How Pop Culture Is Shaping Our Relationship With Chicken

Chicken Run, Chicken Little, Chicken Joe. Americans love a feel-good story about chickens. Finally, we're starting to ask why.

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As a kid in the nineties, my introduction to chicken was a slab of white breast meat on my dinner plate, usually with salt and pepper and a side of white rice from the Minute Rice box. I was a proudly plain Midwestern girl and I thought crunchy chicken skin was the most delicious thing in the world. Around the same time, I met characters like the industrious Little Red Hen in picture books, the brassy Foghorn Leghorn in Looney Tunes, and the blue-eye-shadowed Camilla in The Muppets. My entire concept of chicken was divided into anthropomorphic characters and weeknight dinners—experiences so disconnected that a relationship between them never occurred to me.

Americans love chicken. We consume considerably more poultry meat than we do beef or pork, and the amount of chicken available per person has more than doubled since the 1970s. Demand has continued to increase during the pandemic as chicken is considered a staple comfort food. But chickens are staple comfort characters, too. Chicken Run (2000) remains the highest-grossing stop-motion animated film in history, and Chicken Little—a story from an oral folk tradition first printed in the early 1800s—has been retold as recently as 2005 in the form of a popular Disney movie. As interest in backyard chickens grows and consumers care more about farmed animal welfare, chickens have recently been the focus of literary examination in novels like Barn 8 (2020) and Brood (2021).

Chicken representation in the media is changing as we grapple with the cognitive dissonance of loving who we eat. In fact, it’s been evolving since the 1920s when chicken factory farming began and advertising started to shape how we think about chickens. In her book Chicken (2012), Annie Potts writes that before the 1920s, “in both ancient and more recent societies, roosters and hens were respected and admired for their abilities to guard, protect, nurture and communicate with each other.” Chickens were thought of as smart and industrious; The Little Red Hen (first published in 1874) was intended to teach children the importance of hard work. As Potts writes, chickens soon became cast “as augurs of prosperity due to the wealth that new intensive farming practices promised to generate.” As these intensive farming practices grew to dominate the food system throughout the 20th century, chicken representation in the media evolved accordingly to justify chickens’ poor treatment in this system. 

To demonstrate how the media has both affected and responded to our changing relationship to our favorite bird, here are eight ways that chickens have been represented in pop culture over the last century, and what it reveals about how consumers are starting to interrogate the feel-good stories that advertising has been feeding us for decades.

Chickens as dumb

In the 1920s, chickens became the first factory-farmed animal, and they remained the only factory-farmed animal for five more decades. The term “birdbrain” meaning “a stupid person” was also coined in the 1920s, despite the fact that chickens are extremely clever and have remarkable memories. This narrative still dominates one hundred years later, as demonstrated by the chickens in Chicken Run (2000) who are comically slow on the uptake; the recurring chicken dance bit in Arrested Development (2003-2006), which is performed by one or more characters when another character acts cowardly; and the incredibly stupid Heihei the rooster in Moana (2016). One character says about Heihei: “he seems to lack the basic intelligence required for pretty much… everything.” 

But chickens are, in fact, smart. They engage in complex cognitive behaviors that are similar to those of animals we think of as highly intelligent, including dolphins and chimpanzees. Humans tend to have more empathy for animals who are more similar to us, so constructing a false narrative that chickens are stupid—when we think of ourselves as supremely intelligent—was an important step for slipping a newly inhumane treatment of chickens under the radar.

Chickens as women (and, of course, vice versa)

Aiding the new narrative of chickens as dumb, fictional chickens became extra-feminized after real chickens became factory farmed. From the 1920s to 1940s, sexist terms like “chick,” “no spring chicken,” and “chicken dinner” used to describe women all grew in popularity. Feminizing chickens to belittle their intelligence and using chicken terms to belittle women contributed to the oppression of both groups. Like the chickens-as-dumb motif, the chickens-as-silly-ladies idea lasted through the century. 

Chicken Run portrays its chickens as frivolous women who are not the most mentally sharp. Their feminine necklaces, scarves, hairstyles, and high voices are partly what make them so funny—even as they’re organizing to fight the system. “What kind of crazy chick are you?” Rocky (voiced by Mel Gibson) asks Ginger, the smart lady-chicken leader of the chicken revolt. The Muppets’ Camilla (who first appeared in 1979) is also a hyper-feminized chicken, wearing eye makeup and serving the role of Gonzo’s love interest. But Gonzo occasionally chases after other chickens because, after all, “they all look the same.” Gonzo may just be a misguided sweetheart, but deindividualization is a known psychological numbing tool that paves the way for harming entire groups of people and animals.

Chickens as idyllic

By 1952, broiler chickens (chickens specifically raised for their meat) surpassed farm chickens to become the number one source of poultry meat in America, causing many farmers across the country to lose their farms. Two years later, the National Broiler Council was organized to stimulate consumer demand. This led to a 1960s surge in television and print media that marketed chickens under brand names. At the same time, chicken characters in pop culture often represented an idyllic “family farm” way of life that, in reality, was rapidly deteriorating. The broiler industry’s current form was developed in the 1960s, and factory farming grew to encompass pigs, cows, and other livestock in the 1970s. Popular TV shows like The Beverly Hillbillies (1962-1971) and Green Acres (1965-1971) included chickens in their pastoral farm scenes, feeding into America’s nostalgia for simpler times and blissfully ignoring the reality of the newly dominating factory farm system.

The number of chickens slaughtered for food grew to make up over 95 percent of all land animals farmed for food in the United States, and—relentless images of peaceful farm scenes aside—the current reality is that 99.9 percent of these chickens are factory farmed. Chickens in factory farms face extremely cramped conditions, endure painful debeaking, and often go blind due to the ammonia fumes from piled-up excretions. This environment is also harmful to human workers, who are often immigrants or resettled refugees trapped in exploitative labor conditions. As worker safety policy expert Debbie Berkowitz said in 2016, “Part of the business model in [the meat industry] is to sacrifice worker safety on the altar of profits.” The images of quaint, peaceful farm scenes that inundate our media could not be further from the truth of how most farms actually operate.

Chickens as entertainers

Long before Camilla and her chicken showgirls performed CeeLo Green’s “Forget You” in the 2011 film The Muppets, the loudmouthed Foghorn Leghorn appeared in the Looney Tunes animations in 1946. Known for saying, “Ah, shut up!” and strolling around his farmyard, Foghorn Leghorn was a rooster who worked to entertain himself as much as his audience—mostly because that idyllic farm life created for him by the media was so, well, boring. As television expert Jaime Weinman reflects, “[Foghorn Leghorn] is someone trapped in a mundane world willing to do pretty much anything to occupy his time.” A green rooster named Cornelius had a similar swagger and lived on a similarly peaceful farm when he made his debut on the Kellogg’s Corn Flakes box in 1957. In early commercials, Cornelius would comically struggle to crow until he had his bowl of Corn Flakes. Even Chicken Run—which is a movie about impending mass murder on a farm that could not be any darker (a chicken knits herself a noose!)—is ultimately an entertaining film in the “Family/Comedy” category.

As chickens and humans grew more disconnected, the mere presence of a chicken became bizarre enough to get laughs. When The Hangover came out in 2009, the random, unexplained chicken in the film had such comic appeal that it landed a starring role on one of the movie’s posters.

Chickens as nuisances

In “The Little Jerry” episode of Seinfeld (1997), Kramer wants to buy a chicken so he can have access to his own free-range eggs—reflecting growing public concern for farmed chicken welfare (and corresponding food quality) in the 1990s. Kramer accidentally buys a rooster, which is bad news for everyone in the building. In one scene, Jerry is annoyingly awakened by the “cock-a-doodle-doo” next door. 

Three years later, Carrie Bradshaw also wakes up in a Manhattan apartment to the sound of crowing. In the Sex and the City episode “Cock-a-Doodle-Do” (2000), caged roosters appear on the roof of the animal hospital next to Carrie’s building. When she’s informed that the roosters were rescued from a cockfight, she feels bad and acknowledges they have “fight trauma” and “need fresh air”—a welcome exhibition of compassion after the silly roosters and objectified lady-chickens of the previous decades. However, at the end of the episode (which is expectedly abundant with “cock” and “cocktail” puns) Carrie orders the removal of the roosters when she can’t take the sound anymore. Kramer and Carrie both mistake roosters for chickens throughout each episode, implying how disconnected from chickens humans in the cities had become. 

Of course, roosters don’t crow for the fun of annoying humans; they crow as a territorial warning signal and to communicate with other chickens (and, fun fact, they amazingly do not need light to know when daybreak is).

Chickens as dollar signs

While chickens may have been a revered sign of prosperity in the early 1900s, by the 2000s they came to be associated with a sleazier type of profit-making. Even the kids on the PBS show Arthur take up the fight against fast food chicken expansion. In the episode “Sue Ellen Chickens Out” (2003), the friend group protests the expansion of the Chickin Lickin’ restaurant chain. A commercial for Chickin Lickin’ features dancing chickens (fulfilling their representational duties as entertainers) excitedly selling chicken meat. 

An even more disturbing commercial can be seen in BoJack Horseman’s “Chickens” episode (2015), in which Gentle Farms claims they are better than fast food chain Chicken 4 Dayz but turns out to be just as cruel for the sake of profit. The Gentle Farms farmer (who’s also a chicken) describes the Gentle Farms process in a warm, Southern drawl reminiscent of Foghorn Leghorn’s showmanship: “When our chicks are first hatched, we lovingly inject them with natural delicious hormones, which makes them meat, thereby erasing any moral gray area.” The concept of the chicken fast food chain became so ubiquitous that even Breaking Bad (2008-2013) used a fictional chain—Los Pollos Hermanos (“the chicken brothers”)—as the front for the show’s epic methamphetamine empire. By the early 2000s, the mere image of a chicken was associated with easy money. However, the ways the media portrayed this connection showed that it was beginning to feel morally off-putting.

Chickens as friends

Celebrity interest in chickens combines the expectation that chickens are for entertainment (because how fun and quirky is Jennifer Garner walking her chicken on a leash?) with a growing cultural nostalgia for our self-sufficient, agrarian roots—while indicating that compassion is getting to be in vogue. Besides, it’s true that chickens can make good friends (even if the idea that humans are good friends to chickens is misleading at best). Chickens are social creatures with unique personality quirks and—as long as they trust you—may even be down to snuggle.

This new encroachment of chickens into the companion animal territory typically held by dogs and cats is reflected in Jackie Polzin’s novel Brood (2021). But even in Brood, where chickens are written about beautifully and lovingly, the narrator all but dismisses the psychological disconnect between loving chickens and eating them: “Percy [the narrator’s husband] and I do eat chicken. The chickens of the system, whose lives bear almost no resemblance to life at all. It is horrible to think of eating chickens with such horrible lives, which is why we don’t think much about it…If I thought much about it, I would stay as far from the shrink-wrapped breasts of modern chickens as possible.” 

Chickens as victims

Consciousness of the reality of chickens in factory farms clearly rose in the 2010s and beyond, as chickens have been more frequently portrayed in ways that match real life. The “Farm” episode of Portlandia (2011) pokes fun at the irony of concern about animals’ quality of life before slaughter. When Fred Armisen’s character asks a waitress for more information on the chicken he might order, the waitress procures a binder with detailed information about the life of Colin the chicken. This comically ridiculous interaction heightened the moral uneasiness that other shows were starting to explore: do we actually want to know everything about the individual animals we’re about to eat? 

In a recurring bit (2019 and 2021) on Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update,” Aidy Bryant and Kate McKinnon play the owners of Smokery Farms Meat Gift Delivery Service. Holding a basket full of glistening raw meat, Bryant and McKinnon try to keep straight faces amidst the stink as they promise they “only serve meat from animals that are individually stupid and bad”—including a hen who “contributed to a toxic work environment.” Recent Oscar-nominated films Minari (2020) and Nightmare Alley (2021) more seriously portray this reality, darkly using victimization of chickens as a metaphor for their male protagonists’ feelings of insignificance.

The role of humans in the human-chicken dynamic is being more clearly articulated than ever before. The lead chicken in the BoJack Horseman “Chickens” episode fits the stereotype of a dim-witted-woman chicken, but the episode explains her idiocy: she is pumped full of hormones, and her stupidity is something that a ruthless economy has done to her. In Deb Olin Unferth’s novel Barn 8 (2020), rogue egg auditors work on an ambitious plan to set one million chickens free from a single farm. In Unferth’s story, there’s no mistaking that not only are chickens victims of a cruel system, but they are obviously not capable of pulling a Chicken Run and saving themselves. The moral responsibility lies with humans.

Reclaiming reality in the 21st century

The trajectory of chicken representation in pop culture demonstrates that people are increasingly caring about animal welfare and grappling with our own complicity in a cruel system—one in which chickens are arguably the most abused animals. Due to concerns about the environment and zoonotic diseases in addition to animal welfare, plant-based chicken is growing into big business. 2021 saw the opening of new plant-based chicken establishments like Herbie Butcher’s Fried Chicken in Minneapolis and Project Pollo in San Antonio, the introduction of Beyond Meat’s chicken tenders in July, and the launch of Impossible Foods’ plant-based chicken in September. The paradox of caring about chickens while refusing to give up our favorite comfort food is playing out in real economic changes.

As Americans move out of the pandemic with more backyard chickens than we started with (both in our yards and in our Instagram feeds), we’re getting a taste of what it means to get back to our more sustainable roots—or of what this could look like if that serene farm life no longer exists. I recently held a chicken for the first time, and after experiencing chickens as vapid cartoons and dim-witted women my whole life, the warmth and weight of the animal in my arms surprised me. The experience was remarkably similar to holding my cat (except that the purring bird was not nearly so eager to leap from my arms). 

For most of my life, I failed to see any connection between cartoons I loved and the food I ate because there was nothing around me that suggested chickens exist as individuals worthy of any consideration. If the trajectory of depicting chickens as victims of a more broadly inhumane food system continues, perhaps pop culture is on the verge of defining a crucial missing link between the world that is and the world that could be.

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