Crufts: Making dogs suffer for "beauty"

Competitions like Crufts encourage breeders to manipulate dogs' bodies as if they were modelling clay. Even dogs who will never set foot in a show ring suffer because of it.


Dogs love us regardless of how we look. They don't care if we have big feet, frizzy hair or an oddly-shaped nose. Whether we're dressed to the nines or we've just rolled out of bed, dogs are always happy to see us. Shamefully, humans have failed to extend the same kindness to them.

We've imposed arbitrary notions of "beauty" on dogs without regard for their health or happiness, and they are suffering for it. For a prime example of this trend, look no further than the canines who will be dragged along to Crufts, the country's largest doggie "beauty" pageant. Beneath the perfectly coiffed exterior of many of these dogs lies a slew of painful and deadly health problems caused by generations of breeding and inbreeding to achieve a certain "look".

The Kennel Club's "breed standards" encourage breeders to manipulate dogs' bodies as if they were modelling clay. Dachshunds are specifically bred to have long, "stretched-out" spines, which often cause them to suffer from disc disease or other back problems. Cavalier King Charles spaniels – the breed favoured by former US President Ronald Reagan – are bred to have skulls that are nearly flat on top, and more than a third of these dogs suffer from an agonising condition called syringomyelia, which occurs when their skulls are too small for their brains. Afflicted dogs often scream in agony, scratch themselves raw and become progressively weaker until they can barely walk. Some become paralysed. The "pushed-in" faces of English bulldogs and pugs make it so difficult for them to breathe that many can't even enjoy the activities that dogs love, such as chasing a ball or going for walks, without struggling for air.

Breeders also force closely related dogs to mate in the hope of passing down certain physical features that are favoured by show judges. This practice is so common that all 10,000 pugs living in Britain are descended from just 50 dogs. The lack of genetic diversity caused by inbreeding greatly increases the likelihood that recessive genes, which cause debilitating afflictions, will be passed along to puppies. As a result, roughly one in four purebred dogs suffers from serious congenital defects, such as hypothyroidism, epilepsy, cataracts, allergies, heart disease and hip dysplasia – a disease that can lead to crippling, lameness and painful arthritis.

Each of the 50 most common dog breeds is at risk for some genetic defect which can cause suffering, according to a study published in The Veterinary Journal . Labrador retrievers are predisposed to bone disease, haemophilia and retinal degeneration, and nearly 60 per cent of golden retrievers suffer from hip dysplasia. These dogs pay with their health – and sometimes their lives – because of the cosmetic standards promoted by The Kennel Club and Crufts.

Offering further proof that it is interested only in dogs' outward appearances, Crufts has decided this year to allow dogs in its show to be doused with "performance-enhancing" products such as hairspray and white chalk to erase "stains" on white fur. The excessive bathing, brushing, snipping and fluffing that dogs must patiently endure before entering the ring at Crufts is already an arduous and sometimes uncomfortable process. Spraying chemicals on dogs' fur could put their health at risk or cause an allergic reaction. At the very least, being forced to inhale the odour of hairspray is a terrible offense to their sensitive noses.

Even dogs who will never set foot in a show ring suffer because of Crufts and the breeding industry that it props up. Every new puppy born to a breeder means one home fewer for a dog waiting in an animal shelter. By driving up the demand for pedigree dogs and encouraging breeders to bring more dogs into existence when there aren't enough homes for those who are already here, Crufts sentences homeless dogs to euthanasia or life behind bars.

Dogs are smart, complex animals – not bonsai trees to be contorted into shapes that please us. Instead of tinkering with their genetics and entering them in silly pageants, we should let dogs be dogs and respect and appreciate them regardless of their outward appearance – just as they do for us.


A pug at Crufts in 2011. Photograph: Getty Images

Mimi Bekhechi began working for PETA in 2007. As PETA UK's Associate Director, Bekhechi is responsible for overseeing PETA UK's campaigns and marketing as well as its education and media departments.

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No, J J Abrams – Star Wars was never “a boy’s thing”

Women love things that are “for boys” because these things are actually “for humans”.

In 1977, millions of people went to cinemas to see Star Wars: A New Hope, and afterwards, a good portion of them were suddenly rendered invisible. It didn’t matter that they rushed to line up for the sequels; it didn’t matter that they were eager to buy and play with the toys; it didn’t matter that they grew up to read the novels and explore the expanded universe and sit through the prequels and introduce their children to something they had loved as a child. They’re a group that overlaps with the invisible force that haunts comic book shops, or plays a lot of video games, or makes up nearly half the audience for superhero films, or, to one New Statesman staffer’s persistent, possibly-only-half joking incredulity, liked Doctor Who long before Russell T Davies got his hands on it. 

With less than three weeks before J J Abrams’s rebooted Star Wars hits screens, the director went on Good Morning America yesterday to talk in vague, broad strokes about his turn with the franchise. But the otherwise-unremarkable interview made headlines because of one segment, when Abrams was asked who he most excited to hear from about the film. He said:

“Star Wars was always about, you was always a boy’s thing, and a movie that dads take their sons to. And though that’s still very much the case, I was really hoping that this could be a movie that mothers can take their daughters to as well. So I’m looking forward to kids seeing this movie and to seeing themselves in it, and seeing that they’re capable of doing what they could never imagine was possible.”

That invisible group of Star Wars fans, who love that well-known “boy’s thing”? Women, who have spent the past four decades loving the franchise just as much as all those fanboys, even if no one else – the fanboys themselves in particular – seemed to take much notice. Abrams’s offhand remark coincided with recent headlines like Bloomberg’s “‘Star Wars’ Toys Aren’t Just For Boys Anymore as Rey Takes Over”, a reference to the female lead of The Force Awakens, portrayed by Daisy Ridley. Across the web, aside from stirrings by the now-mandatory Internet Outrage Machine, the overwhelming response seemed to be one of sad and somewhat resigned frustration, with women sharing memories of falling in love with the series, essentially saying, “We’ve been here this whole time.” My friend Lori Morimoto, in “An Open Letter to J J Abrams”, wrote, “I’d like to tell you the story of a girl who became a Star Wars fan. I hope you can suspend disbelief over my existence long enough to make it to the end.”

Star Wars is a universe populated by complicated gender politics, on and off screen. The three original films fail most facets of the Bechdel test (I laughed out loud here seeing the suggestion that A New Hope deserves a pass because the only two named female characters could have talked offscreen). Princess Leia’s enslavement and escape (and the bikini she wears while doing it) is a cultural touchstone that’s launched a complicated feminist dialogue over the decades. And it is perhaps because of the mostly-male cast in the films – and the long-held assumption that science fiction is a primarily masculine property – that the franchise has long been marketed exclusively to boys, despite the massive and loyal female audience.

But the modern Star Wars empire is helmed a woman, Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy, and when she revealed that two-thirds the story team behind the newest film was female, she also pledged that there would be a woman in the director’s chair before too long. And since one of the leads in The Force Awakens is a woman, her character, along with a black male lead – portrayed by John Boyega – sparked anger from the reactionary white guy corner of the internet in recent months (sorry that the SJWs ruined your movies, guys!). For films that once portrayed a place so alien that only white men were allowed to speak to each other, the widening of representation in this reboot apparently looks to some like a political – or, to them, a politically correct – act.

The welcome diversity of the leading cast highlights all the good intentions in Abrams’s statement: that this new film promises more than a panoply of white guys, that girls and people of colour can see themselves reflected back in these new heroes. All the girls who thought the movies weren’t for them because they only saw men onscreen, or the endless line of male action figures on the shelf, have a point of entry now – that’s what representation means. And that’s certainly worth cheering for, even if it only took us 40 years to get there. But it’s hard for all the people who aren’t white men who’ve found other points of entry over the years, who managed to love it without seeing themselves there. I can speak from personal experience when I say that a lifetime of media about white guys hasn’t stopped me from finding characters and stories to fall in love with.

Here’s a theory: you might not have noticed that you were surrounded by female Star Wars fans all these years because you were the one who rendered them invisible. Women who like things such as Star Wars, or comics, or anything else that leads journalists to write those painful “not just for boys anymore” trend stories, have had to take it from all sides. Enthusiasm for something seen as the province of men clashes with mainstream perceptions of femininity. Even women liking this stuff in the context of traditionally feminised fan spaces, like fanfiction, find themselves fending off assumptions from men and women alike, perhaps the accusation that they are sexualising something too much, or they are placing too much weight on the emotional elements of a storyline. Basically, that they’re liking the thing the wrong way.

But women’s enthusiasm for perceived “male” spaces is always liking the thing the wrong way. The plainest illustration of this is the Fake Geek Girl, in meme and in practice: the barriers to entry are raised immeasurably high when women try to join in many male-dominated fannish conversations. The wonderful Noelle Stevenson illustrates this beautifully – and then literally, when a guy challenges her on her work. I’m sure that just by writing about Star Wars, I’m opening myself up to the angry gatekeeping-style pissing contests that men like to toss at women who claim to like the things they like. (Let’s get it all out in the open here: Star Wars isn’t my fandom. I saw the three original films on dates with my first boyfriend – our first date: Star Trek: First Contact, because we were clearly the coolest kids in town – and upon rewatches as an adult nothing grabbed me. But I am also a fandom journalist, so that’s kind of how this works.)

There’s a persistent myth – and I say persistent because I keep seeing these deluded boys get mad in new viral posts – that women who claim to like geeky things are just pretending, the somewhat confusing notion that they are doing it for attention. (And then there’s the inevitable anger that in this supposedly desperate plea for attention – why else would a woman claim to like their beloved characters?! – these women still don’t want to sleep with them.) And what never seems to occur to any of these gatekeepers is that these women were there all along, liking these things just as much – and are finally being given the cultural space to be open about their interests and passions. But that space is given haltingly; plenty of women, tired of waiting, are going out and taking it. The result is the tension (and, at times, outright hostility) that has marked certain corners of the fannish world in the past few years.

Women love things that are “for boys” because these things are actually “for humans”. There are many reasons that people love Star Wars, and most of them are universal things: the themes, the characters, the archetypal struggle of good versus evil. Most of the time we default to the white guy; he struggles with things we all struggle with, but somehow, he is deemed most relatable. Abrams, Kennedy, and everyone behind the new films should be applauded for their efforts to give non-white guys a turn at the universal story – I think these are incredibly valuable choices, and certainly will make the films vastly more accessible, particularly to children.

But we don’t just need Rey on screen and Rey dolls on the shelves for mothers and daughters – those same mothers and daughters have found plenty to love without many women to look to on their screens. We need boys to love the female heroes as much as we’ve loved the men over the years: we need universal to be truly universal. And when we express that love, the default reaction shouldn’t be a challenge: not, “You don’t like this thing as much as I do,” or, “You don’t love this the right way.” Isn’t it easier to say, “Oh, I’m so glad that you love this, too!”

Elizabeth Minkel is a staff writer for The Millions, and writes a regular column on fan culture for the New Statesman. She is on Twitter @ElizabethMinkel.