Q&A with Christopher Polt PhD., who teaches a Talking Animals course at Boston College (Part 2)
by Patch O'Furr
We’re back after Part 1 of the Q&A with Christopher Polt, PhD., from Boston College. His Twitter is full of art and animation history that welcomes furry fans.
(Dogpatch Press:) It was interesting that you mentioned teaching a course in talking animals. Tell me all about it! Since when, and how unique is that, and how is it being received? What sort of students are in it and what are they studying in general?
(Christopher Polt:) I love that course — the material is so fun and weird and meaningful. The basic question we ask is, “What are we doing when we speak by using animal voices, and what does that say about our attitudes towards humans, animals, and the lines we draw between them?” It’s also my chance to teach some cool, off-the-wall art and literature. We read Apuleius’ Golden Ass, which is a novel about a guy who accidentally turns himself into a donkey and goes on a journey through the Roman provinces (think The Emperor’s New Groove, but much sexier and more violent), and Nivardus’ Ysengrimus, which is the earliest major collection of stories about Reynard the fox, an archetypal animal trickster.
Sometimes I also take students on field trips to tie historical material we’re learning to lived experience. One of my favorites has been to a local pet cemetery. We spend a few days talking about how Greeks and Romans use animals to think about divinity, mortality, and the afterlife, and we look at epitaphs and funeral poems for dead pets, which are often written from the animal’s point of view. There’s a great example in the British Museum, which commemorates the life of a dog named Margarita (“Pearl” in Latin), who died while giving birth to puppies:
She talks about chasing other animals through the woods, how she used to nap on her humans’ laps and sleep in their bed, and how she barked a lot but never scared anyone. So after we read a range of things like that, we go to the pet cemetery and read modern grave markers, and we compare how people grieve for animals differently and what they choose to celebrate and memorialize about them. My favorite is this one for a cat named Useless:
There’s something deeply touching about the contrast between the tongue-in-cheek name and the obvious care and expense that Useless’ human family put into this resting place.
We usually end the semester by looking at modern examples: Watership Down (which Richard Adams wrote as an animal version of Vergil’s Aeneid, an ancient epic about the founding of Rome), Bluth’s Secret of NIMH, Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, and Disney’s Zootopia. Last time I taught the course, we had a great and discomforting discussion of how animals can be messy metaphors for other issues, and Zootopia is a perfect test-case: when you present gender inequality or racism in terms of conflicts between different animal species or predator-prey relationships, you activate lots of cultural baggage and unintended ramifications that are really awful (anti-miscegenation, segregation, myths of racial difference, etc). Zootopia‘s play with film noir, its character and scenic design, and its large-scale imagining of a fully anthro world are great. Its messaging on gender and race? Not so much.
As for the students, they come from lots of backgrounds: Classics and English majors, students in Environmental Studies looking for a Humanities-focused perspective on animal studies, and some who say it just sounded interesting and different from their usual courses.
Lots of love for my thread about Robin Hood and Reynard a couple weeks ago, so as promised let’s look at the convoluted history of Disney’s Reynard the fox — long thread, but a fascinating story of violence, censorship, pirates, & the birth of a furry icon. Let’s dive in! (1/80) pic.twitter.com/6J5jXgZZM2
— Christopher Polt🏳️🌈 (@CBPolt) August 5, 2020
The animation research is impressive — I loved your Reynard/Chanticleer/Robin Hood thread. (I actually went to animation school and learned from old animators who were friends with old Disney guys…) It can take a lot of intense understanding to fit all that stuff together, especially if one isn’t that familiar with how cel animation was made. How did you get into that? Want to say anything else about Greek/roman classics > Disney as a focus?
The more I’ve learned about animation history and technique, the wilder and more improbable it all seems. What must it have been like for Charles-Émile Reynaud or Ub Iwerks to create and see contraptions like the Théâtre Optique and the multiplane camera bring a pile of still images to life? There’s this great remark by Ken Peterson, who worked at Disney from the ’30s through the ’60s, along the lines of, “People think ‘animation’ just means ‘movement,’ but it comes from ‘animus,’ the Latin word for ‘life’ or ‘soul.’ That’s what we do: we breathe life into these images.” It’s cheesy to say, but animation is nothing short of magic, and learning about how these artists achieve that is just utterly compelling.
As for Disney and the Classics, for now I’ll just say that Greece and Rome are woven into the fabric of Disney from its start, and not just in obvious places such as Hercules. In the 1920s, Walt sketched caricatures of Kaiser Wilhelm as Julius Caesar. In the early 1940s, Disney shorts drew on Greek athletic history to undercut Nazi propaganda, and in the 1950s Disney’s educational films used ancient science fiction tales and philosophy to encourage the U.S. public to support NASA and space exploration. Even the parks contain traces of antiquity. One of my favorite details: Joe Rohde, the lead designer on Disney’s Animal Kingdom, designed the park’s Tree of Life to be the same height as the Pantheon — a temple in Rome to all the gods — in order to help Imagineers structure the space around the idea of the park as a monument to the divinity of all animals and the natural world. It’s not something they intended the public to know or notice, but to help themselves think more carefully about the symbolism of the space.
That barely scratches the surface — if your readers are interested, I regularly share updates about the project (as well as other Disney research) on Twitter, and I’m always glad to chat with folks and answer any questions.
Love this echo — the carriages at the end of Disney's Cinderella (1950) & Robin Hood (1973) are identical, as is how Cinderella/Marian & the Prince/Robin enter & look out at the crowd (also, if you listen carefully, you'll hear that the church bells play the same melody in each). pic.twitter.com/8mIEqmpmFz
— Christopher Polt🏳️🌈 (@CBPolt) September 3, 2020
Is this a focus you developed after getting into your career, and then found it matched with a fandom, or were you a fan first yourself? Would you call yourself a furry fan?
I guess I’d describe myself as furry-adjacent. I don’t have a sona or fursuit, and I don’t really feel a draw to, and I haven’t been to a con (though if any organizers are ever interesting in bringing out someone to talk about historical anthro art and literature, I’d be open to that!), so I wouldn’t call myself a furry. But I love anthro art and animation, both “professional” (Disney, etc) and “amateur” (@JibKodi makes some stellar pieces, which are really relatable and moving, and who doesn’t love @Kekeflipnote‘s joyful bouncy animals?). And the furries I’ve gotten to chat with have been kind, generous, and smart, and the artistic talent in the community is simply mind-blowing.
When I was younger, I briefly had a job as Brother Bear from the Berenstain Bears wearing a full-body suit, paws to snoot. You quickly learn how hard it is to communicate and convey emotion! Fursuiters develop amazing techniques and instincts for that, and whether they see it as art or not, I believe it is 100%. Sometimes I think about asking a fursuiter to come speak with my classes on ancient theater (Greek and Roman actors almost always performed in full mask, often in heavily padded bodysuits and even sometimes in an equivalent of a modern anthro fursuit). So I have enormous respect for the level of artistry and knowledge in the fandom. A while ago @NoobtheLoser wondered if he could call himself an honorary furry, and I remember thinking, “That actually seems pretty sweet. I’d aspire to that.”
Wow, this is blowing up — great to see all the new furry accounts! I teach a course on talking animals in literature and plan to post some research related to that soon, so if you'd like to see more historical anthro art, be sure to follow! Neat and beautiful stuff coming soon!
— Christopher Polt🏳️🌈 (@CBPolt) August 12, 2020
Putting all this stuff together could be done with a highbrow attitude that eschews the furries, but it seems like you don’t. I see you referring to Anthro and Furries professionally. How is it received — by your colleagues, students, or furries you may encounter?
It’s a mixed bag. Even something as commonplace as pop culture or fan studies gets dismissed so easily in my field, which is conservative and risk-averse (as is academia in general), and to folks who aren’t furries or furry-friendly, the fandom often seems like just a weird niche and something unserious. And many people are still operating from the grotesque and sensational media coverage of the early 2000s — Gurley’s Vanity Fair article and that MTV Sex2K episode cast a long shadow, which we’ll unfortunately be living under for a long time. There’s this kneejerk reaction that furries are either a joke or a threat, and that’s too often framed in purely sexual terms.
Fundamentally, it’s not all that different from how the U.S. broadly approached queer people for much of the 20th century — this image that they’re all deviants and paradoxically both laughable and dangerously predatory at the same time. Gay men who grew up in the 80s and 90s like me were inundated with that same toxic messaging, and it saddens me when I see furries (or anyone) being treated the same way. At any rate, I do think it’s getting better, especially as more non-furries meet actual furries who can shake them out of their stereotypes and assumptions, and if any of your readers happen to be BC students, I’d like them to know they’ve always got a friendly and safe ally to talk with.
Do you have any other message to furry fans, or to all readers?
I guess I’ll end with something I often think about and tell students, which I think applies to everyone, furry and otherwise. We live in a world that undervalues art, literature, and community. Make space for them in your lives and don’t let anyone convince you they don’t matter. Read, look, study, engage, and keep finding joy in them.
Dr. Christopher B. Polt (he/him/his)
Director of Undergraduate Studies
Classical Studies Department
Boston College, Chestnut Hill, MA
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