I have just posted a new photo set on flickr, Anthropomorphic Pig v. Anthropomorphic Chicken.
Project Description, briefly:
Anthropomorphic Pig v. Anthropomorphic Chicken is my personal contribution to the current “what we think about what we eat” craze.
A comparison of images in the New York landscape should uncover some parameters of pigs and chickens in advertising. What is the acceptable range, from full-on pig to almost human, within which our minds still associate these animals with appetizing food? Do New Yorkers prefer their pig cartoons piggier, or more anthropomorphized?
That is the pressing question, but as this set grows, it will reveal other important information. Are there cuisines that prefer a more or less anthropomorphized chicken or pig? Is there a geographic correlation within this city’s diverse fabric of neighborhoods? Does a neighborhood’s ethnic makeup, residential-to-commercial ratio, or historical transformations affect the density and character of its pigs and chickens? And how does that old New York bugbear, gentrification, affect the survival of pig and chicken signs? Is it killing off the pig and chicken, or making them relevant?
This photo set is still in its early stages, but a rough sketch of the differences key to our understanding of pig and chicken signs can be proposed.
One, chickens hold onto their natural animal form more tenaciously than do pigs. This may flow from the primary formal difference between their shapes—the pig, as the first step toward humanizing it, must be made to stand up on two legs, while the chicken, already upright, can be portrayed as human-like even when keeping its wings.
Chickens can frequently be found dancing. There’s the Chirping Chickens, the Clucking Chickens, Los Pollitos has some excited young chickens in dancing shoes. Chickens are shown having fun. Celebrating. This is a helpful reminder that, even when it’s just takeout, eating is a social occasion.
Once humanized, both pigs and chickens are quickly costumed. This may be a carryover from the now century-old cartoon industry, where Warner Bros. and Disney were guided by propriety to at least partially clothe their naked talking animals. But restaurant signs import that modesty back into the context of the food industry. The animals can’t just be cute; they still need to sell food, so choice of outfit carries added meaning.
Chicken ensembles vary the most. A large number of chicken outfits are costumes, or uniforms, in which the chicken portrays exaggerated masculine gender roles. We have chickens dressed as cowboys, chicken college graduates, chickens stripping off their costumes Superman-style to reveal their secret restaurant identities. These chickens are performing a travesty, playing a part in the culinary world akin to what the Village People once played for music.
Pigs, on the other hand, are likely to be portrayed as eager chefs or diners. This is a more direct reference to the desirability of the pigs’ own meat. More so than the entertaining costumed dance of the chicken, the pig actively champions its own annihilation and consumption. “Come in,” the pig says, “and I will cook myself for you.” “If I were you, I’d eat me too.”
It’s hard not to be reminded of a parallel phenomenon in the cannibalistic sacrificial impulse of religious traditions. The murder and consumption of the gods is a familiar and comforting motif that recurs throughout civilization, most famously in the Last Supper of Christianity and in the human sacrifice rituals of the Aztecs. The theme in common is the willingness of the victim to offer himself up for the community. “Eat from this flesh and you will be redeemed.”
Pork is, perhaps coincidentally, the most sanctioned animal in religious dietary laws.
In the barrage of pigs and chickens, the relative absence of the cow deserves noting. Cows appear in more limited circumstances than either pigs or chickens. Where the cow is given cartoon form, it mostly references the animals dairy products rather than its own meat—the laughing cow selling cheese, the twisted “Maggie Moo” character from the ice cream world. The animal behind beef goes pretty much unmentioned, even when it is sold on the menu along with the pictured and happy pig and chicken. The exception is the steak restaurant, where the animal-ness of cattle is emphasized. For beef it is the male bull that we see, bulking and horned, an almost menacing silhouette that reminds us of the power behind this cuisine. Steak houses are the most masculine of restaurants, and eating a steak is an activity for the brave and powerful. It means emphatically we’re eating from a beast. Contrast that with the hamburger, always presented as a food without a source.
My current methodology involves grading the anthropomorphism of the pictured pig or chicken on a scale of one to five. This is necessarily a subjective decision, but over time statistical analysis of the growing collection of photos will provide objective criteria for rating their evolution: posture, clothing, shape of eyes, and use of speech are all elements that can be codified.