I wanted to write a post about spirit animals, but I got distracted. Maybe next week.
Like most terms, “spirit animal” has been ruined by the internet. Claims of “this celebrity is my spirit animal!” have reduced the concept to a two-word punchline and have led to discussions of cultural appropriation and institutionalised racism (mostly against Native American peoples, for whom the spirit animal is part of their spiritual tradition).
The use of “spirit animal” as a way of identifying strongly with something has become increasingly popular on the internet, whether it’s a celebrity, a shoe or a cupcake. I have definitely, at some point, claimed a red velvet cupcake as my spirit animal. The artificial red colouring is – of course – spot on, it’s cheesy and saccharine and not at all what it thinks it is. Red Velvet is a basic bitch in ostentatious clothing – visually tacky and gustatorily lacking. What I mean is, red velvet cupcakes have Notions.
This casual use is problematic because it’s offensive to a culture who take the concept seriously. Like so many aspects of non-white culture, it has been appropriated and reduced to a joke, a meme, an internet trope. Centuries of colonial oppression have led to me saying “Dude, lego batman is my actual spirit animal”. It’s not my style or my place to discuss this at length (only to mention it as a disclaimer while I go ahead and do it anyway, like, it’s cool, man, I’m culturally sensitive – but funny) I’m not Native American or any kind of American and I don’t know enough about Celtic animism to go off about My People’s Struggle.
So, the modern use of “spirit animal” spits on the graves of many of our ancestors – I’m not going to defend it. However, I do believe that the misuse is born from ignorance, not spite, and also from a first-world, very generation-specific need. The need for new superlatives.
It used to be enough to like something. Now you need to “Like” it. If you REALLY liked it, though, you would “Love” it. How are you supposed to express your affection for, say, your family, when “Love” is being used for a picture of your friend’s dog wearing a silly hat? The hierarchy of appreciation has changed – liking something is at the bottom of the rung.
What if you find something you love more than that picture of your friend’s dog? It could happen. There is new lingo to help you express this level of appreciation.
A really great pair of shoes, for example, could be giving you LIFE. Perhaps, thanks to a picture of Ryan Gosling holding a kitten, you Can’t Even.
What happens, though, if you come across a picture of Ryan Gosling holding your friend’s dog in a really great pair of shoes? It’s too late, you’ve used all your superlatives on inferior pictures and memes. This visual is beyond awesome, beyond incredible, it’s more than a “QWEEEEEEN”.
It’s your “Spirit Animal”. It’s something you identify with more than anything else you’ve seen online today. You need everyone to know how much you adore this phenomenon – or, more than that, you need everyone to know that it’s YOURS. Other people might “like” Ryan Gosling holding your friend’s dog in a really great pair of shoes – but it’s your freaking SPIRIT ANIMAL. THAT IS HOW MUCH YOU LOVE IT. More than anyone else.
This need for ownership stems from the desire to be unique and to put ourselves on display. Identity has never been so public – with the rise and rise of social media, everybody feels like they know everybody and (with exceptions) everybody wants to be known. We all want to prove we exist and so define ourselves by the things around us.
By claiming something as our spirit animal we claim it as our own – just as we claim this ancient spiritual practice as our own. Have an animal spirit guide if that’s important to you, have a patronus, a daemon or a familiar if you want, just don’t say Beyoncé’s new album is your “spirit animal” – it’s insensitive and also kind of dumb.
You can still like Beyoncé. You can even “Like” Beyoncé and her new album. Nobody will think you don’t like it enough just because you haven’t claimed it as your spirit animal. They’ll just think “Hey, that person is culturally sensitive and also really likes Beyoncé, that’s chill”.
Maybe we all just need to calm down a bit and go back to “liking” things a normal amount while having our own identities – beyond anthropomorphised desserts.