[There will be spoilers for Netflix’s Sweet Tooth in this post]
Netflix’s Sweet Tooth is marketed as ‘a perilous adventure in a post-apocalyptic world, a boy who’s half-human and half deer searches for a new beginning with a gruff protector.’ The character around whom the story centres is Gus who, we learn part-way through the series was engineered in a lab by a scientist called Birdie who he believes was the mother he never met. Gus was born into a world that was about to grapple with a viral pandemic referred to as ‘The Sick,’ and was the first hybrid on the planet. At some point after Gus’ birth, every baby was born part-human, part-animal, with goats, turtles, pigs, hedgehogs, lions, birds, orangutans and almost everyone in between featuring. The Sick and the hybrids emerged at around the same time, although exactly how the two are entangled is as yet unexplained.
Sweet Tooth‘s release was not planned to arrive in the midst of our own global pandemic, but this timing has led to eerie reflections of the world we have come to know: the determined maskers and the it-will-be-ok-ers; those who enclosed their communities, and those who refuse to accept the world around them; and those who will protect themselves at any cost (Renaldo Matadeen, CBR). Commentators have been gushing over what the show has to tell us about pandemic worlds, and whether there is ultimately hopefulness to overcome difference and understand one another. From my own critical animal geographies perspective, I am left with a different set of questions.
What is the relationship between humans and animals?
The ‘hybrids’ are described as ‘half-animal, half-human’ but vary greatly in how human or animal they look. For example, Gus’ only visible animal parts are his ears and antlers. Gus can speak, unlike many of the other children, a quality that he shares so far only with Wendy, a pig-human hybrid. Gus and Wendy are the two hybrids for whom we have the most back-story, and also seem to be rare in that they were brought up with a parental figure in their life. Gus was raised by his Pubba, a janitor that Birdie handed him over to, fearing for his life in the laboratory. Wendy was raised by her adoptive mom, Aimee, who runs The Preserve, a safe house for hybrid children. At The Preserve, there are tens of other hybrid children, giving the viewer insight into the range of differences between individuals.
Along the other end of the spectrum in animal-human aesthetics is Bobby, who looks exactly like a small groundhog. Bobby can speak a little, but looks entirely animal, apart from his glorious fashion sense. He is close friends with Wendy but, as shown in their capture by The Last Men (a group of humans who capture hybrids to produce medicine for The Sick) is less ‘human-minded’ than Wendy. Between these two extremes of anthropomorphised animals and humans with animal ears is a whole range of more or less human and animal looking hybrids. Some have animal heads, arms, and/or legs. We learn little about how these hybrids were treated or escaped mainstream society, and whether this was affected by whether they presented as “more” or “less” animal.
What complicates this narrative of liminality and betweenness further is the rare inclusion of actual animals in the narrative, namely a horse named Trixie. Trixie is “owned” by Dr Singh and his wife, who live in a gated and secluded enclave of humans in a middle-class neighbourhood. These humans have strict rules and borders on their community to keep the highly contagious “Sick” out, and go to extreme lengths to ensure their community stays sanitised. Dr Singh rides Trixie on errands, and they keep the horse as a domestic worker, creating a jarring contrast between the other representations of animals in the show only in the hybrids. While there is some fan speculation that Trixie may be a hybrid, due to her supposed displays of autonomy and her joy at freedom, it is certainly illuminating that this animal is the only one who exists in this world otherwise devoid of animals, outside of the hybrids.
Other domestic animals, such as dogs and cats, and farmed animals such as cows, chickens, and sheep are totally absent from Sweet Tooth. A part of me is left wondering if there will be an explanation of this wholly human world, or if the actual animals were disappeared in a moral panic in the wake of the hybrid births and The Sick pandemic. Either way, the relationship between humans and animals that could offer a subversive challenge to speciesist society has thus far reverted to the expected anthropocentric norms.
How is anthropocentrism reproduced through voice and aesthetics?
To return to the aesthetics of the hybrids, it feels important to note that the two main characters in the series are mostly human-looking with small animal features. Indeed, Gus almost evades capture once by, on the advice of his ‘gruff protector’ Big Man (or Jepperd), donning a helmet over his antlers as if in costume and pretending that they are attached to his helmet rather than his head. I consistently found myself asking why the audience are not being challenged to empathise with the weird and unruly hybrids, but only the ones we can easily categorise. Gus and Wendy are the most recognisably human of the hybrids and Bobby, despite being almost totally animal-looking has a distinct air of Paddington around him that evokes an easy connection with the audience. How would the audience have related to a show focussed on the hybrids who weren’t so easily categorised, or whose animality and humanity could not be so easily separated?
In addition to the focus on the more easily categorised or anthropomorphised characters, the Netflix show also relies on another easy win: to have their main characters be able to speak in a language the human viewer can easily understand. Those who can speak in a human language thus become representatives for the wider hybrid community. We, the audience, accept them as representatives and individuals and, in so doing, homogenise the rest of the hybrid community into a collective. This play-off between the individual and species level interest is one that is being resisted by many critical animal studies scholars, and a growing number of ethnologists (see Nishant M. Srinivasaiah ,Vijay D. Anand, Srinivas Vaidyanathan, and Anindya Sinha, for example). Of course, this is hardly surprising in a big budget show hoping for a wide appeal, but it is interesting to see how these preconceptions are written into the show so easily, reproducing easy, but incorrect, knowledges about animals even when they become, at least in part, human.
The hybrids, we know, do communicate between one another, having been taught sign language by their adoptive mother, Aimee, at The Preserve. This communication raises another question of collectivity: are the hybrids another species? Are they all the same species? Are they a sub-species of humans? These questions haven’t been directly addressed in series one of the show, but by asking them, the surface level writing of other animals becomes apparent again.
Of course, Netflix’s version of Sweet Tooth is appealing to a liberal notion of difference, respect, and tolerance. It isn’t really about animals. It is about how we, as humans, live together and destroy those less powerful than us. Nevertheless, its representations and message remain interesting to me from this animal perspective.
On multiple occasions, we meet infant and baby hybrids, some of whom can be viewed in the screenshot above from the trailer for the series. Upon seeing these babies, I was the first and most guilty in speculating what kind of hybrid would be the cutest. I, of course, settled that all of them would be adorable. In so doing, I reproduced what Tidwell (2009) would call ‘our inability to deal with the reality of nature.’ In doing so, the audience are goaded not into resisting our preconceptions of animals but extending them onto these human/animal hybrids. Our already existing hierarchies of charisma (Lorimer, 2007) are deployed through the portrayal of cuteness. It is not only being closer to the human that makes hybrids empathetic, but there are differences between which are more empathetic by virtue of them being more human.
Is there a future for this multispecies community?
Discussing the difference between the darker original comics of Sweet Tooth (Vertigo, an offshoot of DC), Executive Producer Susan Downey told Radio Times that “the biggest shift was aesthetically, we just wanted to make this world much more vibrant and lush, and kind of create real space for this exciting adventure.” Of course, the Netflix show has a message, that we should all learn to live together, tolerate difference, and build inclusive societies for our fellows humans, leaving viewers ‘pleasantly surprised (see Stolworthy for The Independent). But where does this leave the animal in this vision? As a prop for human stories or as a metaphor for a message about humanity?
At the end of the series, we see Big Man, Jepp, shot and Gus captured by the Last Men. While Jepp is left to bleed out, Gus is imprisoned. In this prison, terrified in the dark, a ball rolls towards Gus. He picks it up and looks up to be met by Bobby. Behind Bobby, the other hybrids captured from the Preserve are chattering. Gus looks on in awe as the group emerges from the shadows.
Then Wendy leads the group towards him and, not expecting to hear anything back, having never met another speaking hybrid, she says ‘Hi, I’m Wendy.’ Looking around the group, Gus replies, ‘Hi, I’m Gus,’ leading to gasps and coos from the group. Wendy steps forward and embraces Gus, quickly followed by the other hybrids as the camera pans out and Gus smiles. At this point, I am, of course, weeping.
After this scene, we leave the group of young hybrids in prison, the camera panning to the credits to also show scenes from the human stories that have been playing in parallel through the series. Despite these being hybrids, the scene is very much one that might be found at a zoo or medical facility anywhere across the world. The only difference is the hybrids being kept together, and allowed to build community. They haven’t been hurt (yet), but imminent danger looms. Are we to assume from this scene that the humans in this world view them as one species? That their animal-ness is subsumed to their hybridity?
Just before their capture, Jepp had told Gus about his own hybrid baby, who he had failed. Earlier, we had learned that Big Man’s wife had given birth to a hybrid early in the pandemic. In a flashback, we see Jepp’s terror, sweating and fleeing the hospital to leave his wife and child. In the elevator, a chance encounter with Dr Singh sends him back to his wife and child. In this short time, it is too late. His wife and child had been taken (and presumably killed) by the Last Men.
In their last conversation, Gus is confused and hurt as to why everyone wants to kill him. He wishes he never left the forest. He doesn’t want to be special, he wants to be like everyone else. Gus’ tale becomes one of an outsider who wants to belong, further cementing the narrative of humanity overcoming animality, of humanity being able to eventually to encompass animality, if it comes to us as humans.
What are the lessons that we can take from this, or that we might recognise from this in the ways that we advocate for and try to understand animals? Anthropomorphism already plays a role in how we relate to animals, but there is also a need to undo this and recognise animals as individuals with not only species-level welfare needs, but their own desires for their lives. Sweet Tooth might be a story of redemption with a moral to tell us about human communities, but it also reveals how deeply ingrained our attitudes about animals are, and how even when they become human, we still might not meet them on their own terms.