Mapping Contemporary Cinema

Short guide to zoomorphism

Zoomorphism is a critical method of analysis that looks at humans as animals. It is an element of post-humanist philosophy and is becoming increasingly popular in contemporary film theory. Cinema has a complex history of representing species on screen, and zoomorphism aims to interrogate this long-standing relationship between animals and the moving image.

When considering animals in film, zoomorphism is not the most common form of analysis. More frequently, film scholars seek to expose anthropomorphism, that is, the projection of human characteristics onto representations of animals. Anthropomorphism occurs most frequently in family animation films or in documentaries. Douglas Kellner cites March of the Penguins (2005) which uses penguins to create a love story, as an example of anthropomorphism. He criticises Disney for using animals “for the purposes of constructing conservative ideological machines” (77).

Originating in critical animal studies, the term ‘zoomorphism’ was added to the second edition of Greg Garrard’s Ecocriticism in 2011. Zoomorphic criticism is a reversal of anthropomorphic criticism. The concept was previously limited to analysing derogatory representations of humans as animals but has since been repurposed in a progressive and non-derogatory way. Moving beyond its historically pejorative use, zoomorphism is now being used as a critical concept that attempts to destabilise human exceptionalism. Garrard writes, “the crude zoomorphism of racial slurs should be confronted with the complex, non-pejorative zoomorphism of scientific and other understandings of human animality” (209).

Where critical animal studies addresses film the focus has tended to be on non-human animals. But the growing use of zoomorphic analysis in film studies, where animality is considered in relation to human animals, reacts against the exclusivity of this practice.  Zoomorphism acknowledges the similarities shared across species and brings to the fore questions of a shared animality, thereby posing the question: what does it mean to be human? This technique is inherently political. It elucidates the suffering of animals by comparing human and non-human experiences. Therefore, zoomorphism encourages us to question society’s treatment of animals, animal rights legislation, and the wider concept of humanity.

Zoomorphism has been utilised by film scholars in a variety of ways. For example, Thomas Wartenberg touches upon the similarities between the graphic representation of how humans are farmed by machines in The Matrix and modern day factory farms (276). This direct correlation between the experience of humans and the experience of animals poses a parallel or equivalence across species. Parallels and distinctions between human and non-human experiences critically illuminate the contradictory treatment of human and non-human animals, recognising humankind’s privileged position in society.

In addition to interrogating the human-animal relationship, zoomorphism also opens a field for conceptualising how audiences are placed as spectators. Adrian Ivakhiv reconsiders the positions of power between the film, the filmmaker, and the spectator by relating the experience of cinema to a hunt. He focuses on Stalker (1979) and Grizzly Man (2005), describing the protagonists in each as “zoomorphic adventurers”. These characters are zoomorphic because the respective films show them to be “becoming-hunted” by the audience. They are placed in the position of the animal being watched and followed into “other worlds that remain unknowable, unpredictable, and quite real” (244; italics in original). Ivakhiv’s analysis looks at the human protagonist as prey in order to place the audience as a predator, offering a different understanding to audience reception. This provokes a philosophical inquiry into how the spectator relates to instinct, power, terror, and the unknown, which all interact with the concept of animality.

A further method of zoomorphism involves the deconstruction of on-screen zoomorphic metaphors. Cynthia Chris uses an eco-feminist critique to highlight inconsistencies in the zoomorphic metaphors of Kill Bill Vol. 2 (2004). After disposing of Bill, The Bride reunites with her daughter and an intertitle reads, “The lioness has rejoined her cub and all is right in the jungle.” Chris writes, “These words dismiss Bill’s paternal care for the girl as unnatural and not right. In this jungle, only mother’s care is natural and if it is natural, it must be right” (209). While the intertitle attempts to justify the narratological conclusion of Kill Bill Vol. 2 as compliant with nature, Chris’s zoomorphic analysis shows that this is a totalising vision of nature being wholly maternal. Zoomorphism attempts to combat popular cinema’s often reductive preconception of animals and nature.

Greg Garrard, building on an analysis by Jhan Hochman, also seeks to destabilise zoomorphic metaphors in The Silence of the Lambs (1991). While animals are included in the title and are an integral metaphor to the horror of the film, Gerrard asserts that the film privileges cognitive values and the human condition while excluding the suffering of animals, “these are lambs of the mind whose fate displaces that of real lambs, an erasure that eliminates the topic of animal cruelty that is unwittingly revealed by the title of the film” (148). In recognising the visual absence of animals, Gerrard highlights the film’s anthropocentric distinction between human and non-human suffering.

Zoomorphism is also used to interrogate monsters in film. Margo DeMello writes, “A popular sub-genre of horror film is the “eco-horror” film, which features nature run amok [and includes] human-animal hybrids such as werewolves or the creature from The Fly (1958)” (333). The horror vehicle uses images of animals on screen to create monsters that blur human-animal boundaries. However, to deconstruct monstrosity and better understand cognitive processes of fear and disgust, zoomorphic analysis asks why the zoomorphosis of human bodies commonly evokes repugnancy.

Matthieu Guitton’s study of human-animal hybrids in science-fiction/fantasy notes the conservation of human traits even as the human-animal binary breaks down (157). His sociological research stretches the parameters of zoomorphism, as it highlights how the construction of human-animal hybrids is not arbitrary, but consciously excludes animality. He writes, “The process of creation of humanoid creatures in science fiction or fantasy is not random, but obeys [sic] very strict set of—conscious or unconscious—rules. While the body appearance can be altered, human morphological traits are highly conserved” (161). Specifically looking at the Star Wars prequel trilogy (1999, 2002, 2005), Guitton writes, “Major deviations from the basic anatomical form of the human body, such as the presence of additional limbs, were uncommon” (160). His study concludes that humans with animal traits create the fantasy realm, as opposed to animals with human traits, arguing that humans identify animality with otherness. The creatures in Star Wars are not necessarily horrifying, but animal features are explicitly regarded as alien and those who display them are subordinate to the race of Jedi.

Specific conceptions of cinema have also risen from zoomorphic analysis. In Creaturely Poetics, Anat Pick argues that cinema can be understood as an on-screen zoo, with the “cinema as a zoomorphic stage that transforms all living beings – including humans – into creatures” (106). Pick’s conception of cinema as a zoo relies upon Andre Bazin’s ideas about realism, where everything (including human and non-human animals) in the frame of the film should be given equal status. Jennifer Fay writes that Bazinian realism “reveals the details of animate and inanimate life that are lost to anthropocentric attention and history” (42), and therefore deconstructs humanist values to provide a vision of cinema that does not privilege humans nor animals. Bazinian realism, then, might be regarded as post-humanist.

Pick uses Bazinian realism to scrutinise the artifice of human social constructs. Her zoomorphism attempts to delegitimise humanism by providing a non-anthropocentric way of looking at animals, which includes human animals. For example, she writes, “for, in Bazin, realism’s encounter with death ultimately dehumanizes all who come under its technological spell” (114). Here, the existential crisis of death is not just an issue for humans in realist cinema, but an experience that transcends species. This philosophy affirms that the values and identities humans hold sacred are not reserved exclusively for a particular kind of human or humans in general, but belong to all animals. She asks, “would not a fully blown realist cinema do away with the artificial constructions of species in the pursuit of what Derrida called the “living in general”? Film’s realism is its inhumanity” (115). Pick advocates dismissing the concept of humanity, and therefore the construct of species, from film analysis. Without human attitudes and preconceptions, all creatures on screen operate like animals. This ‘cinema as a zoo’ approach permits zoomorphism to interrogate habitual cognitive processes as well as the audience’s reliance upon socially and culturally learnt ways of understanding the cinematic world.

Barbara Creed’s study of animal gestures also recognises cinema as a zoo. She compares the on-screen gestures of zoomorphised humans and anthropomorphised animals to better understand similarities between species. Creed locates the shared experience in the physical body, as for her “[t]he deployment of gesture in film through the human and animal body […] is an important feature in modernity in that it questions an anthropocentric view of human and animal” (54). Creed applies this methodology to humans and animals on-screen, but also performance. When looking at the role of animality in method acting, she writes, “[Lee] Strasbourg argued for the importance of actors drawing on animal behaviours to make themselves more aware of their bodies” (53). This analysis destabilises anthropocentrism in performance by recognising the body as a feature of all animality, and not reserved for humans alone.

Zoomorphic framework analysis is also utilised by scholars focusing on documentary films. Cynthia Chris coins the term as she discusses how the wildlife documentary genre has “shifted from a framework in which the animal appears as object of human action (and in which the animal is targeted as game), to an anthropomorphic framework, in which human characteristics are mapped onto animal subjects, to a zoomorphic framework, in which knowledge about animals is used to explain the human” (x). Chris’s specific conception of cinema relates to a specific style of documentary. In a zoomorphic framework, the film will look at animals to observe traits, values, and social mechanisms, and then compare these to human society. The framework is zoomorphic because the film attempts to reconceptualise society, learning from animal societies to function better.

Jennifer Ladino utilises a zoomorphic framework analysis in relation to the documentary Fast, Cheap & Out of Control (1997). Although she notes that this film may appear to perpetuate the human-animal hierarchy, she deconstructs the film to reveal how “our similarities to other animals are also stressed” (133). Ladino describes the contradictions of the humans who narrate the film. She highlights how Mendez, an expert on naked mole rats, claims that “the “other” is not something to be feared” when conducting animal experiments. However, on other occasions, Mendez “promotes a zoomorphic argument that when animals, including humans, encounter difference our first instinct is to fight: we seek out “the alien in our midst” to “attack ‘em.”” (133). Ladino addresses how the film exposes Mendez’s inconsistent philosophy. She writes, “sameness, like otherness, can lead to problematic narratives […] perpetuating a logic of domination that justifies the exploitation of nonhuman nature and the oppression of humans” (133). This zoomorphic framework analysis reveals how humans attempt to justify their domination over animals by identifying themselves as animals, believing animal behaviour is a matter of the survival of the fittest. Her criticism also highlights how zoomorphic framework is a tactic of the filmmaker to make the spectator conscious of contradictions in the human-animal relationship. She writes, “[Errol] Morris suggests a critique of the animals’ situation by paralleling Mendez’s dialogue with close-up footage of a frantic-looking mole rat […] A viewer must wonder, then, whether we aren’t meant to question Mendez’s ethical sensibility” (134). Zoomorphic framework analysis has the ability to reflect on animal experiences to better understand human society, but it also considers the contradictions in human understanding of animals, holding to account humans who dismiss animals in favour of human dominion over them.

Anat Pick and Guinevere Narraway write, “cinema (like other arts) is ecologically oriented and zoomorphic: it expresses the interconnectedness of human and other life forms, our implication in and filtering through material networks that enable and bind us” (5). Zoomorphism aims to expose this interconnectedness by highlighting the similarities between human and non-human animals, as well as unravelling the inconsistencies in humanist ideology. While zoomorphic analysis has primarily focused on universal humanness, the next stage for zoomorphism is to engage in an intersectional approach, placing species alongside other ethical concerns. A collective investigation into liberation, coinciding with sexuality, race, class, gender, disability, and ethnicity, will further progress critical discourse on how mechanisms of oppression function by exploiting differences in species.


Chris, Cynthia. Watching Wildlife. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2006. Print.

Creed, Barbara. “Films, Gestures, Species.” Journal for Cultural Research, 19.1 (2015): 43-55. Print.

DeMello, Margo. Animals and Society: an Introduction to Human-Animal Studies. New York: Columbia University Press, 2012. Print.

Fay, Jennifer. “Seeing/Loving Animals: André Bazin’s Post-Humanism.” Journal of Visual Culture, 7.1 (2008): 41-64. Print.

Garrard, Greg. Ecocriticism. 2nd ed. Abingdon: Routledge, 2012. Print.

Guitton, Matthieu. “Morphological Conservation in Human-Animal Hybrids in Science Fiction and Fantasy Settings: Is Our Imagination as Free as We Think It Is?” Advances in Anthropology, 3.3 (2013): 157-163.

Ivakhiv, Adrian. Ecologies of the Moving Image: Cinema, Affect, Nature. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2013. Print.

Kellner, Douglas. Cinema Wars. Chichester: Blackwell Publishing, 2010. Print.

Ladino, Jennifer. “Working with Animals: Regarding Companion Species in Documentary Film.” Ecocinema Theory and Practice. New York: Routledge, 2013. Print.

Pick, Anat. Creaturely Poetics. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011. Print.

Pick, Anat, Guinevere Narraway. Screening Nature: Cinema Beyond the Human. Oxford: Berghahn Book, 2013. Print.

Wartenberg, Thomas. “Philosophy Screened: Experiencing The Matrix.” The Philosophy of Film. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2005. Print.

Written by Aaron Parr (2015); Queen Mary, University of London

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