In 1956, J. R. Ackerley, a literary editor for the BBC, composed an earnest memoir about his dog—and all the sex he wished she was having. In 2009, the memoir was turned into an animated feature film. The beginning of the film explores Ackerley getting to know his Alsatian Tulip; the more human she becomes to him, the more he believes he understands her. But Ackerley gets ahead of himself as the semi-biographical, illustrated film, My Dog Tulip, progresses—disconcertingly ahead of himself. Over the course of the film, the drawings of Tulip are increasingly humanoid before she is depicted as a literal human. By the end of the film, Ackerley has fully fictionalized his relationship with Tulip into that of a husband and wife—perhaps ironic, given that Ackerley himself was an openly gay man.
How to interpret this odd dog-owner relationship? In the philosophy of dog-trainer Vicki Hearne, discussion of social dynamics between dogs and humans should not extend to humanization of dogs. Instead, Hearne’s How to Say “Fetch!” distinguishes the species sharply and cautions against inter-species assumptions, which Hearne compares to the “uneasiness we [humans] feel when we walk into a room and find that our spouse, or a friend, has plainly been sitting around inferring something about us” (Hearne, 60). Crucially, Hearne analogizes but does not synonymize humans and dogs. In contrast, by humanizing Tulip, Ackerley limits his relationship with her: Not only is he seeing a fictional version of her, but he even permits himself to subject her to human misogyny.
Tulip’s humanoid portrayals begin without apparent ramifications. The first occasion she is depicted as part-human, part-dog, is halfway through the film (40:45). In this scene, the film establishes Tulip’s character and relationship with Ackerley as analogous to one between humans. This scene also begins with Ackerley describing Tulip’s urination habits. Then, humanoid Tulip appears, wearing her dog head, a dress, and glasses. Humanoid Tulip walks upright and daintily on slender feet; the only dog-like characteristic she has is her head. That’s right, she’s a woman with the head of a literal bitch.
Throughout the scene, Tulip acts like a dog, rubbing horse dung on her body and urinating on “dead and decaying animals.” Tulip is sketched lightly here, in black lines on a beige background, indicating that this scene is another one of Ackerley’s fictitious ideas, rather than a scene representing real events. Ackerley is projecting what he believes Tulip feels and does, not what she actually does, which is presumably the case in the full-color scenes. Within this superficially humorous and innocent scene, Ackerley assumes he has insight into Tulip’s mind: he projects onto Tulip; and he relates her animalistic activities to those of a human woman. One might assume, then, that Tulip’s behavior is, to Ackerley, the behavior of a human woman, and his opinions on her akin to those he might hold of women.
Such assumptions about Tulip’s interior world exist in opposition to Hearne’s philosophy regarding dog and human communication. Challenges arise when humans “attempt to infer whether or not the dog will bite, jump up on them or whatever” (Hearne, 59). Ackerley engages in this kind of inferential behavior throughout the film. When Tulip and Ackerley head to a friend’s house, Colonel Pugh, for a summer retreat (32:38), Pugh expresses concern that Tulip might chase his chickens. Hearne would say that Pugh is unfairly inferring that Tulip is not intelligent enough to understand that the chickens shouldn’t be chased; she might chase the chickens, but keeping her away from them prevents her human companions from finding out. In that vein, Ackerley muses to himself, “How can one gauge the intelligence of one’s animal if one never affords it the chance to display any!” Although this may seem very generous and not at all inferential, it in fact is inferential, just in the opposite direction to Pugh: Ackerley is so confident in Tulip’s “intelligence” that he is assuming it will override her natural hunting instincts.
In a nearly identical situation, Hearne displays a different approach. When she walks her dog, Salty, past “something huntable” (her cat), she makes sure that Salty is leashed. She “gauge[s] the intelligence” of Salty without assumptions or ramifications: if Salty does not chase the cat, no harm done. If Salty does chase the cat, still no harm done—she is on a leash, and it is a teachable moment. Ackerley’s assumption about the fully untrained Tulip does result in harm, however. Promptly upon arrival, Tulip bolts toward the chickens, forcing Ackerley to invoke a belated “TULIP!” He has poorly judged Tulip’s character, which Hearne warns against repeatedly. For such poor judges, Hearne claims, “It is not that the required information will follow too slowly on their observations, but that they never come to have any knowledge of the dog, though they may come to have knowledge that” (59-60). Ackerley is not simply too slow in his judgment of Tulip, but he entirely misjudged her and is consequently only able to react after the irrefutable fact that she bolted. In the subsequent shot, Ackerley’s extended hand, attempting to grab Tulip, remains suspended for an unnaturally long time, emphasizing the futility of his attempt. He has reached for her and called her name, which are efforts in the right direction, but he did not even attempt to communicate with her until the relevant time was past.
Ackerley also personifies Tulip in the film in a somewhat less light-hearted realm: sex. Prior to this scene, the communication gap has shrunk between Ackerley and Tulip, because Tulip has begun treating Ackerley’s urine with the same reverence she does fellow dogs (41:38). As a result, Ackerley senses an erasure of “differences,” as well as feeling that he himself is now “a proper dog.” Hearne’s exploration of the way relationships develop as shared vocabulary expands helps illuminate this scene. A crucial landmark in Hearne and Salty’s relationship is when Salty begins sitting without being commanded; she “enlarged the context, the arena of its use… [thus] Salty and [Hearne] are… obedient to each other and to language” (56). Previously, Salty was merely obedient to Hearne; the language went one-way. Similarly, when Tulip perceives Ackerley’s urinating as discourse in her language, they forge a new connection. But Ackerley takes things too far. He interprets this erasure of “differences” as license to set out and find Tulip “a husband,” a word only applicable to humans. There is a role reversal: Ackerley is “a proper dog” and Tulip a potential wife. Yet this role reversal is purely in Ackerley’s head.
In contrast, Hearne emphasizes that humans should always be aware of their status relative to their dog. She explains that her dog “is free, or rather she is not free, in the way babies aren’t free” (57). Dogs, like babies, are reliant on humans—to assume otherwise is to disregard one’s privilege and delegitimize dogs’ subjection. But Ackerley often signals at Tulip’s agency and his own lack. When Tulip has her first heat (49:31), he says, “Dear Tulip chose to come to heat in the midst of the most Arctic winter this chilly country had suffered for fifty years.” Ackerley hands agency to Tulip by indicating that she could have “chose[n]” to begin her menstrual cycle at a different time. He also references the extremity of what his country has “suffered”; “this chilly country” seems to include himself but not Tulip. Yet, in reality, Ackerley has total control over Tulip’s destiny. Like the owner of a sofa that needs reupholstering, or a domineering father arranging a marriage without his daughter’s consent, he unilaterally determines that he knows what is best for her—without truly knowing if she is interested in sex or not. “A full life naturally included the pleasures of sex, and maternity,” Ackerley asserts, commenting not on Tulip’s desires, but on those which he assumes women must have. During this speech, Tulip is shown lounging in the living room, her belly exposed; even before Ackerley says the word “maternity,” puppies begin spilling out her pale, distended womb. This image serves to prove the reality of Tulip’s vulnerability and lack of agency in this context.
By disregarding his privilege over Tulip, Ackerley further dissolves the line between humans and dogs, and assumes consent on Tulip’s part that she simply does not have: consent to be placed within a paw’s reach of a male dog while she’s in heat. When Tulip has her first heat, dozens of dogs converge on her during a walk (50:18). The filmmakers work hard to make this image as apparently innocent as possible: soothing, cheerful music and softly falling snow fill out the scene. But the undercurrents remain—does Ackerley truly have Tulip’s best interests at heart, or is he making baseless assumptions rooted in misogyny on her behalf? In a scene shortly after, Ackerley describes Tulip’s sexual encounter with a dog named Chum (55:48). The film utilizes the same sketched, black-and-white visual that earlier heralded Tulip’s first depiction as humanoid. This humanoid-Tulip scene attempts to disarm the viewer just as the prior one did, opening with upbeat, rhythmic music and Ackerley’s insistence that Tulip is full of “infantile pleasure.” But this demeaning description of questionable consent does not take away from the scene’s central issue: Tulip is not interested in Chum’s advances.
Arguably, the interaction between Tulip and Chum is a natural dog-dog interaction—dogs cannot ask for consent like humans can. But the filmmakers have deliberately presented Tulip and Chum in human bodies. The scene does not show Chum humping Tulip and Tulip running away, as might occur naturally between dogs. The film instead shows the disturbing image—accompanied by cheery music—of Chum thrusting his hand up Tulip’s skirt. “What was Tulip trying to tell us?” (56:15), Ackerley asks the audience, for once acknowledging what Hearne refers to as the “sketchiness of the tokens of this language game,” which is essential in avoiding “the wildest sort of anthropomorphizing” (Hearne, 71). Although Hearne finds this anthropomorphizing too wild to merit further consideration, her commitment to respecting what she does not (and cannot) know about dogs allows her to ground her communication in reality. Ackerley’s fictionalized relationship with Tulip obstructs his ability to answer an obvious question: Tulip is not interested in the sexual interactions forced upon her, given that she runs away from every dog that comes her way—no matter the humanoid fantasy Ackerley wishes to perpetuate.
After Tulip has passed away, Ackerley discusses his personal evolution resulting from their fifteen-year relationship (1:16:40). The scene opens on the final appearance of humanoid Tulip, who then joins a full-color Ackerley. But Tulip soon fades, only to be replaced by a new version of herself, an old woman who appears at the very moment when Ackerley says that Tulip “placed herself entirely under my control,” implying that Tulip appreciates Ackerley’s penchant for micromanaging her, another assumption for which the film provides no evidence. The final boundary between dog and human has been erased—they are both full-color humans. Even though Tulip is represented as a human woman, Ackerley continues to treat her like a dog, sending her to fetch his newspaper before leashing her, which appears to please her.
If Ackerley perceives his dependent, female dog as essentially human, this is a strong statement regarding Ackerley’s beliefs about women in general. In fact, many of his statements regarding Tulip, throughout the film, feel steeped in misogyny, given that they are not statements generally associated with dogs. When Ackerley describes Tulip’s experience of being in heat (49:31), he applies stereotypes to Tulip generally applied to female women. For instance, he invokes phrases emphasizing feminine mystique, saying that when Tulip is in heat he is “enchanted,” “touched,” and “felt very sweet towards her,” as well as calling the whole process “mysterious.” Ackerley also refers to her “Small dark bud, her vulva.” The term “bud,” as it relates to flowers, often represents notions about female virginity—e.g. phrases such as “popped the bud” or “lost her flower.” Given Ackerley’s numerous attempts to mate Tulip with other dogs, most of which result in her continued virginity, this word choice feels purposeful. Ackerley even victim-blames Tulip for the excess male attention she receives when in heat (59:49), claiming she was “spread[ing] the news” (i.e. asking for it) and her bleeding “all about” is what causes the male dogs to swarm, “naturally.” Boys will be boys, amirite? Throughout this scene, humanoid Tulip is shown dancing exuberantly to a lively, joyful piano tune.
Ackerley has evidently not read Hearne; regardless, her theories regarding dog-human communication fail to account for circumstances in which the human sees the dog as human. But Hearne would argue that Ackerley’s inferences regarding Tulip’s thoughts only serve to limit their relationship, as they take away opportunities for genuine and evolving communication. Whether one can be sexist toward a dog is irrelevant—by humanizing Tulip with increasing fervor, Ackerley reveals that he in fact sees Tulip as human, whether she is or is not in reality. In the film, her entire reality is irrelevant to the question of whether Ackerley is sexist: only his reality is relevant. And ultimately, his reality is such that, as he gets to know Tulip better, his inferences about her become more sweeping, and more disturbing.