I recently read this article about how women are portrayed in the media, especially when they excel in fields traditionally associated with men. It shows how gender is emphasized when describing females’ achievements, but when a man accomplishes something his achievements are described without reference to “being a male.”
The author –Christie Aschwanden, a health columnist for the Washington Post — wants to change this.
Beyond Gender: The Finkbeiner Test
Aschwanden proposed “The Finkbeiner Test” as a guide for writing about females in professional fields. To pass “The Finkbeiner Test,” the story cannot mention:
- The fact that she’s a woman
- Her husband’s job
- Her child care arrangements
- How she nurtures her underlings
- How she was taken aback by the competitiveness in her field
- How she’s such a role model for other women
- How she’s the “first woman to…”
In other words, Aschwanden says it’s simple: “Write about the subject as if she’s just a scientist,” not from the perspective of her gender.
Breed: The Default Language of Dogs
“The Finkbeiner Test” got me thinking about dogs and how breed has been the default term we’ve used to describe them, even when breed is not a relevant factor.
When a dog does something we like, we credit his breed instead of the individual dog: “Rocky loves children because Golden Retrievers are great family dogs.” And when a dog does something we loathe, we point the finger at the breed: “Buster bit the mail carrier because Rottweilers are bad with strangers.”
Even in the most extreme cases –when a dog saves someone’s life — we credit the dog’s breed for the behavior. We assume that breed led the dog to act heroically, rather than the dog’s heroism itself.
What about describing the everyday things our dogs do? Even then, we use breed as our default language. Take my dogs, for example (shown below).
We had a friend visit last year who loved Cocker Spaniels. Our dog Nancy Reagan (bottom left) is a Cocker Spaniel and our friend was particularly drawn to her. No matter what Nancy Reagan did, she attributed it to being a Cocker Spaniel. “Nancy is so nice — Cocker Spaniels are so affectionate!” “Look at her chasing that ball — Cocker Spaniels are such athletes.”
Then our friend met Cappy. Cappy is a mutt/mixed-breed/breedless dog (bottom right). He did the same exact things that Nancy Reagan did: he was affectionate and he chased tennis balls. How did my friend describe him? “Cappy is so nice — he’s such a good dog!” “Cappy loves those tennis balls — such an athletic dog!”
Same behaviors, different attributions.
Why does this matter? Because using breed as a default language to describe all companion dogs has the following consequences — especially for homeless dogs in animal shelters:
(1) We attribute both positive and negative qualities to a specific breed, instead of understanding them as a function of the species as a whole.
(2) It leads us away from viewing — and valuing — all dogs as individuals.
(3) Since many dogs today are mixed-breeds, this language doesn’t accurately describe that population of dogs in America.
Beyond Breed: The Fannie Test
This is my dog Fannie (left). She’s a mutt. She’s breedless. A “Heinz 57.” And she’s a great dog: affectionate with people, athletic, loves the outdoors. Fannie has her quirks, too. She’s terrified of loud noises, she hates our other dog Martha, and she’s not that bright.
What I love about being Fannie’s guardian is that all her qualities are viewed as a function of Fannie as an individual dog, because there’s no breed to attribute these qualities to.
I’m not expected to make Fannie a “breed ambassador” on behalf of Fannies everywhere. There are no breed advocates to agree or disagree with. There are no breed experts to get unsolicited advice from. And there are no breed standards to live up to, no breed history to learn about, and no breed politics to get roped into.
Best of all? When Fannie makes me smile, Fannie gets all the credit…..because Fannie is a damn good dog.
So what’s “The Fannie Test” and how can animal shelters apply it?
It’s simple: “Write about the subject as if she’s just a dog,” not from the perspective of her breed — or absence of it.