Pop Culture Overview
Chickens have been a part of human culture for thousands of years, and have become strong symbols in language, art, and storytelling. Historically, chickens were a common sight in both rural and urban settings, so they served to symbolize various behaviors and characteristics that humans could relate to. Throughout time and in many cultures, roosters have been deified, their early morning crows essential to the rising of the sun. They have been viewed as gallant, brave, and sometimes overly proud and have served to idealize human male masculinity—seen as an ideal “husband” or father who dotes on his hens and is willing to give his life to protect the flock.
Likewise, the hen has been characterized as the epitome of motherhood—nurturing, generous, protective of her offspring as well as industrious and social. Her chicks were the embodiment of innocence and new beginnings, though their precocious natures could sometimes get them in trouble. The egg from which they hatch has been imbued with its own mythology, and is the progenitor of the universe in various creation myths.
However, as chickens have become increasingly hidden from public view, most of us have come to interact with chickens primarily as a shrink-wrapped food item as opposed to a vibrant living being. As chickens as animals have been replaced in our consciousness with chicken wings, chicken sandwiches, and Chicken McNuggets, our associations with them have generally become more demeaning.
Terms like “dumb cluck,” “old biddy,” and “like a chicken with its head cut off” reinforce an image of chickens as foolish, cowardly, and consumable. Even the word “chicken” itself has become an insult. What other chicken-related expressions do we use in our daily lives? Do they have positive or negative connotations? Are they accurate depictions of who chickens really are?
Most of us first come into contact with chickens as animals through children’s stories, where they are anthropomorphized, live in an unrealistically ideal barnyard setting, or both. What messages do we learn from these stories? Click on the book covers to find out what each story is about.
Chickens are often the butt of jokes and games that play off their supposed foolishness or cowardice. One of the most well-known is the game of “chicken,” that features two players driving their cars toward each other on a collision course; the player to lose his nerve and swerve away first is considered the loser, or “chicken.” Similarly, casinos and county fairs challenge visitors to games of tic-tac-toe against trained or computer-assisted chickens, taunting, “Are you smarter than a chicken?” Organized “Chicken Olympics” and “Chicken Drop” events further play off the idea of chickens as inherently humorous. Perhaps in part because of this association, chickens are often victimized in pranks, sometimes stolen and released on high school campuses, hotel rooms, and other inappropriate environments. Games such as “Flickin’ Chicken,” “Cluck ‘N Chuck,” and “Chicken Blaster” all involve the idea of throwing or shooting at chickens for fun. In this 1960s Mother Hen Target Game, players shoot darts at the hen; if they hit the egg-shaped target on her side, she “lays an egg” and a ball falls into the cardboard basket.
What about the rubber chicken, that mainstay of slapstick comedy? While the origin of the rubber chicken has been variously attributed to Joseph Grimaldi, a British clown of the early 1800s and to blackface minstrels at the turn of the 20th Century, it was most likely created after World War II, when the latex injection process was developed. But whatever its origin, we might want to ask what makes a floppy, sometimes stretchy parody of a dead and plucked chicken so funny? Do the violent and demeaning messages in these games have an impact on our societal view of chickens? What purpose does it serve to characterize chickens this way?
Chickens in Film and Television
Chickens first appeared on the silver screen in silent films, and have been inspirations for animated characters in films, the most recent being Disney’s 2005 computer animated Chicken Little. Cartoons often anthropomorphize chickens—from the Warner Brothers’ swaggering troublemaker Foghorn Leghorn to Ginger, the brainy and adventurous protagonist of the 2000 British stop motion film Chicken Run. The messages these films convey are diverse. While many reinforce negative stereotypes regarding chickens, others, including both Chicken Run and the 2005 Chicken Little, portray chickens as heroic underdogs. How do films and television reflect and reinforce public opinion? What other films feature chickens, and how do they portray them?