Classics : Lady and the Tramp (1955) and Benji (1974)

How Disney (and others) teach children that living in a nice suburban home beats living free in the city

by Grace C. Russell

Access to the city streets – and the freedom to walk around the city, unhindered – has never been a privilege available to everyone. The French have a term – flaneur – for the gentleman who strolls the city in a contemplative mood, to sample its sensory delights. Women and children have been actively discouraged from doing likewise. In the latter half of the 20th century, feminist critics may have called attention to the gender politics of the flaneur, but relatively little attention has been paid to the way that children have also been denied access to the city.

According to Janet Wolff, women could not stroll alone in the city due to reasons of moral propriety and because of real or imagined concerns about their personal safety. Just as the city streets have been conceived as masculine space, they also tend to be treated as adult space. The sociologist Gill Valentine has pointed out the apparent ‘assumption that the streets belong to adults, and that children should only be permitted into public spaces when they have been socialised into appropriate ‘adult’ ways of behaving and using space.’ In part, this is due to the ways in which we regard childhood itself. Exploration of the city – the ability to experience it, read it and use it – is routinely denied to children.

Not surprisingly, children have been taught to internalize this message. I’d like to argue that popular films for children have routinely given children a vicarious experience of being a flaneur while – at the same time – teaching them lessons about the pleasures, dangers and boundaries involved. Children’s films about dogs have played a central part in this process – as I aim to illustrate via Disney’s classic animated film The Lady and the Tramp, and the 1974 live action film Benji. In different ways, these films depict the two major narratives through which society tends to conceive of childhood, and the nature of children – views that emerged during the Victorian era, and persist to the present day. Childhood sociologist Chris Jenks has called them the ‘Dionysian’ and ‘Apollonian’ views of childhood.

While the ‘Apollonian’ model regards children as being innately angelic, innocent and vulnerable, the “Dionysian’ view of childhood treats children as the inheritors of original sin, and as possessing animal-like instincts. Both concepts deny children access to city space: either their innocence will be corrupted by the city’s inherent perils (media hysteria about abductors and pedophiles has been a powerful tool for restricting children’s access) or the child’s menacing wildness will result in public disruption, and pose a danger to adults, or to other children. Because of these ideological visions of childhood, it is rare to find media depictions aimed at children that encourage them to explore or take ownership of urban space on their own terms. Instead, what potential there is for exploration is frequently depicted in popular culture through an intermediary figure – that of the doggy flaneur.

The homeless /ownerless dog characters that live in and live off the streets in children’s film are not usually represented merely as stray beasts. They are often shown to be intent – just like their male human counterparts – on gaining sensory and aesthetic knowledge of the city, by walking through it. Like the human flaneur, the canine flaneur moves through urban space unrestricted by adherence to rules, pre-planned destinations or durations to his walk.

This resistance to temporal and spatial restrictions is particularly important in children’s film. The animal characters may – in theory – share with children a lack of power, autonomy and freedom of movement, but through their flanerie, they can transcend such limits. Films in which the canine flaneur appears, therefore, can show the child viewer the boundaries that govern adult urban space – and thus serve to show, as Owain Jones says, that “these boundaries are to some extent permeable to children, [that] they have a chance to build their own geographies, to re-order the space to suit their own desires and in effect create a dimension parallel to that of adult space.”

Many films, from Greyfriar’s Bobby (1961) to Beethoven (1992) contain examples of canine flanerie. I’ve chosen to focus on Lady and the Tramp (a Disney film about a lower-class stray romancing an upper-class suburban pet) and Benji, an independent feature about a resourceful terrier who rescues some abducted children. I want to look at how these films subversively represent the uses and reclamation of adult human space…and how, finally. both of them promote a conservative ideology about the relative value of life at home, as opposed to life on the streets.

Through their depiction of the canine flaneur, Benji and The Lady and the Tramp provide the viewer with an imaginative map of the city. They illustrate how the city could be explored and enjoyed without the restrictions of adult supervision, and how this space could be traversed without obedience to the formal rules and boundaries that govern ‘adult’ space. Both films centre on the familiar figure of the urban (semi-) domesticated dog. Both Benji and the Tramp are ownerless strays – hence, they have the ability to be out on their own in the city with minimal interference. Both films conclude with the dog hero entering the safety of the suburban nuclear family.

In addition to these similarities, I’ve focussed on these two films because of the formal contrasts they provide. With Benji, we have a live action film with minimal anthropomorphism in the treatment of its dog hero (Benji doesn’t talk or think out loud, and behaves as we could credibly expect a dog to behave.) On the other hand, Lady and the Tramp is animated, with dog characters who talk and who have recognisably ‘human’ social relationships and interests. Despite these differing stylistic approaches, the two films establish their characters’ flanerie in a strikingly similar fashion.

Though we tend to think of the flaneur as a figure who strolls the streets quite free of the concerns about time and space that usually govern movement through the city, this does not mean that flanerie is not routinised. In fact, establishing the dogs’ routine in relation to their wandering the city is important in both films. In Benji, the first act status quo is introduced though a long sequence where we see Benji leaving his home (an old, abandoned house) and walking through the city streets, stopping off at various appointments along the way. He receives breakfast from two children at a suburban house, followed by footage of him walking through the city. He stops at a park to play with a police officer on duty, walks again, wakes an elderly cafe owner so he can open in time for the lunch crowd; then, more walking; he chases a cat, walks again, and finally returns home. From the responses of the humans he encounters within the narrative, we understand that this pattern is repeated daily. In this ninety minute feature film, roughly twenty minutes are occupied with semi-plotless observation of Benji walking, running or playing in the city.

The Tramp, too, appears to have a routine that governs his wanderings. He has several families he visits for food “one for every day of the week”, and various restaurants he is known at. For both characters though, their routine does not dictate their movement through the city. Rather, it provides a structure to it, in that they have places they tend to go or enjoy to go, but they are just as likely to be distracted by the attractions the city has to offer, as when the Tramp chases chickens, or watches puppies in a pet store window. (In similar fashion, Benji scent-marks trees and fossicks through trash cans.) For the child viewer, this particular form of flanerie illustrates how – given the time and the freedom – one might structure their use of the city, unfettered by adult demands and adult prohibitions on the use of time and space.

Walking in the city is “a process of appropriation of the topographical system on the part of the pedestrian” Michel De Certeau once wrote. By appropriating adult/human space, the dogs in these films are able to use and reconstruct it to suit their own needs, either by inobtrusively sneaking around the boundaries which normally govern civic space, or by openly and actively flouting its rules.

For example : both Benji and Lady and the Tramp treat fences as an important way that city space is governed. The dog characters in both films are always shown going through or under fences, rather than around them. This is either to hide from potential threats (the Tramp), to take a short-cut (Benji) or to visit friends (both characters.) In both films, fences are explicitly discussed as representing the limits on freedom. In Benji, the father initially refuses to allow his children to keep Benji as a pet, because they would “have to build a fence to keep him in, and he’d hate that.” In Lady and the Tramp, the point is even more explicit. When looking from a hill over the city, Lady sees “nice homes, with yards and fences”, while the Tramp sees “a great big world out there, with no fence around it, where two dogs can find adventure and excitement.” Just as these dogs find gaps in the fences restricting their freedom to wander in the city, children too – as Gill Valentine says, “often resist, oppose and find gaps in adult restrictions.”

Another way in which the direct transgression of the rules dictating use of space occurs in these films is through the canine characters’ disregard of signs. In the opening minutes of Benji, we see our hero casually cross a lawn with a large “Keep Off the Grass” sign, following which he is greeted by the gardener. This friendly reception is indicative of how Benji is received throughout the film – as a charming anomaly for whom the rules are relaxed, just this once. He is able to get around the restrictions of adult/human space because he is a ‘good dog’: just as children circumnavigate parental restriction and scrutiny by being well-behaved. Benji is granted the right to explore the city because he is well-liked.

The Tramp, on the other hand, must get around signposted restrictions covertly. He causes a fight between a policeman and a passerby so he and Lady can sneak past the “No Dogs Allowed” sign into the zoo. (The places visited by the canine flaneurs in both films tend to be ones that children would be keen on visiting if out in the city: parks; places to eat; the zoo; vacant lots.) The Tramp is constantly under threat of being apprehended and impounded by the city dogcatcher, and it is only through cleverness and trickery that he is able to maintain his freedom to access the city streets. Hence, if these characters are proxies for the child viewer, we can see from the Tramp’s treatment that he is presumed ‘bad’; disruptive, possibly dangerous: in need of control, i.e. a ‘Dionysian’ child-substitute, in contrast with Benji’s ‘Apollonian’ characteristics.

The city as a hostile or dangerous space is shown in these films through the filters of social class and gender. As Valentine points out, working class children tend to be less restricted in their use of public space, and boys tend to have more freedom to roam in public than girls do – in both these films, the depiction of the canine flaneur mirrors these dimensions of sex and class. Females and the upper classes, in Benji and Lady and the Tramp, are shown to be simply less able to survive out on their own in the city. They are not able to engage in flanerie, due to their inability to navigate the city’s dangers. As Walter Benjamin puts it, the inability to be ‘at home in the street’ “distances the bourgeois existence from the experience of flanerie.”

Without the Tramp chaperoning her, Lady twice ends up literally on the ‘other side of the tracks,’ in a run-down area where she is on one occasion attacked by other dogs, and on another, caught and taken to the pound. Being a ‘lady’, there are certain places in the city where Lady can’t go without running into difficulties. The Tramp’s access to the city however, has no such limits. While Benji’s ‘girlfriend’ Tiffany, is described by various human characters as ‘fancy,’ she is not upper-class – like Benji, she is a stray. However, she is shown to be less adept than Benji at exploring, and making use of the city. While he sleeps in an abandoned house, she sleeps outside. While he charms local humans into feeding him, she eats from garbage cans. While he knows to hide from the kidnappers, she is seen by them and kicked across the room with surprising violence. Benji and the Tramp’s ability to engage in flanerie, then, is not simply a case of being able to go out and take a stroll. It also requires a level of proficiency at reading the city (for opportunities, for danger) which they possess in part because of their gender, and partly because of their social position.

Although Lady and the Tramp and Benji show the child audience how the adult monopoly on the use of urban space can be challenged or circumvented, the subversive nature of this illustration is undercut in both films by their concluding emphasis on entry into the middle-class suburban home. As enticing as walking in the city may be, these films nevertheless show public space to be a site of potential danger. Both juxtapose the peril-filled climaxes of their narratives (Benji leads the police to the kidnapper’s hideout and the children are rescued; the Tramp is delivered from imminent extermination at the pound) with closing scenes that show the canine flaneur being welcomed into the family home.

By doing so, the films reinforce the binary opposition of the safe home and the dangerous outdoors. Though, according to Benjamin “the street becomes a dwelling for the flaneur [where] he is as much at home among the facades of houses as the citizen is in his four walls” this is not the case for Benji, or for the Tramp. Ultimately, their ‘street as home’ is shown to be inferior to a home within the nuclear family unit.

The nuclear family is promoted in both films as an ideal state. To that extent, the films reflect the philosopher Louis Althusser’s view of the nuclear family as “ an ideological state apparatus that universalises what is actually a specific historical construct: the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant nuclear family and the hierarchical relations of gender and class, sexuality and labour [made to] appear real, natural, inevitable and desirable. “

This ideological ‘rightness’ of the family is treated as such a given in both Benji and Lady and the Tramp that the films need not labour the point. It simply IS a happy ending that these dogs are now going to live in the (incidentally affluent, middle-class, suburban) home from now on. Benji makes slight reference to the way of life that Benji and his injured ‘girlfriend’ Tiffany are leaving behind: the father reassures his children that they won’t have to fence the dogs in, which, the children reason, is fine because “they’ll like it so much with us, they’ll never want to leave.”

Wandering the city, the film implies, can never be as attractive as being at home. The Tramp’s reception, meanwhile, of a new collar and license shows the extent of his domestication, the symbols via which we deduce his new roles of responsible father and faithful house-dog. The film conveniently disregards any attachment the Tramp might have had to his old lifestyle. These films narrativise and make finite the process of walking in the city, offering the home as the logical end-point from which no further exploration need take place.

The conclusions of these films, then, show an ideologically constructed home as the approved and preferred place for the canine flaneur to be. Moreover, considering that these films are aimed at a child audience. it could be argued that the home is equally being presented as the correct place for children to be. In essence, the social structure that these films depict celebrates the communal use of time and space, and has no room for the autonomous, anonymous use of time and space enjoyed by the flaneur.

This valorising of home and family also buys into a hierarchical structure, where both animals and children are always best off within the family, i.e. under the supervision and control of adults. Thus, there is a re-affirmation of public space as being adult space – after all, these films suggest, animals and children are so much happier when at home with the family, rather than out and about in the city. These restrictive conclusions work in opposition to the fascination with reclaiming public urban space that the canine flaneur has fostered.

The canine flaneur is a ‘type’ in children’s film – a recognisable figure through which the child viewer can vicariously enjoy and understand the experience of freely exploring the city. Films such as Benji and Lady and the Tramp illustrate the boundaries that govern urban space, but also how these boundaries can be transgressed, bypassed and subverted. However, this relationship to the city is also shown to be constrained by social class and by gender – and, ultimately, the freedoms involved are depicted as being inferior to the comforts of home, and to the security and comfort of traditional family structures.

The ways we manage the city and the popular media we create for children serve to re-inforce the message that children are to be discouraged from exploring urban space. Although the canine flaneur allows for a limited recognition of how one could freely range the city, the films in which he appears ultimately tend to downplay, and devalue, that experience.