite.” In terms of importance, we dwarf even the chimpanzee, our closest primate cousin. We – oh, hell, the speciesism is so over-the-top, need I continue?

Yet, Machan’s choice of Superman to represent the superiority of humankind is telling as well. Had he chosen to depict an anonymous man and/or woman, the concept would have worked just as well. Instead, he chose a superhero, and an iconic one at that. Think about it: Machan could have went with Wonder Woman, or Supergirl, or Storm, or, jeez, Jean Grey.* Predictably, though, he picked a dude to represent the awesomeness of humanity. A white dude. A heterosexual white dude. A manly man. A man so manly, that both his manliness and his supremacy are proclaimed in his very name: SUPER MAN. He is super, he is manly: he is super-manly!

While Superman has changed with the times, he’s usually imagined as THE PERFECT MAN:

In the original Siegel and Shuster stories, Superman’s personality is rough and aggressive. The character was seen stepping in to stop wife beaters, profiteers, a lynch mob and gangsters, with rather rough edges and a looser moral code than audiences may be used to today. Later writers have softened the character, and instilled a sense of idealism and moral code of conduct. Although not as cold-blooded as the early Batman, the Superman featured in the comics of the 1930s is unconcerned about the harm his strength may cause, tossing villainous characters in such a manner that fatalities would presumably occur, although these were seldom shown explicitly on the page. This came to an end late in 1940, when new editor Whitney Ellsworth instituted a code of conduct for his characters to follow, banning Superman from ever killing.

Today, Superman adheres to a strict moral code, often attributed to the Midwestern values with which he was raised. His commitment to operating within the law has been an example to many other heroes but has stirred resentment among others, who refer to him as the “big blue boy scout.”

And:

In the immortal words of the Jackson Beck’s introduction to the Superman Radio Show, “Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound” (Daniels, 54)! Superman is an international icon of strength, justice, and freedom. As figures in popular culture frequently do, Superman reveals a tremendous amount of information about American history.

Writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster created Superman as the perfect male. Superman was strong, fast, intelligent, and unstoppable. [...]

In the immortal words of the Jackson Beck’s introduction to the Superman Radio Show, “Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound” (Daniels, 54)! Superman is an international icon of strength, justice, and freedom. As figures in popular culture frequently do, Superman reveals a tremendous amount of information about American history.

Writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster created Superman as the perfect male. Superman was strong, fast, intelligent, and unstoppable.

Not the perfect human, mind you, but the perfect man. Male, even.

Irony aside,** Superman is problematic from a feminist perspective, and not just because Machan’s choice of a man to illustrate the perfection of humankind necessarily excludes women. In the realm of comic books, Superman’s world included, women are usually helpless and dependent on men for rescue; we are damsels in distress. Post-women’s lib, comic book damsels may be increasingly brash, competent and independent; in the end, though, we’re rarely capable of saving ourselves. We’re still damsels.

Even Lois Lane, who was written as an unusually strong woman from the start, was conceivably a product of misogyny:

Lois Lane was one of Kent’s coworkers at the newspaper, The Daily Star; in the early incarnations of Superman, he did not work for The Daily Planet. Lois was an abnormally strong female character in 1938, when she was created. She was so strong and abrasive that she became utterly unlikable. She never had anything nice to say about anyone but Superman. Kent was in love with Lane, in spite of the fact that she never displays any affection towards him, perhaps another insight into the way that Siegel and Shuster viewed women. However, she was infatuated with Superman and completely ignorant of Kent’s true identity. Lane called Kent a coward in almost all of the early issues and was generally mean to him in every scene they appear in together, but Kent still wanted to have a relationship with her. I have yet to encounter a truly romantic scene that was written by Siegel (Which was never the case with Stan Lee). It can be inferred that this was how he viewed women, or at least, himself with women.

And need I even recount the feminist kerfluffle when Ms. Magazine depicted a (photoshopped) Clark Kent-esque Obama on its cover, peeling off his white shirt and tie in order to reveal a tee sporting the slogan “This is what a feminist looks like”? Because that’s what feminist women need – a big bad man (and an undercover feminist, at that) to save us from political obscurity!

Superman is a comic book icon with some heavy cultural baggage (not all bad, I’m a fan, but still). In choosing Superman to represent humanity’s superiority to the animal/natural world, Machan betrays his sexism as well as his speciesism. He could have chosen an iconic woman, or an iconic pair of superheroes; for bonus inclusiveness, he might have chosen a person of color, or a member of another marginalized group. Dog knows that the world of comic books is overwhelmingly white and male; why further play into these isms by choosing a white male as the pinnacle of creation?

Seriously, Machan may as well have equipped Superman with a superheroine helpmate; maybe a cute little Lana Lang, standing about half as tall as her man, placing her (and, by extension, womankind) somewhere between Superman and the chimp. Head poised next to Superman’s super junk, perhaps?

Yeah, that sounds about right.
 
 
* Considering that Machan’s anti-animal rights argument probably stresses the mighty humans’ brains over the mere beasts’ brawn, Jean Grey would have been a better pick than Superman, dontchathink?

** Superman isn’t a human, but an extraterrestrial alien, stranded on earth; Superman is more perfect than even Jesus himself, an ideal to which no human can live up; Superman isn’t especially brainy, even though Machan probably bases his speciesist arguments on humans’ supposed intellectual superiority to all non-human animals; etc.
 
 
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6 Responses to “When anthropocentrism meets androcentrism: KA-POW!”

  1. ARPhilo Says:

    Oh man… Is it wrong that that flier made me laugh out loud? I mean I wasn’t even bothered by it, it was that ridiculously funny. Let’s see Tibor take on a chimp, then ask him who nature favored if he survives it.

    I have heard of this guy before though. Never read his stuff because I don’t like vomiting very much. The cover of the nature’s favorites book is also photoshopped to diminish the size of the other (yes, other) primate on it. Are we superior because we can use camera tricks to make people like me laugh their asses off at some guy’s fliers and book covers?

    Excuse my sarcasm, but anti-animal rights people amaze me. I really have to wonder what kind of delusions they suffer (or how much money they are being paid) in order to write this stuff. I mean, I understand people too apathetic to do anything, but being against the betterment of our treatment of other animals?

    As for comics, I am a big fan. I am not huge on superheroes, more of an Alan Moore, Garth Ennis, Grant Morrison type of gal. Still all white guys, but I won’t hold it against them.

  2. Kelly Says:

    I still want to know why the chimp is wearing a diaper – couldn’t they find any more natural shots to Photoshop in there? And is he eating a candy bar, too?!

    Weird, weird, weird.

  3. Richard Doczy Says:

    I happen to know that Machan had nothing to do with the Superman poster. (You should check your facts before to throw around accusations.) Moreover, Machan is explicit about supporting specieism. He defends it, so charging him with this is like charging a democrat with being, well, a democrat. The interesting thing would have been to examine Machan’s argument. But, alas, ad hominems are all we get.

  4. Kelly Says:

    Richard – the point of this post wasn’t at all to examine the substance of Machan’s arguments, but to look at pop culture representations of animals and animal advocates (hence the “pop culture” categorization), as well as how speciesism is related to other “isms” (hence the “intersections” categorization – also note how I do have a category for “philosophy,” but it wasn’t applied here).

    Re: Machan not being responsible for this poster, well, I’m sure he didn’t personally piece it together, but I would think he signs off on this sort of stuff; and indeed, as ARPhilo noted, at least one of his book covers employs a similar concept (i.e., I doubt that the same designer is behind both, which would suggest that this is a theme Machan favors). But if it makes you feel better, then ok; take what I said above, and apply it to the artist/company who *is* responsible for the poster. Odds are, they engage in speciesism, too.

  5. Richard Doczy Says:

    Frankly Machan probably has nothing against the poster or the book cover but it is publishers and organizers who are responsible for these, not authors or lecturers. Machan, in his book, defends using animals for sport, food, research, etc., so long as the treatment doesn’t isn’t cruel or produce wanton pain. He even notes that vegans, etc., are inconsistent since they don’t mind some animals using some other animals–they don’t organize posses to chase down the aggressors. If some animals, say lions, may mercilessly devour zebras, why may other animals, say, humans, not do the same? If you say, well they are moral agents and should act better, then you regard humans as special.

  6. Richard Doczy Says:

    My guess on the chimp wearing a diper is that it is a gimick, nothing more. All advertising relies on gimmickry, quite naturally–its task to get attention! Truth, realism, accuracy, and such have nothing to do with it. Any more than they have anything to do with personal ornamentation! And covers of books are also not selected by authors, although they can have an input, I am informed.

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