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HOWARD ROSENBERG / TELEVISION

Don't Have a Cow, or a Lamb, or a Pig . . .

October 25, 1995|Howard Rosenberg

Animal rights supporters are still euphoric about Lisa Simpson's conversion to vegetarianism in front of more than 14 million television viewers.

It happened on the Oct. 15 episode of "The Simpsons" when precocious Lisa, always her family's moral beacon on the Fox comedy, militantly swore off eating meat after relating the lamb chops on her dinner plate to a cute, huggable lamb that licked her at a petting zoo. "What's the difference between this lamb and the one that kissed me?" she asked.

Written by David S. Cohen, the episode itself gave the answer, artfully weaving into its plot a slaughterhouse sequence, a pitch for tofu hot dogs and voice-over cartoon cameos by animal rights veterans Paul and Linda McCartney.

"Rock stars," moaned Homer Simpson. "Is there anything they don't know?"

TV comedies are usually at their deadliest and clumsiest when lecturing viewers. In this case, however, mounting a veggie soapbox neither cost "The Simpsons" its acute sense of humor nor blunted its appetite for wicked satire. Instead, the episode was a brilliant harmonizing of anti-ignorance mirth and pro-animal message.

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Pushing that message one step further, "The Simpsons" also slipped in a good word for vegans, who reject eggs and dairy products as well as meat on ethical grounds.

The connection that Lisa didn't make in the episode, though, is the one between live animals and the leather shoes and other animal goods that likely comprise much of her wardrobe. She no longer eats animals, but she still wears them.

Still, if only all of TV were as enlightened as "The Simpsons" and so eloquently expressed how the planet's culture of violence targets animals as well as humans. Some believe it happens even in the same family. Making that connection, an ad campaign for the Washington Humane Society declares: "The dad who comes home and kicks the dog is probably just warming up."

When it comes to kicking animals, meanwhile, television has been warming up for at least a couple of decades, according to a new study by famed media researcher George Gerbner, dean emeritus of the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania.

It was Gerbner and his associates who suggested years ago that TV's crush of violence created a "mean world syndrome," whereby the public constantly feared being in peril far out of proportion to any real danger.

In peril from animals, too, perhaps.

Commissioned by the Ark Trust Inc., a Los Angeles nonprofit organization that monitors media depictions of animal issues, the study, released Tuesday, warns that "excessive and unrealistic violent images of animals may lead to real world violence against animals as well as against people."

Among the study's findings:

* Violence toward animals is extensive in prime time but even more "rampant" in Saturday morning kids' shows, where scenes with animals being treated "badly" outnumber by more than 2 1/2 to 1 those showing them treated "well."

* Depictions of animals are especially negative when they are wild and shown in their natural habitats.

* Animal rights activists are portrayed mostly as being violent.

The study's TV findings are based on a 20-year sample (the 1972-73 to 1992-93 seasons) of Saturday morning and prime-time non-news programs, a more detailed analysis of the 1993-94 season, and prime-time scripts from 1989 to 1993. It also includes a section on print coverage of animals issues.

Missing from the study, unfortunately, are specific examples and clear trends that would chart, for example, whether television has regressed in its attitudes toward animals since 1972 (in contrast with the growing influence of animal rights lobbies in the United States). Or, in the case of "The Simpsons" and some other shows, how far it has progressed.

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RUN, FIDEL, RUN. It's always something.

After visiting New York to celebrate the 50th birthday of the United Nations, Cuban leader Fidel Castro will be returning home in time to avoid facing the wrath of angry Americans concerned about Flipper.

In a truly heinous turn of events, Flipper soon will be scooped from his Florida waters by kidnapers and shipped to Cuba. His new home will be a pool at a luxury hotel--built to attract U.S. tourists and other unsuspecting pawns--run by the unsavory Sen~or Hernandez. Hold your hats, for this happens Nov. 4 on KCAL-TV Channel 9, which airs the new syndicated "Flipper" series Saturdays at noon.

The inevitable rescue effort is launched with the inevitable result. But the real, chilling suspense comes when the dejected Flipper refuses to perform tricks with his new toys, and Hernandez warns that if the dolphin doesn't shape up soon, "It will die!" Even more insidious, the Cubans have renamed him Marco.

Will they stop at nothing?

But there's more. Hernandez, his brain hatching evil communist schemes by the millisecond, decides he wants Flipper to perform a trick for the ages by jumping from the pool onto a platform and doing a dolphin-style "curtsy" for the soon-to-be-arriving "el presidente." That's right, Fidel!

The TV series expresses its own outrage at such exploitation by having Flipper's human pals from Florida be on hand to protest Hernandez's treatment of the dolphin--that is, forcing it to become an entertainer and perform this horrific unnatural feat for the benefit of humans. Very nice. Except this respect and concern for animals does not inhibit the series from having the dolphin playing Flipper perform the curtsy stunt for the benefit of the plot.

Call it selective compassion: It's all right for us to do it, but not them.

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