Sunday, July 4, 2010

Monkeying Around

One of the most commonly shared fears is that of Coulrophobia, the terror of clowns. It's not difficult to see why so many people share this phobia: the hideously distorted features, the makeup that makes human teeth look jaundiced, the way we're thrust into their nightmarish faces as small children. I once was invited to the usually marvelously innovative Cirque du Soleil and was horrified to learn the entire evening's theme involved supposedly darling French Canadian clowns falling through holes and mopping up slowly diminishing circles of light. I was nauseous for days.

There's apparently no name for a much worse phobia I've had since infancy: the fear of animals dressed as people. It's not so much a fear as a deep-seated, swooning revulsion, and it first became evident because of a commercial that used to run in the early 60s and which, upon viewing again this week thanks to my cruelly unempathetic brother, who sent me an email containing a Youtube link with the subject line "Sweet Dreams," still has the ability to make me shudder. My parents used to have to peel me off the ceiling for the unspeakable terror it generated in me.

It's an ad for Red Rose Tea, a brand that still exists and which now allows people to collect small tokens in animal shapes. The commercial ran just prior to the Ed Sullivan variety hour on Sunday nights, and it shows a jazz band of chimpanzees -- in clothes -- playing assorted instruments while dancing and slapping themselves to an overlay of voices screaming the brand name. Aside from still horrifying me it also strikes me now as more than a bit racist; jazz musicians depicted as out-of-control apes and baffoons.

I don't know why a tea of all products would choose this line of promotion; perhaps they were just trying to climb onto the emerging rock group bandwagon and make their product more current. I've embedded the spot below. Watch it yourself and see if it doesn't invoke epilepsy.

It's assumed that any animal in human clothing is by definition adorable. Cats in clothes don't seem to bother me (though it bothers them), but dogs dressed as people certainly do. There's a series of film shorts that was popular in the 1940s that shows various breeds of dogs wearing suits and dresses in human situations and it has nearly the effect that clothed monkeys do. My take on why people put apes in clothes is that it's utilitarian. Monkeys are a bit too much like us but somehow not quite enough; no one wants to be confronted by their engorged nether regions, and clothing would have to inhibit their constant masturbation and feces-flinging. But a pinafore on an ape is still window dressing on a wild animal, and we should remember that woman in New Jersey who now has no face or eyes or hands because she consorted with a monkey who was allowed to eat lobster and wear jeans. 

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