America cares when dogs die — humans, not so much
It used to be easy to recognize the bad guy in books and movies, because he was very, very bad. “That was the end of Grogan,” declares romance writer Joan Wilder in the opening of the 1984 comedy-adventure, Romancing the Stone, “the man who killed my father, raped and murdered my sister, burned my ranch, shot my dog, and stole my Bible!”
Lately, however, a new trend in action flicks has emerged. Hollywood screenwriters have dumped the murdered relatives and swiped holy books because millennials no longer care about them. Now all that’s required to set the hero on an epic rampage is the wrongful killing of a pet dog. No matter how high the ensuing body count, his revenge-killing spree is entirely justified. Because, you know, the dog died.
“I don’t think you understand,” drawls Bob Lee Swagger, played by Mark Wahlberg, in 2007’s Shooter. “Those boys killed my dog.” Swagger methodically hunts down the men who killed Sam the dog, lured Swagger into a political conspiracy, framed him for an assassination, kidnapped his dead buddy’s wife, and repeatedly tried to murder him.
Fast-forward to John Wick (2014), starring Keanu Reeves as a retired assassin deprived of his beagle by the son of a Russian crime lord. Wick retaliates by singlehandedly killing the entire Russian mob, starting with the henchmen and working his way up the hierarchy. As film critic Sophie Gilbert points out, “The film’s tagline is ‘Don’t Set Him Off,’ but it really should be ‘This Idiot Killed My Puppy and Now Everyone Must Die’.” She estimates that Wick kills 78 humans as payback for his puppy, and every last one of them deserved what was coming to them. The last one to die, the crime lord himself, pleads for his life by saying, “It was just a fuckin’…” – BAM.
When John Wick distilled the film’s raison d’être down to this line—You killed my dog—the purity of the message made audiences go nuts over its “awesomeness.” Cinematically speaking, writes Joe Queenan for the Guardian, there have been so many “nuns, hookers, bank tellers, waitresses and innocent bystanders murdered over the years” that audiences just don’t give a flying fig if more humans randomly die. But if a bad guy kills a puppy? Well. It means that “you just totally and completely suck, and therefore deserve no mercy. Die, pooch-abuser! Die!”
Why doesn’t this emotional logic work with gerbils? Or cockatoos? Or even cats? It’s partly due to nature—dogs and humans co-evolved to be each others’ companions—and partly due to culture. Today, dogs occupy a specific emotional space inside the American domestic sphere. Legally, pets are property. Psychologically, dogs have become children, which is precisely why calling them “property” offends dog lovers. (“You guys killed my dog,” cried Sean Kendall, 27, after a cop in Salt Lake City, Utah, inexplicably shot his Weimaraner in the head. ”Did the officer at least have the decency to kill him in the first shot so he didn’t suffer? Or do I have multiple gun wounds in what I consider my child?”) As slobbering, tail-wagging avatars of our ids, dogs are not only man’s best friend but man’s preferred bedmate over women. Sooner or later, “bitches” will insist on being recognized as human beings, whereas actual dogs are happy if you just pretend they’re people.
Inside Guyland, the dog wins. And therein lies the problem. The exclusionary contours of the man-dog bond are frequently, if not exclusively, informed by misogyny tucked inside White People Problems. For example, a never-aired scene from “Sex and City” shows conservative Charlotte walking in on her date getting a sexual favor from his devoted Golden Retriever, framing her as the homewrecker messing up the sacred man/dog relationship.
Recently, the New York Times published an essay written by an American man dating a British woman who thought it bizarre that he slept (chastely) with his terrier mix, Whisky. He asked his psychotherapist what she thought. She replied: “When you’re a single guy and you have your dog in the bed, the message is: ‘This is my primary relationship’.” She goes on to explain that the bond between man and dog can easily take priority as “the more intense emotional relationship.” Just in case he was confused, she added, “That’s bad.”
When a guy sleeps with a dog in his bed, the addition of a girlfriend creates a socially destabilizing love triangle. If the girlfriend stamps her foot and declares, “It’s me or the dog,” a guy proves he is not pussy-whipped by choosing the dog. When damaged John Wick finally lets the puppy sleep with him, it is a sign of an Emotional Breakthrough. But this circle of trust had already been taken to its logical conclusion in the cult classic, A Boy and His Dog (1975). Set in the wasteland world of 2024 (tagline: “A future you’ll probably live to see”), the teenager not only chooses his mutt over his girl, but kills her so his furry friend can have a nice supper.
In films, as in real life, go ahead, whack the girl, but never kill the dog unless you want America to hate you with the white hot heat of a thousand burning suns. Consider that in the original Norwegian version of Insomnia (1997) the hero shoots a stray German shepherd. The American remake of Insomnia (2002) changed that scene so the hero shoots the carcass of a wild animal. The producers knew that a dog-killing good guy would present the audience with contradictions impossible for it to resolve (a conundrum that The Kingsmen: The Secret Service (2014), exploited to full comedic effect), and there was no way American audiences would see a dog-killer as anything but the bad guy, even if the shooter was Al Pacino playing a haggard homicide detective.
The ground rules are clear. When cops in Idaho shot and killed an unarmed black male named Arfee, that act of random violence prompted “rallies, protests, sinister threats against the officer responsible, and a viral campaign that spread well beyond the town and drew an apology from the mayor,” because Arfee was a pet dog. Just a few miles away, within the same 14-hour span, Idaho police shot and killed Jeanetta Riley, a pregnant, married mother of three young children. Yet there were no expressions of outrage from the church community, and no promises of reform from the police. Circumstances being what they were, the killing of a troubled Native American woman was barely worth acknowledging.
The normative power of structural racism, misogyny and bourgeois value systems means that “we value dogs more than we do these women,” indigenous playwright Ian Ross said regarding the plight of Aboriginal women in Canada, who have gone missing by the thousands or turned up dead with hardly any attention paid by the police or the white community. It means that in J.M. Coetzee’s novel Disgrace (1999), a white lesbian farmer in South Africa signs away her property to a black farmer and agrees to be his mistress, becoming “like a dog” so he will protect her from being raped again. It means that a good chunk of the United States cares more about property, status symbols and pets than they do about the death of a marginalized woman of color.
“You killed my dog” takes on a whole new meaning when it migrates off the screen. It’s not that the wrongful killings of dogs are inconsequential, or that policemen should get a pass for taking any life, animals included. But there are troubling ethical implications when a specific subset of human lives are deemed less valuable than those of certain animals, and when empathy for pain and suffering only surfaces when the victim has a tail.
In the wake of #BlackLivesMatter, a photo began circulating on social media, captioned: “This is the picture that’s gonna make white people say, ‘these cops have gone too far’.” It showed a white police officer with a knee to the back of the head of a prostrate dog. Outraged, one Facebook commentator noted: “Wt did the dog do for it to be treated like that? fucking disgusting and disgraceful.” Well, yes.
But are you looking at a bad dog, or a bad guy? For those moviegoers who can watch humans get killed all day long but are wrecked when the dog dies, a website lets them know if, in fact, the dog dies, so they don’t have to uncomfortably witness it. There is no such website for real life, only the decision to see. If the moral conundrums are just too hard, John Wick: The Sequel, is coming soon to a theater near you. He has a new beagle.