On Sunday, while the masses concerned themselves with the doings of Tom Brady (that is his name, correct?), a select 14 million opted, instead, for Animal Planet’s yearly parallel affair: The Puppy Bowl.
The Puppy Bowl, now in its 14th incarnation, is mostly what you might expect: canines of various shapes and sizes frolicking up and down a bone-shaped field. Also making their way onto the scene are pig, duckling and bunny cheerleaders, a kitten halftime show, a blimp filled with hamsters, an African Gray Parrot on social media, and a national anthem performed by a piano-playing chicken.
The multi-hour broadcast is interwoven with extended focuses on the struggles and triumphs of animal shelters from around the world. Among the organizations featured in 2018’s broadcast were Compassion Without Borders, an organization that aids animals in underserved areas of the US/Mexico border, and The Sato Project, who is working to find homes for animals displaced by Hurricane Maria. One cannot help but see the ties to the current flourishing of racism and imperialism evident here, as tenuous as they may be. Because of the power dynamics humans maintain in relation to animals, animals themselves serve as an inextricable metaphor for the power relations within human communities.
While such an analogy may seem to succeed in granting the Puppy Bowl an unwarranted sense of morbidity, it is precisely this lack of morbidity that elevates it to success. The Puppy Bowl is a decidedly unique brand of entertainment that does not blindly shirk issues of our political and socio-economic realities — yet it does not punish us as we grapple to understand them. There is very little else presently on television that would populate this category. Something along the lines of Steven Universe comes to mind, though its primary subject matter is undoubtedly gender and sexuality.
This specific nature of the Puppy Bowl is only more significant in conjunction with the subject matter it spoofs. The human Super Bowl (as it were), is almost forceful in its tone-deafness. In an attempt to unify the country over commercials and quarterbacks, the NFL instead neglects all of the major issues for which the organization has served as a platform in recent years. Individuals like Colin Kaepernick and his peers have used their status as NFL stars to shed light on police brutality; repeated investigations, as well as the high-profile death of Aaron Hernandez, have shed light on the extreme effects football can have on an individual’s psychology; patterns of behavior advocating for violence towards women and LGBTQ groups outline a culture of toxic masculinity.
The NFL does a truly top-notch job of making this culture appear incidental, and focusing on the unifying potential of sitting on the couch in matching jerseys with your loved ones — but it remains undoubtable that this mentality will have its reckoning.
By contrast, the Puppy Bowl is a balm to these frustrations; proof positive that one can still revel in something so frivolous without simultaneously neglecting tragedy. Even on the most basic level, the “adopt, don’t shop” philosophy encompassing the entire two-hour broadcast is also an explicit rejection of the blatant consumerism that marks the “actual” sporting event of the day.
There is a final factor that makes the Puppy Bowl particularly unique to our time and place on this Earth. Within the last five years, there is also no denying that dogs have taken on an elevated role in our society, particular with regards to the younger generations. As millennials and their ilk struggle to begin families and fund mortgages, research indicates that animal companions are taking on increasingly child-like roles and human-animal bonds are being treated with a greater sense of gravity as a result. The metaphor is even more potent considering it is the very societal structures of repression that have caused these elevated bonds, beauty aside, to form.
The Puppy Bowl comes to us at a moment where it is necessary to refresh our souls with the idea that compassion and mirth are not mutually exclusive. We crave comfort in times of darkness, and this event proves that such relief does not preclude continued awareness. While it is deeply unlikely that the Puppy Bowl will usurp America’s most beloved beer-swilling day of the year as Sportsgame-in-Chief, that is besides the point. Rather, the Puppy Bowl is a glimmering testament to humanity; a silent and strong proof that those who believe in compassion — the very antithesis of the NFL — are striving yet for a different kind of future.