Archaeology and anthropology treat the presence of animals in mythology and folklore as axiomatically about a culture’s ideas of nature. Sociology often assumes modernity no longer has such myths, but animal imagery abounds. In this article, the authors argue that our relationships with animals and nature are not primarily rational or scientific but formed through these images and the mythologies that come with them. The authors call these images “modern bestiaries” in reference to the medieval proto-encyclopedias that cataloged animals for moral instruction. Modern bestiaries (including alphabet books, sports teams, and car names, among others) generate a holistic worldview that marries a deep love of animals and “nature” to a fundamentally anti-ecological cosmology. The authors examine a particular modern bestiary—the menagerie of gummi animals in the candy aisle. Eating a gummi bear is never merely gastronomic but also an act of mimesis, sympathetic magic, and storytelling in which cultural relationships to animals are formed.
Gummi bears . . . have become a fad with kids and are taking a hefty bite into the jelly bean-Jujyfruit market. . . . Their taste and texture are “a cross between three-week-old Jell-O and flavored rubber bands.”—People Magazine, November 1985
Animals first entered the imagination as messengers and promises.—John Berger, Why Look at Animals
Aesthetically speaking, we like these bears. The colors are soothing, translucent pastels—celery, baby blue, pale pink—and the bears appear friendly, reaching for a hug.—Phoenix New Times, May 1, 2001
Thirty Thousand Years, Dreaming of Bears
More than thirty thousand years ago, someone painted a series of bears on the wall of a cave in the Ardèche River valley. The Chauvet cave is just one of hundreds of sites, from France to Indonesia, in which the artistic works of the late Paleolithic are preserved, with cave walls and ceilings covered in pigs, bison, woolly rhinos, stags, reindeer, aurochs, ibex, horses, mammoths, and bears. But humans are depicted only a handful of times, and crudely at that. There are no landscapes, no still lifes, no Stone Age trompe l’oeil. The artists descended into the earth and painted animals.
While scholars of Stone Age tools rarely feel inclined to speculate on the meaning of a flint hand axe, those who study Paleolithic art face such a temptation on a Faustian level. In the decades since Lascaux was discovered, its paintings have been interpreted as “hunting magic,”1 clan totems,2 gender dualisms,3 and even shamanistic religious trances.4 But can the evidence justify any such interpretation? What could we say about medieval Europe if all that was left was a rusty sword and a copy of the Aberdeen Bestiary? What can we say about the Upper Paleolithic when all they left was a bestiary spread across thousands of years and a vast network of cave walls? Even if there could never be enough evidence for meaningful interpretation, the caves are nonetheless assumed to be hallowed ground, their paintings profoundly significant, even central to Stone Age culture.5
We argue that cave art can provide genuine insight, not into the cultural world of the past but into the critical sensibility of the present. Why do we assume that we have found the spiritual epicenter of the Upper Paleolithic, rather than the one thing time could not destroy? Is the Lascaux cave a Paleolithic Library of Congress, or Stone Age bathroom graffiti? More akin to the Book of Genesis or a romance novel? Perhaps the caves were holy sites, their “Red Bears” famous from the Rhone to the Atlantic for ten thousand years. Or perhaps it was just kids, messing around in a cave. The question ought to make us wonder: what are we overlooking today because it is not codified into this era’s high culture? Imagine the future archaeologist tasked with studying our society, left with only a few artifacts preserved by chance and accident. There is no predicting what might survive the epoch, or what “caves” might preserve them. But imagine that they were asked to reconstruct the spiritual world of contemporary America with few clues other than a well-preserved bag of Haribo gummi bears.
We take this counterfactual—perhaps the parietal art was not grand opera or high church—as the starting point for our own theoretical inquiry. Instead of devaluing the cave art, it demands that environmental humanities pays at least as much attention to the bears in the candy aisle as archeology pays to the bears on the cave walls. Gummi bears are junk food for children, but they are also a story about bears, about nature, and about ourselves. Raymond Williams famously called for “different ideas” and “feelings” about nature,6 a call echoed in almost every strain of environmental writing. Aldo Leopold, perhaps the most significant American source of this tradition, sees a similar need for “new ideas,” or resurrected old ones, about “the despoliation of land.”7 William Cronon argues that it is time “to rethink wilderness.”8 More recently, Justin Farrell wrote a compelling account of environmental conflict in Yellowstone National Park, arguing that debates explicitly framed in technical and scientific terms are really about spiritual and cultural ideals, and that “we need to know what identity-shaping stories, large and small,” people use to “make sense of their world and their place in it” and “what it is about nature that they find meaningful, and sacred.”9
To find these “identity-shaping stories” today requires looking away from “nature” stories, at least as traditionally understood. Real-life bears once used the Chauvet cave for hibernation, and the Stone Age artist who painted them on its walls did so in such detail that they could be identified as Ursus spelaeus, a now-extinct species.10 Hans Riegel, the inventor of the gummi bear, based his original 1922 design on the “dancing bears” that were a “fixed part of [annual] festivities” in nineteenth-century Germany.11 Trolli’s 1980s-era gummi bear looks like a hallucination of a bioluminescent teddy bear. So, following Susan Buck-Morss in her study of Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, we believe that “the common, everyday objects of industrial culture have as much of value to teach us as that canon of cultural ‘treasures’ which we have for so long been taught to revere.”12 Once we recognize gummi candy as culturally significant—as an “identity-shaping story”—we can also ask what these stories about bears tell us about our relationships to real bears, and to the rest of what we rather carelessly call the natural world. Like Steve Baker’s classic Picturing the Beast, this “inquiry begins from the stubborn insistence that this apparently banal material is not without significance,” and that “our thinking about the living animals reflects—and maybe even by the rather direct result of—the diverse uses to which the concept of the animal is put in popular culture, regardless of how bizarre or banal some of those uses may seem.”13 Gummi bears are only one such story, but they are an exemplary one, and we argue that these stories are instrumental in shaping modern sensibilities toward the vast nonhuman world.
We call gummi candies a “modern bestiary,” in reference to the medieval proto-encyclopedias in which animals were identified and used as didactic vehicles for moral instruction. Although it is a term of art in the study of medieval manuscripts, the gummi selection in every American grocery store is a bestiary in the full medieval sense, a vivid portrait of the imagination of the American child, each entry exemplifying the fantastic, wonderful, and disgusting that animate the culture. Archaeologist Julien Monney described his first experience in the Chauvet cave as so powerful that he had to take a break: “Every night I was dreaming of lions.”14 To average Americans, the glowing, luminescent bears of the candy aisle are so familiar as to be invisible, peg bags hanging next to the licorice or chocolate. But if you look with fresh eyes, perhaps it is not so hard to imagine an archaeologist of the distant future dreaming of them someday.
The next section of this article introduces the modern bestiary as a framework to aid our understanding of how animals, and the cultural meaning they are invested with, contribute to shaping popular ideas about nature and the environment. The rest of the article is devoted to an exploration of one specific modern bestiary—gummi candies. This discussion is not an exhaustive empirical account of each specific gummi candy’s meaning but, rather, a theoretical argument for taking their meaning-making capacity seriously—considering them as a modern bestiary—and asking what they can tell us about human relationships with the nonhuman world. Turning our attention to these modern bestiaries offers a deeper understanding of the cultural and epistemological factors that may forestall effective approaches to pressing environmental problems. Most American children are not raised with ecology textbooks or even much direct exposure to animals, outside a handful of domesticated species. But Americans still have experiences with “animals” that are expressed as feelings about the environment. Unfortunately, these lived experiences, though they engender love, awe, and respect, remain distant from ecological realities. Superficial knowledge of ecology, mostly acquired as adults, disguises deeper relationships rooted in these other narratives about animals, narratives that in important ways are anti-ecological by comparison. Our discussion of gummi candies in particular examines how a realm of material experience such as eating can generate symbolic meaning about the natural world through a form of mimetic sympathetic magic. We conclude with a discussion of how the modern bestiary might aid and inform future sociological scholarship on animals and the environment.
The Bestiary as a Framework
In its medieval incarnation, the bestiary was a proto-encyclopedia of sorts, with entries devoted to specific animals. Entries typically combined an illustration of the animal with a description that included moral and theological properties attributed to it. The origin of the genre as it is typically understood is often traced to the Physiologus, a second-century CE Greek text written in Egypt, but ultimately the bestiary had its heyday in medieval northern Europe. Though there is not universal consensus about the books’ overall purpose, scholars generally interpret them as having simultaneously functioned as a “large dictionary of animal names” and as a didactic vehicle for “moral instruction.”15
What makes bestiaries remarkable is this intersection of the field guide and the psalter. Bestiaries were both a reference work, cataloging knowledge about extant creatures, and a religious text, for meaning making and symbolism. Today these projects are separate, but in the time of the Bestiary, they were intimately connected. As put by historian Monica Walker Vadillo, “Nature was God’s Book, and humans had to decipher its meanings and messages to discover evidence of God’s plan for them. The Bestiary was an attempt to decipher those layered meanings in terms of animal habits and lore.”16 Bestiaries thus paired descriptions of animal behavior with moralizing theological interpretations of those behaviors. For example, in Medieval Bestiaries, Debra Hassig synthesizes the representations of various animals from twenty-eight different bestiaries and writes that entries for the fox nearly always included a description of the animal playing dead to deceive its prey, which was then used to cast it as a symbol of heresy: “According to the bestiarists, . . . the fox is a figure of the devil, who pretends to be dead before those who live according to the flesh, whom he traps and devours. But although he may hold sinners within his gullet, to spiritual men he is utterly dead, and so is the effect of his work.”17 While conferring symbolic meaning on individual animals, the bestiary taught a holistic overarching worldview. This function of the bestiary distinguishes it from the encyclopedia, which similarly chronicled and categorized knowledge of the world but omitted the bestiary’s “allegorical message.”18
As a genre, bestiaries are largely confined to the medieval European manuscripts described above, but this article uses the term to describe a cultural tradition and a mode of symbolically relating to the natural world that extends from the Chauvet cave to the alphabet books given to toddlers today. In other words, rather than just an artifact of a now distant and unfamiliar past, the bestiary can serve as a theoretical framework to explore the contemporary cultural significance of animals, especially as it relates to our more general dispositions about the natural world. We stand to gain many insights along these lines by locating the bestiary’s dual purpose of education and allegorical meaning making in modern-day counterparts.
Animals, Meaning, and Nature
This claim follows in the footsteps of numerous scholars who have explored the significant material and cultural impacts animals have on human social life. One broad thread of the interdisciplinary field of animal studies descends from Clifford Geertz in treating animals as cultural objects with meaning to be reconstructed.19 A foundational text in this area is Geertz’s classic essay “Deep Play” on the symbolic importance of gamecocks and the ritual of cockfighting in Balinese society.20 Robert Darnton employs a similarly interpretive approach to analyzing the symbolic meaning of the slaughter of a cat in 1700s France.21 More recent work has investigated the symbolic presentation of animals in zoos,22 the capacity of pigeons to symbolically consolidate kinship ties and ethnic identity,23 and the meaning ascribed by bird enthusiasts to the objects of their passion.24 Other scholars emphasize how animals participate alongside humans in material social processes by demonstrating the extent to which social life is “entangled” with the webs of nonhuman life within which it exists.25 This work has roots in actor network theory’s extension of agency to nonhuman “actants.”26 Using this framework, scholars have described multispecies “assemblages” in which social processes incorporate such players as mosquitoes and dengue viruses,27 matsutake mushrooms and pine trees,28 and mangroves and alligators,29 among others. Similarly, Richard York and Philip Mancus demonstrate the profound material impact that animals have had on the course of social history.30
These two perspectives (on the symbolic and material importance of animals) offer parallel lessons about our extra-human relationships, with the key difference being one of scale; one approach adds depth to our understanding of micro-level interactions with animals, while the other elucidates the big-picture, ecological implications of human-nonhuman crossings. Both, though, are grounded in direct, immediate interactions with animals. Using the bestiary as a theoretical framework assists in mediating between these micro- and macro-level perspectives by examining alternate and often-overlooked sites of meaning making that shape our relationships with animals. To take the example we will explore in more detail below, a package of gummi bears is certainly the result of a multispecies assemblage (of grains farmed and processed into corn syrup, livestock whose collagen becomes gelatin, human factory laborers, and more), and a meaningful symbolic representation of an animal otherwise uninvolved in that ecological relationship. As a framework, the bestiary helps us make sense of how the symbolism through which everyday people make sense of the natural world often bears tenuous connections to what it represents. Just as they did in medieval times, bestiaries render the complexities of the natural world in a consumable (for the gummi example, literally consumable) cast of characters.
As Steve Baker pointed out in his seminal Picturing the Beast: Animals, Identity, and Representation, any examination of representations of animals must grapple with the “consequences of their apparent inconsequentiality.”31 Though they are almost universally regarded as superficial,32 when they are noticed at all, contemporary America has its own collection of bestiaries, including sports mascots, children’s alphabet books, car names, and the one we will analyze in further detail below, the edible bestiary of gummi candies and other animal-shaped snacks. The bestiary in its original form is gone, but contemporary culture continues to catalog animals and in so doing assign them meaning, though that meaning making may go unnoticed. Although scholars like Jeffrey Cohen argue that “medieval authors and artists could, at least implicitly, approach the animal nonanthropomorphically . . . as an intractable and ahistorical melding of the familiar and the strange,” he is also the first to admit that this is “never likely,” and that the primary and explicit register was allegorical and didactic.33 For the modern bestiary, this is reversed. Occasionally the meaning is explicit, but gummi creatures are always offering up their symbolic meaning implicitly. Just as the images in the Aberdeen Bestiary “offered ‘possible bodies’ to the dreamers of the Middle Ages,” the gummi creatures are “both dynamic and disruptive” shapes and ideas “through which might be dreamt alternate and even inhuman worlds.”34 Cohen believes the infamously anti-Semitic hermaphrodite hyena of the Aberdeen Bestiary escapes “mere context” or “historical determination” to “yield to the pull of dreamier horizons and unforeclosed possibilities.”35 But not all alternate worlds are desirable, and some possibilities should stay foreclosed. Cohen understands the medieval bestiary as a cultural product of a world in which animals were “proximate strangers.”36 His fellow medievalist Susan Crane, in her own study of animals in medieval literature, points out that “the people of medieval Britain lived in daily contact with domestic and wild animals” and “even city streets teemed with all kinds of creatures.”37 For readers and scholars of the medieval bestiary, Crane seeks to “redirect attention from the animal trope’s noisy human tenor back to its obscure furry vehicle.”38 For the eaters and scholars of the modern gummi bestiary, however, the furry vehicle is obscure indeed. The gummi bestiary relies on the particular meaning of many different animals, but it also conveys a powerful message about the animal kingdom and nature, a message that negates ecology.
When we as humanities and social science scholars are open to the possibility of a bestiary hiding in plain sight in the colorfully decorated plastic bags of the candy aisle, we become more acutely aware of the links between cultural meaning and ecology as well as where those links have been severed. There is a chamber in the Chauvet cave with a bear skull placed neatly in the center of a large flat rock. Archaeologists call it the “bear skull altar.” Today, ursine imagery retains its power, but every new icon is a step away from living, breathing bears. In 1914 a Canadian Army veterinarian bought a bear cub from a trapper at a rural train station. He named her Winnie, and before shipping out to France, donated her to the London Zoo. There she would be visited by a young Christopher Robin Milne, whose father immortalized them in his 1926 classic Winnie-the-Pooh. In one chapter, Pooh marches “through copse and spinney” and “down open slopes of gorse and heather, over the rocky beds of streams, up steep banks of sandstone into the heather again; and so at last, tired and hungry, to the Hundred Acre Wood.”39 From a “bear skull altar,” to a bear in a zoo, to an anthropomorphized bear in a book, bestiaries of the past and present symbolically link us with the nonhuman creatures that fascinate us. But even the original version of Pooh lives in a recognizably English landscape. Few children today have the firsthand experience of any landscape necessary to follow Pooh through “copse,” “spinney,” “gorse,” and “heather.” Disney’s incarnation of the Hundred Acre Wood purges all traces of ecological naturalism. Thirty thousand years later, the collective culture is still dreaming of bears. But today the first bear many encounter will be edible and translucent and, rather than residing at the highest trophic level of an ecosystem, is the protagonist of an abstracted animal kingdom that includes sharks, worms, dinosaurs, and polycephalic snakes.
By highlighting this distance that meaning has strayed from material ecology, we do not aim to provide an all-encompassing grand theory of nature. As countless scholars have shown us (chief among them Raymond Williams), that task would be immense to the point of being impossible. On the contrary, the bestiary as a framework highlights the ways this complexity of nature is elided by the most common deployments of the concept. While we agree with Williams that “nature is perhaps the most complex word in the language,”40 the dominant meaning of nature in mainstream American culture is overwhelmingly reductive in its lived, everyday usage despite these complex origins.
We argue that the seemingly mundane cultural products of industrial modernity like gummi candies are in fact the sources of potent modern mythologies. We must look in these unexpected places in our search for the origins of our relationships with animals and, by extension, our environmental sensibilities. Unlike preindustrial, traditional culture there are no storytellers, no folk songs, nothing for a contemporary Thomas Bulfinch to chronicle. Instead, our contemporary mythology is contained in “the constantly changing new nature of the urban-industrial landscape.”41 Romantics have longed for a contemporary mythology but have failed to find one, or produce one, leaving them, with Max Weber, to assume that the world’s increasing rationalization led to its disenchantment.42 But Walter Benjamin can give us cause to, if not so much disagree, at least recognize the conditions under which this hypothesis is less useful, and in turn recognize the ways even industrial capitalist society possesses a powerful and compelling mythology. While Benjamin certainly agreed with Weber that all important social institutions were to some great degree bureaucratizing, he also saw that “if social and cultural institutions had become rationalized in form, this process allowed content to be delivered up to very different forces,” and “the ‘threatening and alluring face’ of myth was everywhere” in the advertisements and commodities of modernity.43
This common notion of a “disenchanted” modernity ushered in by industrialization is closely linked to the popular cultural narratives of environmentalism that locate a “sublime” beauty in pristine, extra-human wilderness.44 However, taking seriously a site of industrial cultural production such as gummi candy as a source of meaning making reveals that these environmental sensibilities are as much a product of suburban industrial life as they are of attempts to transcend or escape it. Although it has “become a shibboleth in social theory that the essence of modernity is the demythification and disenchantment,” it is impossible to look out on all these bears, sharks, and dinosaurs that grace the candy aisle and believe that “there are no mysterious incalculable forces that come into play.”45 The most dangerous thing about the edible mythology created through the gummi bestiary is that it may be dismissed as trivial or childish, hiding in plain sight the materialization of an environmental ethic with only tenuous connections to material ecological conditions.
The Bestiary in the Candy Aisle
Taste and Environmental Meaning
The notion of the gummi bestiary takes for granted that food and eating are potent sites of cultural meaning making. This alone may be uncontroversial to most sociologists, but gummi candies reveal the extent to which taste itself (the physical experience of eating, rather than distinction in the Bourdieusian sense) is chiefly an experience of meaning as opposed to a physiological sensation. While there are objective, chemical antecedents to taste, social elements ultimately drive our experience of food in important ways. For example, research has indicated that shape and appearance of meat substitutes, rather than taste and texture, are most important to nonvegetarian consumers.46 This and the reluctance of consumers in general to eat increasingly successful imitations of meat indicate how a food’s meaning stems from factors that lie decidedly outside physical properties perceivable by our taste buds.47 The notion of physiological taste as laden with meaning echoes the recent work of other sociologists who have located social meaning in various forms of sensory cognition, including olfaction48 and hearing/sound.49
While eating and food are sites of meaning making, they also constitute one of the most fundamental points of contact between human society and the physical environment. Even in the mediated context of industrial foodways, eating remains the most direct line between embodied human existence and the nonhuman environment, the most intimate consumption of natural resources. In other words, if food is a site of meaning making, then the meaning in question is inherently about our relationship to the environment. Leopold famously called for a “land ethic” that extends “the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals.”50 Leopold, a long-time employee of the US Forest Service, focused his examples on the plow and the field, but even a cursory glance at his seminal Sand County Almanac indicates that his “land ethic” must come to the table as well. Calls for more ethical consumption are increasingly common today, and grocery stores are filled with “fair-trade,” “cruelty-free,” and “organic” items.51 But as Leopold argued decades ago, “we can be ethical only in relation to something we can see, feel, [and] understand,” and the same ecological blind spots that render the edible bestiary invisible prevent us from seeing the fraught ethical terrain of the table. Leopold was already, in the 1940s, openly rejecting the “balance of nature” imagery that is still commonly invoked, arguing that teeter-totter metaphors fail to grasp the “land,” which is more accurately “a fountain of energy flowing through a circuit of soils, plants, and animals,” a stratified pyramid in which the layers “are alike not in where they came from, or in what they look like, but rather in what they eat.”52 Or, as the great French food writer Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin put it, “Tell me what you eat, and I shall tell you what you are.”53 You are what you eat.
Today environmentalism is a powerful source of meaning driving American foodways, but foods’ meanings are still often crucially divorced from the ecological conditions of production. For instance, in a 2014 op-ed, celebrated chef Dan Barber bemoans the missteps of the so-called farm-to-table movement.54 He argues that we need to start “by erasing any divisions between eating and farming” and see the table as, literally, an agricultural space.55 He observes that instead of finding ways to make our cuisine out of the things our land can produce, consumers are dictating the menu and expecting the fields will continue to yield “the All-Stars of the farmers’ market”—-“asparagus, heirloom tomatoes, emmer wheat”—without adequate consideration of fertilizers and soil health.56 Barber’s response is a dish he calls “rotation risotto,” which uses the less glamorous rotation crops such as buckwheat, barley, millet, and flax that are necessary to maintaining productive soil and farming sustainably.
Barber’s critique indicates how even food that explicitly invokes environmentalism is often abstracted from ecological conditions. Gummi animals are the most extreme examples of this abstraction; their environmental meaning is completely divorced from any material ecology and derives solely from their shape. In terms of environmental meaning, gummi bears and Barber’s rotation risotto are for food what the “duck” and the “decorated shed” are for architecture, according to the famous dualism proposed by Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour. For them, a “duck,” a category inspired by an actual duck-shaped building in Long Island that sold ducks and duck eggs, is a building whose meaning lies firmly in its form, as opposed to a “decorated shed.”57 In the same vein, a gummi bear’s meaning is its shape, whereas the rotation risotto’s meaning derives from the conditions in which it was produced and the socio-ecological function of growing and making food that way.
Shapes, Mimesis, and Symbolic Communion
Of course, to eat gummi candies is still to participate in an ecological link between our taste buds and the material, natural world, but this gummi bear–rotation risotto dualism highlights the distance that can be placed between meaning and ecology. To put it another way, when one consumes gummi candies, they are, at one level of ecology, eating corn and petroleum, but at another level they are communing with bears and sharks and worms. Both the meanings of gummi candies and their commercial success are fundamentally connected to their shapes. As one executive in the candy industry put it, “Shapes are molding today’s gummi sector,” which has “evolved into a virtual Noah’s Ark of animals and other fun-to-eat shapes, including frogs, worms, octopi, burgers, rings, tongues, watches and even pizzas . . . now you can have virtually any shape you can conceive.”58 Long before gummi candy, Nabisco found success with Animal Crackers when a new process allowed realistic, recognizable animals to be formed out of cookie dough. The material qualities of gummi candies are of course still an important factor in their success and appeal; far beyond anything a baker could produce, gummi candy is the ideal medium for an edible bestiary, for the way it resembles flesh, both in its contours and its composition, making a gummi tongue (or alligator, fried egg, shark, or worm) much more mimetically satisfying than one made of chocolate or any other candy material: “Made with pectin, . . . the candy is also moulded by various manufacturers into fruit-flavored fish, mice, Smurfs, alligators, baseball bats, tennis rackets, transformer robots and the latest rage, worms. ‘The worms taste like the bears but are longer,’ declares a 9-year-old critic.”59
This biomorphic, fleshy quality allows for a marvelous variety of shapes, but the most common and most iconic of these are animals. Whereas bestiaries of the past paired animals with didactic moral fables, the modern gummi bestiary includes animal characters that have specific appeal as edible objects. Examining a few of these most visible characters may clarify the edible bestiary’s broader implications. The original gummi, the Haribo gummi bear, was a crude rendering of a bear standing upright. Every gummi bear since has been a step away from bears and toward teddy bears, whose original features (including a long snout and beady eyes) had already been softened to appear more like a human baby’s and less like those of a bear cub. The confectionary industry has long used animal shapes to sell gummies, but for the most classic, quintessential of these shapes, a soft “cuteness” has been more important than a realistic representation of the animal in question.
Other fascinations besides “cuteness” emerge in the gummi bestiary. The gummi worm, another iconic example, reflects decidedly different sensibilities, especially children’s common fascination with the “weird” and “gross,” offering a proxy for the transgression to be achieved by eating real worms. In fact, gummi worms are probably closer in size, appearance, and texture to their living counterparts than any other gummi animal, and so they provide a particularly satisfying mimetic experience.
The Haribo product “twin snakes” appeals to this same exoticizing fascination with the “weird” and “gross.” These conjoined pairs of sweet and sour snakes seem to deliberately evoke rare two-headed snakes and to play on an attraction to the bizarre biological anomalies that nature sometimes produces.
Some shapes require more imaginative projection from the consumer. The gummi shark, which is almost always blue with an opaque white underbelly, might be equally convincingly described as a dolphin or, given the lack of any comparison for scale, even a different variety of fish. But just as there is purchase in eating gross worms and freakish conjoined snakes, there is a certain allure to symbolically consuming whole the awesome and terrifying predatory prowess associated with sharks. That appeal would simply be lacking if they were mere “fish.”
Gummies and the Imagination of Nature
What can we learn from the specific animals commonly found in the candy aisle? Early candy shapes such as licorice pipes, chocolate coins, and jellybeans were strictly limited by the available technology; candy came in drops and sticks and squares because the manufacturing processes made these the obvious choices. The jellybean in its waxy shell is, from a confectioner’s point of view, a gummi candy, and one with a representational shape at that, but it was near the limits of what could be imitated in candy form. Today manufacturers can make gummi candies in any shape that can be imagined, and the existence of gummi bears, worms, and dinosaurs speaks to the imagination of the modern American child. The scope of that imagination is far greater than this article could encompass, and transcends environmental concerns, but there are two ways in which the gummi menagerie is about nature. First, it identifies nature with wilderness. And second, it treats that wilderness as synonymous with individual species, divorced from any ecological context.
The gummi bestiary is a map of nature, but “the map is not the territory.” Gummi bears do not taste like bear meat; they taste like raspberries. Gummi cheeseburgers do not taste like cheeseburgers either, but, according to their manufacturer, “you will be unable to resist its flavor of rhubarb, raspberry, strawberry, pineapple, kiwi and gooseberry.”60 In both cases, the shape signifies something beyond flavor. It is the idea of the cheeseburger, and the idea of the bear that are being eaten, not simply a blob of faux-raspberry-flavored gelatin. For the candy professional this is a very practical problem: “Ever since 1902, when animal crackers were first mass-produced by the National Biscuit Company . . . the food-industrial complex has been targeting children with edible items fashioned as covetable objects.”61 They do not need to ask why, they just need to know if children will covet a particular shape. But this article is asking why. Why are there so many bears and so few dogs or cats in this menagerie? Why so much wildlife and so few farm animals?
By almost any measure, puppies and kittens are far more popular than bears or worms. But to eat a gummi bear is more akin to taking communion than it is to buying a T-shirt. Frank O’Hara, writing in Art News, said that “the best of the current sculptures didn’t make me feel I wanted to have one, they made me feel I wanted to be one.”62 And no matter how much love we have for our pets, or how much utility we gain from our livestock, the average person wants to have them, not be them. In this way, gummi candy participates in a “definition of nature as only the wild things, which we destroy and banish when we build cities” and farms.63 Those pectin bears, worms, sloths, and octopi in plastic bags of gummies are not there by accident. They are, in very real ways, “teaching us to fetishize sublime places and wide-open country”64 and see nature only in wild animals.
To take a case that is extreme, but not an outlier, the classic Barnum’s Animal Crackers once released a limited-edition “Endangered Collection” featuring Komodo dragons, peregrine falcons, Hawaiian monk seals, and Bactrian camels. The New York Times asked Greg Price, product manager at Nabisco, whether there was “something weird about eating these near-sacred animals.”65 He replied: “Of course, what do people like about Animal Crackers? Biting off the heads! Our hope was that children will line them up, match them up with the names on the box, learn about them, and then decapitate them.”66 The explicit message of the packaging was about habitat loss and extinction rates, but this message matters much less than the form of the product. It is not just an image of an endangered animal, it is an edible image. The appropriate emotional responses to this endangered menagerie (empathy for the endangered Komodo dragon, respectful fear of the predatory force of the shark, revulsion at the earthworm) are subsumed by their form. It is worth remembering, after all, that Americans have a history of expressing affection or adoration for the nonhuman world in ways that privilege that adoration over the well-being of its object. Peter S. Alagona, for instance, details the harrowing journey a California grizzly bear made in a trapper’s cage from the San Gabriel Mountains to San Francisco, during which it lost its canine teeth from attempting to break free of its shackles.67 California’s flag is still proudly adorned with the image of that species of bear, but it has long since been extirpated from the state. While it is much less common now to show affection for real bears in such brutal ways (indeed, some conservationists are working to reintroduce the grizzly to California),68 perhaps that behavior has been supplanted by symbolically decapitating them. Eating gummi candies, then, is a way of subordinating “wild” animals whose real bodies are off-limits.
Moreover, turning animals into shapes removes them from any recognizable ecological context on their way into the candy bag. The characters of the gummi bestiary, and other modern bestiaries, become isolated and atomized; we relate to these animals as individuals or characters, rather than the elements of a broader ecology. Instead they enter a modern media ecosystem, one where they might serve as “ancillary markets for a successful film or television program,” as Gummi Smurfs did, but “a successful product will flow across media until it becomes pervasive within the culture.”69 So popular media properties are licensed and turned into candy, but gummi bears themselves generate spin-offs, from the Gummi Bear cartoon of the late 1980s to the Gen-Z toddler anthem “Ich bin dein Gummibär,” a song that, thanks to its popularity among childcare providers, may actually serve to introduce gummi bears to many children today.70
When we symbolically consume them as gummies, animals transform into characters that embody the alluring qualities discussed above (cuteness, grossness, awesome terror, etc.). The bright colors and the cartoonish avatars that appear on their packaging both serve to remove the gummi animals from their real-life material conditions and turn them into knowable, semianthropomorphized characters. In fact, it is extremely common for packages of gummi candies to have a depiction of the animal shapes in question with thought or speech bubbles.
For many of those who maintain environmentalist sympathies, especially those who spend their lives in cities and suburbia, some of the most formative experiences with the nonhuman world come in the form of mediated, abstracted engagement with modern bestiaries, experiences that are often overlooked as mundane. The mythologies of the past have come down to us as art—the Icelandic Eddas, Beowulf, Gecian urns and Egyptian hieroglyphs—but there is no empirical reason to believe that these mythologies originated as art. Benjamin criticized the romantics for assuming that “art would be the source of a regeneration of mythology, rather than the creativity of industrialism, which was largely anonymous, and increasingly tied to technical skills . . . photographers, graphic artists, industrial designers.”71 The “gummi phenomenon might have started with a simple little bear,” but it expanded to encompass everything that belonged in the suburban Physiologus of the American child because the “starch mogul system that makes gummies can deliver almost anything you can design.”72 This magnificent gummi menagerie embodies an imagined “animal kingdom” that collapses the distance between the African Serengeti, the German Black Forest, and the Cretaceous Period. The resonance of the gummi menagerie available in the candy aisle is crucial to understanding the enduring salience of broader environmental imaginaries.
Conclusions: The Modern Bestiary and Its Implications
In his excellent account of environmental conflicts in Yellowstone National Park, Justin Farrell highlights the spiritual and moral order behind our relationship to nature, arguing that “any sociological account . . . should be built upon a more empirically accurate and philosophically sophisticated model of human persons and cultures” that “understands that the ‘why,’ in the end, is a question of morality—perhaps even spirituality—stemming from our lived experience as part of human cultures, shaped by narratives and moral orders that tell us most fundamentally who we are.”73 In his fieldwork, Farrell believes that he has found evidence of an “alternative moral order, rooted in new moral and spiritual values and ecological science.”74 But lived experiences that develop an ecologically informed moral order are not general or representative across the American public. What, then, are the lived experiences that generate “narratives and moral orders” for the rest of us? We hope this article is the beginning of an effort to take Farrell seriously and to look for the experiences that generate ideas about nature for urban and suburban American children. Relatively few will ever see an elk, but every Christmas untold numbers of children will receive the “Oh Deer Super Dooper Reindeer Pooper,” a stylized plastic reindeer that “poops” out butterscotch jellybeans. The average consumer of gummi candies is much more likely to encounter a gummi bear than a living, breathing one. What are the lived experiences that integrate lawnmowers, manicured bushes, flower beds, and Bermuda grass into a moral universe? We believe that, although it is far from exhaustive, the candy aisle generates these modern mythologies, and that the stunning creativity of the industrial designers and candy professionals is ignored at our peril. Children’s alphabet books—with their koalas, yaks, and zebras—Noah’s ark toys, stuffed animals, and gummi bears are the constitutive ground on which most of us have not learned but generated an understanding of nature.
The hardest truth for anyone younger than the age of forty reading this article is that gummi does not actually taste good.75 Candy manufacturing is not a sentimental affair. Constant experimentation with shapes suggests that consumers want shapes, which in turn suggests the gastronomic experience would not be the same if the gummi was a square or a ball. Gelatin- and pectin-based candy go back to at least the early nineteenth century, but gumdrops and Jujyfruit never sold particularly well. The gummibär was revolutionary, adding a new word and a new genre to American candy manufacturing, but it was no culinary innovation. Gummi is just the German word for “rubber.” In 1985, at the height of the original American gummi boom, People magazine described them as a “cross between three-week-old Jell-O and flavored rubber bands.”76
There is a simple thought experiment that can transform the small zoo in the candy section of every gas station and grocery store in America: what would an American anthropologist say about animal-shaped candy if they found it in a non-Western culture? These candies are not shaped like bears, sharks, worms, or fish accidentally. We eat them when and if their shape moves us, and from this experience we learn and generate ideas about nature. We consume them with fascination and nostalgia, and the natural world they represent is nearly universally regarded positively or even as sacred. But does this natural world actually exist? Ecologically, the connection between damaged, fragmented ecosystems and species loss is obvious. But the adults who learned about nature from gummi bears feel a very different emotional connection to those black rhinos, snow leopards, and honeybees than they do to the landscapes they live in. Taking these modern bestiaries seriously helps paint a fuller picture of our cultural relationships to nature. It may also explain the obstacles to addressing crucial environmental issues on a societal level, because deep-seated sensibilities around nature stem from narratives that do not neatly align with the lessons of ecological science. Developing ideas of nature that are more in line with ecology is a problem of cultural meaning, one that begins in the candy aisle.
An earlier version of this article was presented at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Department of Sociology’s Culture Workshop. The authors would like to thank the organizers and participants of the workshop for their helpful comments. We also thank Hannah Wohl, Laura Halcomb, Joy Merklen, and two anonymous reviewers, whose feedback on the article benefited this article tremendously, as well as Herbert W. Mederer, under whose leadership the first gummi worm was brought into the world.
See citations above for examples.
Cohen and Duckert, Veer Ecology; Ogden, Swamplife; Slater, Entangled Edens; Tsing, Mushroom; White, Rudy, and Gareau, Environments.
The attention paid to (and controversies surrounding) mascots or nicknames that reference Native Americans make them an instructive exception. Generally, sports mascots are not considered important engines of meaning making, but these public discourses indicate that they are more culturally formative than we may typically acknowledge.
Cohen, “Inventing with Animals.”
The example of faux meat and consumers’ aversions to it is especially telling, given the long-standing practice of using proteins such as soy as “extenders” in ground beef, which many meat eaters themselves may be unaware of.
The television show Bob’s Burgers satirized this trend in an episode in which a customer was convinced they were eating “grass-fed, cruelty-free, soy bison.”
In fact, these other media are a reminder that, while gummi candy, their shapes, and their meaning might be driven by the imagination of children, they are a cultural phenomenon that has now spanned several generations. As such, these candies have adult devotees as well, for whom gummies are laden with nostalgia and, in some cases, even adults-only ingredients such as THC or CBD.
There are gummi candies in both Japan and Europe that are flavorful and delicious, and they are notably marketed to adults, and come in basic geometric shapes.