Do Webkinz change the way we look at pets?

There is a huge trend in pets as expression of an owner's image, as epitomized by the trend in pet fashions now available. Does our identification with online animal avatars like Webkinz feed in to this trend and influence us to create animal "familiars"

Every time I stop by my local Petsmart store to buy kibble, I can't help but notice the explosion in the sheer number and variety of dog outfits on display. This trend really reached the tipping point for me when I saw that they had a sale on winter fashions that were about to go out of season and they needed to make room for the spring collection! If you go to the Petsmart website, they have the several departments for dog clothes including dresses, holiday apparel, pajamas, sweaters & coats, t-shirts, and costumes including a Princess Leia outfit that epitomizes the height of anthropomorphic madness. This pet fashion craze clearly isn't just about protecting Fluffy against frigid weather.

Then the trend truly jumped the shark in my mind when I saw that there were decorative harnesses and outfits for ferrets as well. "Great for Special Occasions" says the Marshall Pet Fashions tag that shows ferrets sporting a leather jacket, tie-dyed shirt, or Santa outfit. Interesting to wonder what constitutes a special occasion for a ferret.

Of course the ads are really speaking to the pet owners. This trend feels like a convergence of several social forces: kids as status symbols, pets as family members, pets as an expression of individuality, fashionistas carrying little dogs in handbags, and our general American preoccupation with buying stuff. (Yesterday I read with interest a Salon article about a woman who celebrated her pending adoption placement by going out to buy baby clothes in order to feel connected to her potential daughter.)

I had to wonder if the popularity of Webkinz feeds synergistically into this trend. Don't those dressed-up ferrets look like well-accessorized Webkinz? I am not saying there is even a conscious connection between Webkinz and pet fashion, but it is interesting to consider how interaction with toys and virtual characters can change our relationships to creatures in the real world. I showed my 8-year-old the photo of the ferrets and her first reaction was to point out that one of them looked just like Lyra's daemon Pan from The Golden Compass. Will tying our online identities to customized animal avatars influence us to create animal "familiars" to represent us in real life?

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Tech Culture
About the author

    Amy Tiemann, Ph.D., is the author of Mojo Mom: Nurturing Your Self While Raising a Family and creator of MojoMom.com.

     

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