Some Terrific, Radiant and Pseudo-Pet Pig
By Georgia Jeffrey
Charlotte’s Web (2006) is the story of Wilbur, the runt spring pig, and his quest to see the first snow fall of winter. After making an unlikely friend in Charlotte, the resident barn spider, the farm animals band together to save Wilbur from the slaughterhouse. In this film adaptation, the writers challenge the social constructions of farm animals by making them more visible and personified. Non-human animals are defined based on their relation to humans and their utilization (Stewart and Cole, 2009). Their categorisation is both contingent and socially constructed. According to Stewart and Cole (2009), farm animals are frequently considered objective and invisible. Charlotte weaves webs of intricate and carefully selected words above Wilbur’s barn door to make him more visible to the humans in control of his fate.
Children often empathise more with animals and are temporarily disgusted when the find out the origin of meat. Literary and film tend to help children learn to “conceptually distance the animals they eat from those whom they have an emotional bond” (ibid.:458). The portrayal of nonhuman animal characters with what we assume to be uniquely human qualities is commonplace in children’s fiction. Quite often there is an emphasis placed on domestic animals and pets. This communicated the idea that ‘pet-keeping’ is the only emotionally important relationship a person should have with other animals. Chickens, sheep, cows and pigs “are treated as replaceable commodities, which remain invisible in the stories”(ibid.:463).
Wilbur quickly becomes a “pseudo pet” at the beginning of the film. At 0:02:30, the audience is introduced to a litter of newborn piglets. Fern, the farmer’s young daughter, runs through a thunderstorm from the main house to see them. The music is light and whimsical, reflective of Fern’s excitement and wonder as she first lays eyes on them. The music comes to a halt and claps of thunder dominate the soundscape as her father picks up an axe and the smallest piglet. As he turns around and notices his daughter is watching, a flash of lightening lights up the left side of his face. In that moment, Fern considers him the evil bad guy and the pathetic fallacy reflects this.
Her father says the piglet needs to be killed because he is too small. Fern replies “it can’t help being small, if I’d been born small would you have killed me?” The answer is “of course not” (0:03:45). Here, the adult is drawing lines in the value of life when Fern does not believe there is a difference. Fern’s love and nurturing of Wilbur, after her father agrees to letting her rear him, is critically set against the father’s profession as a meat farmer. For the audience watching, there is an association between the loss of sympathy or empathy for animals and growing up (Stewart and Cole, 2009).
For Wilbur, he is transformed from a working animal into a pet as a result of his treatment by the human benefactor. He becomes a hybrid of two categories: food and companion. Throughout the film, Wilbur is constantly threatened by his primary identity as food. His status as pet is unstable. Stewart and Cole (2009) argue that “animal typologies are transmitted…through the diversion of polymorphous and non-discriminatory affective forms of relation between children and other animals, into culturally defined routes” (p.478). By challenging these categories through giving a farm animal a voice, the pig is viewed as an autonomous subject, contrary to what children are taught. The “absent referent” is what separated the consumer from the animal and the animal from the product. Whether it is the use of euphemisms such as pork or beef, the “absent referent” keeps something from being viewed as someone (ibid.). Charlotte’s Web (2006) has been credited as being responsible for temporary decreased pork consumption among children as it tried to break this down (Stewart and Cole, 2009). However, in the end, a gimmick saved the animal, not its animalness.
Charlotte’s Web. (2006). [DVD] Directed by G. Winick. Harper & Brothers.
Stewart, K. and Cole, M. (2009). The Conceptual Separation of Food and Animals in Childhood. Food, Culture & Society, 12(4), pp.457-476.