By: Sonja Holopainen /
The deer animal has played a significant part in human history and culture, which can be seen by the presence of deer in visual culture. As the deer has recently become a relevant in popular culture, this project aimed to looked at the role of deer is visual culture in the past as well as currently. The deer as a symbol is itself not a new thing, but the animal being transformed into a consumable brand and object is something that is currently flourishing. The term “branded” is interesting when talking about deer, since the term can refer both to the branding of an animal, which represents it being owned by a human, but also “branding” in terms of business and the economy. By taking a brief look at the current visual representation of deer, as well as referencing the past, both of these types of branding can be found as the deer has had a long history of being both hunted and respect by humans. The modern day, branded image of the deer brings out many of the tensions that have been historically present in the representation of the deer and in the relationship between the deer animal and human beings.
The history of the relationship between deer and humans is long and complex. It is possible that the very first hominin encounter with deer was as long as 1.8 million years ago. (3) Throughout time there have been many different suggestions regarding how to categorize and classify the different deer species, however they all belong under the Cervidae family. (5) This family then has multiple different subcategories, differentiating between species such as, for example, the reindeer, moose, and Chinese water deer. Deer species exist all around the world from Europe to North America, and from China to Northern Africa. They have made a significant impact in human history, as can be seen by this quote from John Fletcher’s Deer.
The English word ‘deer’ strictly encompasses the entire tribe of mammals belonging to the family Cervidae. But it was not always so. Originally the Old English dior or Norse djur was even more inclusive, probably deriving from dhus, meaning ‘to breathe’, and so being attached to all living things other than plants. That such an important general word become so specific is an indication of the importance attached to deer at a time when European languages were evolving. (3)
Deer have clearly been deeply important throughout human history and the evidence of this can be seen in how deer imagery is present in human culture.
As an animal, deer are conspicuously characterized by the presence of their deciduous antlers, as they are the only species that has antlers. (3) The antlers are one of the most important ways through which to identify a deer, and this can be seen reflected in the way that deer are represented visually. Generally the antlers are the most prominent and important element of an image or a sculpture that represents a deer. In nature, antlers are important for deer to be able to survive, as they play an integral part in mating and competing with other males.
Within the relationship between deer and humans, the primary point of connection has almost always revolved somehow around hunting. Hunting used to be essential for the survival of human beings and some even claim that it is therefore deeply embedded into the psyches of human beings. (3) Historically, fishing and hunting have been considered as activities that are very much sacred and even today a ”gone fishing” sign communicated relaxation and a way to get away from the hastiness of everyday life. In regards to deer, the hunt has also inspired humans the most in terms of literature, myth, and symbolism. There is a ritual allure in the act of hunting, which can be seen in that most objects associated with hunting are always decorated. This is contrast to objects used in agriculture and farming, which are rarely decorated. Different cultures have had different relationships with the activity of hunting. In Greece, hunting was determined to be a recreation that prepared individuals for war and battle. While in China, royal hunts were a way for rulers to demonstrate their power as well as their administrative skills. (3) However, there have also been attacks on the practice of hunting, starting as early as during the northern Renaissance. Montaigne wrote about his distaste for hunting in 1580, saying that our joy in the hunt reflects some innate defect in the human spirit itself. (3)
One of the ways deer have been represented in popular culture is in cartoons, such as Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. However, the most prominent deer cartoon is Bambi, a Walt Disney move that came out in 1942. There disagreements among scholars whether or not the film was aimed directly at kids or parents, but regardless it is known as one of the more emotional Disney films. Bambi has had an incredibly deep influence on modern attitudes regarding the hunt, wildlife, and wilderness. The film includes a lot of rich symbolism that associated deer with being innocent, doe-eyed victims. (1) Hunters generally regard Bambi as the most powerful piece of anti-hunting propaganda that had ever been produced. (4)
The way in which Bambi is visually represented in the beginning of the film is very innocent and curious. The viewer therefore develops an instantaneous emotional connection, while watching him explore and experience the forest around him for the first time. Bambi encounters different animals, learns about the way life in the forest works with the help of his mother, and struggles to learn to walk on snow and ice.
In contrast with the innocence the film begins with, the tone of the movie turns negative as humans become present. The most prominent scene where humans are present is the one where Bambi’s mom is killed, which is known as one of the most tragic Disney scenes to this day. Another scene that features human interaction is when careless hunters cause a wildfire in the forest and the deer are shown panicking and running for their lives.
The final Bambi script contains less than a thousand spoke words and virtually the only sound effects that are heard are gunshots, rabbit thumps, and bird songs. Therefore, it is essentially a silent movie and the emotional power of it comes from the human-like body language and facial expressions of Bambi himself. The elimination of almost all language is a way to separate the human presence from the animals, and humans are only represented by ominous music. To this day, Bambi is attacked by many hunters, but the criticisms now mostly revolve around accusations of the film being nature-fakery, or misrepresenting nature to children. They claim that animals are not represented as the wild beasts that they are, but instead as sentimental and sympathetic creatures. (1)
In present day visual culture, deer mostly represent a type of nostalgia that is linked directly with nature. Either this is a nostalgia that is connected with hunting or perhaps a continuation of the hunting tradition, or then it is involved with wanting to return to nature and simpler times. Hipster culture adopted the image of the deer as a symbol, often associating it with 70s America, hunting, forest cabins, and whiskey. (6) This symbolism is often seen connected to music within the new folk revival, which is a genre that is usually associated with imagery of mountains, nature, and forests.
Furthermore, the image of the deer head has become a consumable object as it is currently something that is in itself ”cool”. As a consumable object, it’s symbolism beings and ends with it being a sign of being in the know about what is considered cool and popular at this moment. Currently, the deer head is consumed for the sake of being consumed. Examples of this consumption can be seen in home décor, as well as self-expression. There are many home décor objects that can be purchased that refer back to the deer. There is clearly a want to refer back to hunting culture, but in a much more clean and humane manner. What is achieved is a rustic style, but without the presence of death.
Elements of deer are also appearing in jewelry, tattoos, and costumes. A tattoo of a deer or stag often represents strength, and a return to nature. It is being used a symbol of self-expression or something that is in itself important to the owner.
In order to get a better grasp of how the visual representation of deer has changed throughout history, it is useful to compare the deer symbolism of today to that of the past, as a number of similarities and differences are revealed. Here is a picture (Image 12) from 1946 of a Native American ceremony held in the southwest. The ceremony being performed was created to seek consent from the hunting spirit to kill deer and request forgiveness from the animal, while also asking for good fortune in the hunt. The individuals are dressed up as deer, with large antlers placed on their heads, and sticks in their hands to create the impression of a four-legged creature.
The other image (Image 13) is a picture of a 22-year old girl named Hannah in a deer costume from the Halloween of 2014. She is also dressed up in antlers and her makeup and shirt work together to create the image of a deer. Even though these two images have similarities, the most striking difference is the reasoning behind dressing up as a deer. In Image 12 it is in the spirit of ceremony and ritual, revolving around nature and hunting. Meanwhile, in Image 13 it is for the sake of looking cute and having a trendy Halloween costume.
In Image 14 we see a real mounted deer head of a whitetail deer.
The website where this being sold describes it as: Antlers are 19 inches wide. Right side 22 ¾ inches long with 5 points. Left side 21 ½ inches long with 5 points. Heavy set. This mount is a favorite of ours. This buck was a real fighter. He has deep rub marks on both antler tips and a piece bitten out of his left ear. (quite common).
Image 15 then depicts a large faux taxidermy white deer head with gold antlers.
The description for this one reads: This stunning faux white deer head with gold antlers is sure to spark conversations in your home. Show off your love for animals by displaying this beautifully crafted and detailed resin deer head, which of course is cruelty-free. Our faux taxidermied animal heads are modern, trendy, and animal-friendly. (Image 15)
These two visual representations are almost identical, except for the material that was used to make them. One could even question whether on the real mounted deer head is a visual representation, since it is part of the actual deer. Each one of these products is for two very different consumers. One who wants to know that the “buck was a real fighter” and wants a real, dead deer hanging on their wall, while the other is someone who wants to mimic this rustic style, while being animal-friendly and cruelty free. This seems almost hypocritical, considering that regardless the material, this represent a chopped off head of a deer.
When briefly looking at some of the ways deer have been visually represented in our culture, it is clear that the meaning human beings create around deer is deeply connected with hunting. It is likely that this is so due to the fact that the primary interaction humans have with deer is through hunting them. Historically, deer have been primarily associated with hunting, but the imagery tended to be used for much more ritualistic purposes, whereas hunting culture now revolves around having deer heads on your wall as a status symbol. Therefore, the respect for the animal itself seems to have decreased. In Native American culture, even though hunting and killing animals has remained a big part of it, there tends to be maintained a respect and appreciation for the animal, whereas in current hunting culture deer are mostly just seen as targets. One of the modern responses to hunting has been an attempt to humanize or anthropomorphize (2) the animal through cartoons like Bambi, where the deer is shown to have emotions. As someone who is against hunting, this can be seen as a positive thing. However, it can be problematic because human beings are unable to know whether deer necessarily have these emotions. Furthermore, what does it means if humans stop hunting deer simply because it makes other humans sad? Is the primary focus then on the emotions of people instead of on the well-being of animals? In addition, the image of the deer has been stripped of almost all meaning and turned into a consumer object. It roughly symbolizes some kind of connection with nature or longing for a return to nature. There is also the attempt to completely move away from the violence that is associated with hunting, while maintaining that imagery in self-expression, home décor, and jewelry.
This project has fascinated me from the very beginning, because it started from a simple image and turned into something much more complex. I had seen a lot of deer imagery around in digital art, and thought that they looked gorgeous. However, I wondered what existed below the surface and what the meaning behind using deer imagery was. Investigating a visual of an animal seems as it will be simple, but I soon felt like I had opened the floodgates. There was so much information to be found and so many different paths to follow. In today’s world, visual imagery can often feel shallow, especially when it is in the context of consumerism. Things are consumed for the sake of consumption or because they “look pretty.” Having to go deeper has opened my eyes regarding other imagery and symbols that are often taken for granted within today’s popular culture.
1. Putnam, Rory. The Natural History of Deer. Ithaca, New York: Comstock Publishing Associates, 1988.
2. Fletcher, John. Deer. London: Reaktion Books Ltd., 2014.
3. Cartmill, Matt. A View to a Death in the Morning: Hunting and Nature through History. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993.
4. DeMello, Margo. Animals and Society: An Introduction to Human-Animal Studies. New York: Columbia University Press, 2012.
5. Hastings, A. Waller. “Bambi and the Hunting Ethos.” In The Journal of Popular Film and Television. Vol. 24, Issue 2, 1996.
6. Tolstad, Ingrid M. “Hey hipster! You are a hipster!”: An examination into the negotiation of cool identities(Masters Thesis, University of Oslo, May 2006).