What About Nathan? On Top Dogs, Underdogs, and Sore Losers
“It’s the first time I’ve presented a proclamation or a medallion to a dog,” said the Comptroller as he read his proclamation to the canine. “I’m very proud to present this proclamation to a great source of pride for the State of Maryland. Watching him on television, you could tell the crowd at Westminster was in his corner, and needless to say, so was I.”
I’m a poor underdog
But tonight I will bark
With the great Overdog
That romps through the dark.
[from “Canis Major,” Robert Frost, 1928]
Meet Nathan, lovable show dog and pop culture sensation. Since earning last year’s National Dog Show title, Nathan has gone on to win the hearts of fans and media outlets around the globe, garnering local news coverage and widespread adoration across social media. Nathan even caught the attention of government officials and was awarded an honorary medallion from Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot.
“Nathan the Bloodhound is 135 pounds of pure personality.” Franchot proclaims with enthusiasm. And it is just this –Nathan’s personality, not his looks, pedigree or discipline, that is invoked most frequently by fans and handler Heather Helmer, who describes Nathan as a “a loving soul.”
Though Nathan placed out of this year’s Westminster group competition, a disappointment to many who thought him a shoo-in for Best in Group or even Show, the canine’s cult following has only grown since his Westminster upset. As I began to dig deeper into Nathan-related articles across the web, I was surprised to find literally no one rooting against him– an increasingly rare status in the Internet age, when even the most benign celebrities and causes seem to attract “haters” in some form or another.
We anthropomorphize animals for many reasons, the most obvious of which are that we are self centered and drawn to cute things. Juliet Kellogg Markowsky tells us that, “Primitive story tellers used animals as antagonists to dramatize man’s ceaseless struggle against the forces of nature.” Only later did we grow interested in stories driven solely by animal-characters or attempt to explore or relate to the animal mind in serious narrative. Of course, even now, amidst myriad animal rights movements and interest groups, most books and movies about animals shy away from realism, saying far more about human concerns than animal ones.
This is also true of animals as imagined in social media and pop culture more generally: after we create animal characters, we quickly cannibalize their nature with our own, or use it to instill a sense of whimsy in otherwise solemn or cerebral human stories. There’s nothing wrong with this, at least as I see it, but it is worth considering: when we enjoy these stories, what exactly are we taking pleasure in? If it is true that we often talk about animals as a way to talk about ourselves, what are we saying, and in what context?
Nathan is and isn’t an underdog.
Bloodhounds are funny, slobbery, and historically useful: probably the last three qualities typically attributed to show dogs. On the other hand, Nathan is a seasoned competitor. He was a finalist for last year’s Westminster title and a favorite for this year, so the suggestion that Nathan is a scrappy upstart in any real sense is a bit of a fantasy. But it’s a fantasy I indulge in along with many others, or at least enough to merit a Sunday New York Times editorial spotlighting the good-natured bloodhound’s defeat in this year’s group competition.
What makes Nathan so endearing is of course a combination of actual and imagined qualities: while Nathan may or may not be a lovable underdog, he is, at the very least, inarguably lovable. Nathan is known for planting slobbery kisses on handlers and judges within the show ring, which may well contribute to his limitations as a show dog as well as his status as a fan-favorite.
Known for his goofily dignified, affable nature, the bloodhound at first seems an odd choice for a self-surrogate or human role model. Even his ‘superpower’ – an acute sense of smell – is a pretty silly one: more Captain Underpants than Superman. Above all, the Kennel Club page attributes an easygoing, versatile nature to the hounds. “Remarkably, the same Bloodhound may be on a trail one day, in the show or obedience ring the next, and laying on your couch the day after that!” These same qualities take on a far more negative connotation in Elvis Presley’s famous invocation.
Though “Hound Dog” was originally recorded by Big Mama Thorton, Presley’s version and the Freddy and the Bellboys cover that inspired it are recalled far more often – a kind of cultural white washing regarded as problematic by many music and cultural critics. Though Presley’s version has been championed as emblematic of a defining moment in rock ‘n roll history, the singer fails to acknowledge its debt to the original recording or soul music generally.
Likewise, Presley’s version takes on a parodic sensibility that enacts a kind of minstrel act; this phenomenon, is of course, is hardly limited to rock ‘n roll or the entertainment industry, though we see it surface most frequently in music industry scuffles.
Presley likens his whiney, classless lover to a dumb animal of little practical use:
Yeah they said you was high-classed
Well, that was just a lie
Well, you ain’t never caught a rabbit
And you ain’t no friend of mine
This metaphor seems mean spirited and unattractive now; as does the existence of a song-length complaint about a sad woman who didn’t live up to whatever reputation she had as a decent lover or at least one who presented little trouble.
Since Elvis’s time, Marxism, Feminism, and Civil Rights movements and their countless artistic echoes have been incorporated into popular consciousness. Movements like art brut that aspired to create work outside the boundaries of mainstream culture or high modernism have somewhat ironically been embraced by the mainstream they first defined themselves in opposition to.
With this shift comes the increasing pressure to address underrepresentation and misrepresentation of minority voices and the idea that these voices are–at least often–the good guy–which, sadly, is somewhat novel, and certainly not a belief we have historically held as a civilization or species. Of course, so much remains to be done, and so much of what is done already remains isolated in teeny subcultural pockets, academic discourse or liberal journalism, or is greatly mitigated by cynicism–but to me, the idea that the loveable, spurned hound dog is something we should seek to emulate rather than shun remains a somewhat profound one.
It is worth mentioning that Elvis’s dismissal of the hound is largely reliant on repeat citation of its (then) widely known obsolescence. First bred to hunt deer and wild boar, bloodhounds were later used for human tracking but somewhat abandoned in favor of other police technology, so most of today’s hounds live quite differently than their ancestors, having outlived their initial purpose and intended use. Even this, we treat very differently in today’s world that we might have a seventy odd years ago: the proliferation of modernist and postmodernist art movements in the internet age spawned and reawakened cultural values of sensitivity and kindness for its own sake, even when it is divorced from utility or antithetical to it. The idea that it is important to be nice (even when it means being less successful) fit or useful colors adult social norms and political beliefs on an abstract level, even if it still largely escapes us on a practical one.
Recently, Kanye West told an interviewer that he did not feel his audience was so much “on his side.” The reporter implied the opposite: that Kanye’s behavior was delusive, self-important, and permitted only by the fact that his fanship was and is so very much on his side. Well, yes and no.
Kanye West is a pop star, the antithesis of an outsider in terms of exposure, financing or proximity to mainstream cultural narrative, which deifies pop stars and celebrities (in Kanye’s case this can be taken especially literally). If the head of the cool kids table, someone celebrated by pop music, married to a Kardashian, and at least taken mildly seriously by the art and fashion worlds is not an “insider” thaen who is?
Though Kanye is a far cry from Paul Gösch, a schizophrenic German artist/architect euthanized by the Nazis, or Italian immigrant Simon Rodia, the untrained construction worker who created LA’s iconic Watts Towers, his work frequently cites or alludes to a type of outsider status not entirely dissimilar from theirs or Nathan’s. He is, of course, also known for making a bit of a stink about this in interviews and at awards ceremonies, his behavior often recounted mockingly or dismissed as spotlight-grabbing and almost never addressed as substantial. Without going too deeply into Kanye’s discussions of race, history and social issues, I think it can suffice to say that they are often dismissed on the grounds of his current status, level of fame, and the narcissistic cult of personality that surrounds him. As I read yet another piece snarkily tossing out Kanye’s politics as yet another celebrity ego trip, I wondered what makes so many people repelled by Kanye, but so widely accepting of Nathan.
Obviously, Nathan is a dog, so it’s quite difficult for him to offend us with his conduct or politics. If he registers loss poorly, we have noknow way of knowing, while much of Kanye’s negative press frames him a sore loser. This distinction seems to me a crucial one–when Nathan registers defeat, it is with either acceptance or indifference either way, and is only this so far as we imagine it to be so. Nathan is a good loser because we have constructed one and assigned this role to him, giving him the complacence we value but tend not to possess ourselves.
The same morning the New York Times profiled Nathan, I was notified that my manuscript did not win a poetry contest it had been chosen as a finalist for a few weeks earlier. I’d like to face disappointments or snubs like Nathan does, but I think my reaction shares far more with Kanye’s. I, too, can be a bit of a sore loser.
In 1979, Joan Didion published Letter from Manhattan, a scathing take down of Woody Allen’s then-recent pictures, which she deemed flimsily self-absorbed stories reflecting only “the false and desperate knowingness of the smartest kid in the class.” Didion goes on to detail Allens’ more specific failures, supplanting substance with referentiality, earnest with smug, smart with familiar. Like Kanye, Didion is beloved by some and regarded as difficult, cold, bitchy, critical by just as many. (It interests me that both Didion and Kanye are at least partially embraced by the snooty-pants high fashion world, while fielding criticism primarily from their fields of greatest output. But that’s neither here nor there.)
“In fact the sense of social reality in these pictures is dim in the extreme, and derives more from show business than from anywhere else…,” Didion writes. To me, this neatly demarcates the heart of these issues: in essence, these are questions of the responsibilities of art and the standards by which we should assess its failures and successes. Should art reflect social reality? If you answer yes, then it follows that it would be reasonable to feel outrage when a group or groups’ contributions are excluded, even/especially if these exclusions reflect historical ones echoed by society at large. If you answer no, then art like Allen’s or Taylor Swift’s is no less valuable for depicting a bubble world that might have little to do with how people live and create outside of show-business or narrow self-obsession. People say similar things about Didion and Kanye: more specifically, that their criticism is “spoiling our fun.” Ie. the underdog’s bark is most often ignored or counted as unpleasant, the mark of a sore loser rather than something we should aspire to channel or understand.
Along these lines, the question of how we should register loss or complaint and its implications shifts wildly depending on who we are. The very idea of being a sore loser implies a game conducted fairly, a game that isn’t rigged to begin with (thanks Bodie) in which all participants have the same opportunities and are held to the same standards. In reality, this is like never the case so I don’t know why we pretend that it is. I don’t know why hardships are cited and equivocated callously. (Things are different for women than men, and things are different for trans people than women or queer people, and things are different for people of color than white people, even if those white people are immigrants. And so on. Why do we still have to say these things?)
I don’t know why I’m so afraid of being difficult or feel the need to apologize for it. I don’t know why most of the time, I don’t say anything when someone mentions some crazy girl, though I sometimes think of my grandmother, whose name I have inherited, and who hung herself in the garage for after rounds of electroshock failed to render her any less filled with difficult, shameful feelings that she had somehow lost, fielded a bum deal in the life and marriage she found herself in.
We tell our children about the greedy fox and silver tonged wolf. The maiden returns from the swan’s rape to warn us of monsters wearing the face of beauty. The carriage shrinks into a gourd. I love animals, but I don’t know why we love things more when they are stripped of their humanity: what it is that we find so it precisely so unlovable about the impulse to recognize injustice or point out fallacy that would be easier left alone.
“There is an indefinable expression in his face and figure of having been vanquished, of having succumbed, of having been ‘under-dog’ as the saying is,” reports an 1887 Daily Telegraph, in the saying’s first recorded use–so we have no way of knowing precisely what that expression was, may be, or means now.