Holy bonsai wolves: Chihuahuas and the Paris Hilton syndrome
(Department of Sociology) Örebro University, Sweden
David Redmalm, Department of Sociology, Örebro University, 701 82 Örebro, Sweden.
Email: email@example.com / new valid e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org
Redmalm, David (2014) ‘Holy Bonsai Wolves: Chihuahuas and the Paris Hilton Syndrome,’
International Journal of Cultural Studies 17(1), 93–109.
This article examines the reasons for the Chihuahua breed’s popularity in contemporary western
society by looking at two sets of data: Chihuahua handbooks and the Simple Life show, starring
Paris Hilton and her Chihuahua Tinkerbell. The article argues that the Chihuahua is a holy
anomaly: a creature which can be used in myths and rituals to temporarily alleviate the tension-
filled binary oppositions and stereotypes inherent in a particular culture, in order to celebrate and
reinforce that culture’s categories and social order. The Chihuahua—or the bonsai wolf—
transcends two binary oppositions fundamental to contemporary Westerners: subject/object and
nature/culture. Although the Chihuahua challenges a number of related binary oppositions, it is
generally dismissed as humor, low-brow entertainment or expressions of sentimentality,
rendering ritual encounters with Chihuahuas harmless. The article concludes by asking: What
would happen if humans would actually start listening to what the Chihuahua is telling them?
Anomalies, binary oppositions, Chihuahuas, dogs, dichotomies, Donna Haraway, Paris Hilton,
hudographies, animal human relations, humor, popular culture.
Paris Hilton, heiress of the Hilton hotel chain, has frequently been depicted in popular media
carrying a Chihuahua—most often, her favorite dog, Tinkerbell Hilton. Tinkerbell’s fame, many
argue, creates an increased demand for Chihuahuas, which in turn has resulted in a large number
of abandoned Chihuahuas in the United States described by American journalists as ‘the Paris
Hilton syndrome’ (see e.g. Hyde, 2010; La Ganga, 2009). Chihuahuas clearly suffer from their
popularity: several breed-specific Chihuahua shelters and a national Chihuahua rescue group
(Chihuahua Rescue & Transport, Inc) have been created to respond to abandoned, neglected and
abused Chihuahuas, and Chihuahua handbooks dissuade readers from buying Chihuahuas as a
response to the Chihuahua trend (see e.g. Hustace Walker, 2006: 11). But Hilton was not the first
person to create a stir around the breed—several twentieth-century public figures have owned
Chihuahuas, and Chihuahua booms have accompanied these public figures’ success. At least in
the United States, interest in the Chihuahua breed seems to be less a momentary trend than a
fixation that has persisted since the late 19th century (Terry, 1990: 213ff).
This article examines the reasons for the Chihuahua’s popularity and the attention given
to the breed. It argues that the Chihuahua is popular because it allows contemporary Westerners
to play with binary oppositions fundamental to their society. Drawing on Mary Douglas’ (1984:
169ff) argument that anomalies to a society’s dichotomous conceptual framework are sometimes
considered holy, the Chihuahua is analyzed as a holy anomaly. Holy anomalies can be used in
rituals to temporarily alleviate the tension-filled binary oppositions inherent in a particular
culture, in order to celebrate and reinforce that culture’s categories and social order. The
Chihuahua’s ambiguity is in some respects reminiscent of the bonsai tree: it can be regarded as a
piece of nature brought into the social sphere as a portable proof of humanity’s omnipotence (cf.
Tuan, 1984: 61ff). Yet, Chihuahuas cannot be mere symbols of power; many people live and
actively interact with them on a day-to-day basis (Serpell, 1996: 52). Accordingly, the article
argues that the Chihuahua transcends a number of binary oppositions, of which two are
particularly central to the modern western society. First, the Chihuahua undermines the
opposition between subject and object, since the Chihuahua is both regarded as a dear
companion and as a commodity. Second, the Chihuahua transgresses the boundary between
nature and culture, since it is both a descendent from the wolf, and a social being included in the
sphere of human society. Chihuahuas allow modern people to play with these binary oppositions,
as well as a number of related oppositions, stereotypes and moral boundaries—a ritual which
ultimately reinforces the validity of these categories and boundaries. In short: the Chihuahua is a
holy bonsai wolf.
In the next section, I further present the concept of the holy anomaly and discuss the
Chihuahua’s place in contemporary western society. After a section accounting for
methodological considerations, the analysis is carried out in two steps. I first analyze the
ambiguities in Chihuahua handbooks’ portrayal of the breed, and I then go on to explore the
anomalies and transgressions produced in the relationship between Hilton and Tinkerbell. By
looking at these two sets of data, the article detects relevant binary oppositions inherent in
contemporary western culture. The focus on a particular dog breed is consistent with a larger
hudographical project, that is, the study of human-dog relations. As Emma Mason (2008: 291)
puts it, hudographers ‘might shed light on the way humans relate to themselves and each other’
in a new way. In the present article, this means investigating the various discourses permeating
the Chihuahua and its existence to uncover the cultural categories that regulate both human-
Chihuahua relations and humans’ self-understanding. The Chihuahua is the holy anomaly of the
moderns; their holy bonsai wolf. Yet, this does not mean that the Chihuahua is a passive surface
for humans’ cultural inscriptions. Chihuahuas matter, as we shall see, through their constant
attempts in communicating with us humans. The question is: are we ready to listen?
Monsters and holy anomalies
According to Bruno Latour (1993), knowledge is most effectively produced when a society’s
thought systems and meticulously defined categories fail to fill their duties. He argues that while
the distinction between nature and culture has been integral to humans’ self-understanding during
the modern era, this constructed division incessantly creates anomalies, since no phenomenon is
strictly natural or cultural. Latour labels anomalies that cannot be translated into the language of
natural science or cultural understanding as monsters—they challenge a coherent understanding
of the world, and they dissolve binary oppositions fundamental to common sense. Monsters
therefore also pose a threat against enlightened, rational thought, and must be neglected or
destroyed (Latour, 1993: 11f; cf. Douglas, 1984: 39f).
The Chihuahua’s place in society is highly ambiguous—it is at once an exploitable
commodity and a life companion, an animal with a wolfish inner nature who plays an active role
in human society. These two binary oppositions are played out repeatedly in presentations of the
Chihuahua in contemporary western culture. The Chihuahua’s challenge against the binary
opposition between commodity and companion is prominent in the many toys modeled after the
breed. For example, Hasbro’s collectible Littlest Pet Shop series includes three different
Chihuahuas—‘ready to make a fashion statement in their stylin’ outfits!’ (hasbro.com). The
Chihuahua is also one of four breeds represented in the puppy-rearing TV-game Nintendogs. And
the Fancy Pals Pet Carriers (property of Aurora World, Inc.)—a plush purse and toy dog
combination—comes in three different Chihuahua designs. These toys play on the
commodification of the Chihuahua, but their marketing campaigns emphasize friendship and
care, implying that the dog also represents spiritual values.
The Chihuahua’s transgression of the boundary between nature and culture is also a
common theme in western culture, and it is highlighted in historical accounts of the breed. While
the Chihuahua is sometimes framed as something unnatural, simply a result of human
manipulation, the Chihuahua has a much more intricate past. An ancestor of the Chihuahua—the
Techichi—was bred in South America for ritual purposes and food as far back as the ninth
century in Toltec society, and later by Aztecs. When the Spanish colonized the Mexican region,
the Chihuahuas were set free and went to live in the Mexican mountains. The Chihuahua was
then re-domesticated and given the name of the Mexican region about two or three hundred years
ago (Gagne, 2005: 7ff; Waldorf Gewirtz, 2006: 18f). The image of the Chihuahua as a hard-
boiled survivor, offering dogged resistance in the face of the whims of nature and the constant
flux of human societies, thus stands in sharp contrast to the perception of the Chihuahua as a
petite fashion accessory. Several contemporary artists have explored the way the Chihuahua
challenges the nature/culture and the animal/human binaries. Bjarne Melgaard (1991) performed
with live Chihuahuas which he trained to sit still in various poses, highlighting issues of power,
socialization and domestication. Scott Musgrove explored the tension between wild wolf and
subjugated dog in his depiction of a Chihuahua in wolf’s clothing, Canis Strategema, from 2003.
In 2007, Daniel Edwards sculpted a diseased Hilton with a grieving Tinkerbell by her side,
challenging the traditional sexist association of women with animals, as well as the hierarchical
relation between the human owner and the owned animal.
While monstrous anomalies are often dealt with by means of expulsion, the Chihuahua is
instead elevated in a peculiar fashion, both in high and popular culture. This treatment can be
recognized in Mary Douglas’ (1984: 169ff) discussion of what I call holy anomalies—
phenomena which are given special attention in a cultural setting, not in spite of, but because
they challenge binary oppositions central to the society in which they exist. By confronting a
holy anomaly under controlled circumstances—and in so-called pre-modern societies this would
mean creating myths and rituals around the anomaly—a society is able to play with otherwise
strict boundaries between categories central to that society. In these playful confrontations,
knowledge about the categories and their boundaries are distributed to the members of the
society, and the categories are reinforced. As I will argue, the confrontations with the holy bonsai
wolf are dismissed as humor, sentimentality, or low-brow entertainment so that the Chihuahua’s
monstrosity never fundamentally threatens the social order it transgresses and the binary
oppositions it challenges. The ritual cementation of fundamental binary oppositions can hence
continue undisturbed. Thus, in the analysis of Chihuahua handbooks and the relationship
between Hilton and Tinkerbell, the analysis will focus on the Chihuahua’s challenges against
binary oppositions and cultural categories as well as highlight how these transgressions are
The Chihuahua as text
The method of analysis used in the present study is inspired by Donna Haraway’s (1989: 35, 58)
‘literal reading’ of 19th and 20th century documents concerning African expeditions, museiology
and primatology. Haraway’s project aimed to unsettle the original authors’ claims of objectivity
by pointing out the interplay of sexist, racist and anthropocentric elements in the texts. Her study
is ‘literal’ since she emphasizes the tensions already explicit in the texts, instead of imposing a
hermeneutic apparatus on the material. The present study is an analogous literal reading of
contemporary texts about the Chihuahua that focuses on the Chihuahua’s ambiguous character.
By playing texts about Chihuahuas against each other, the texts’ inherent tensions are
accentuated and as a result, the myth around the Chihuahua is laid bare. The reader may perceive
the focus on text as excluding the Chihuahua itself from the analysis—it may seem that
logocentrism must entail anthropocentrism (Barad, 2008: 136). Still, the texts which are analyzed
are produced, reproduced, circulated and assimilated in a system which also includes real, living
Chihuahuas and their interaction with humans. Chihuahuas thus ‘intervene in their own
representations’ (Hayward, 2010). To use Haraway’s (e.g. 1989: 172, 2008: 26) expression, the
Chihuahua is ‘material-semiotic’—at once a social construction and a biological organism. An
analysis of Chihuahuas’ significance is therefore pertinent to their material existence and may
have consequences for Chihuahuas themselves.
To capture the Chihuahua’s material-semiotic and omnipresent character, this twofold
study uses friction between different genres to map out the Chihuahua’s multi-faceted dynamics.
The first part focuses on Chihuahua handbooks. Ten internationally available books of
approximately 1700 pages were selected with the goal of creating variation in the data in terms
of length (100–300 pages), publication date (1990 to present), tone (both humorous and sober),
target audience (both first time and experienced dog owners) and the frequency of illustrations
(from almost no images at all to images on every page). The material was analyzed with a special
attention to tension-filled descriptions of the breed. Such descriptions were found in all of the
books, and they appeared in the books’ various sections, regardless of subject. The descriptions
were gathered under two main binary oppositions that encapsulate the Chihuahua’s bonsai wolf
character: individual/commodity and nature/nurture. To expand the characterization of the
Chihuahua, the second part of the study contrasts these findings to those of a similar analysis of
the relation between Hilton and Tinkerbell as depicted in three seasons’ episodes of the Simple
Life reality show.
The supplementary sources added to the analysis—both academic and popular—provide
additional context and a richer overview of the Chihuahua’s status in contemporary western
society. However, this article is written from within that society. Both the analysis and the
contextual frame are therefore recognized as the author’s rhetorical constructions, and the line
between contextualization and empirical material is intentionally blurred (cf. Rose, 1999: 13). As
a whole, the article makes up a critical Chihuahua hudography.
Chihuahua handbooks: ‘Are you up to the Chihuahua challenge?’
To investigate the Chihuahua’s contradictory character, I first look at a forum that turns the
Chihuahua into an object of desire. Chihuahua handbooks address potential Chihuahua owners
and current owners interested in enriching their relationship with their dogs through shared
activities, new diets, or perhaps another puppy. I discuss two binary oppositions evoked
repeatedly in the books: individual/commodity and nature/nurture.
Individual and commodity
A pet is certainly a commodity: it is bought and sold; there are fashion trends in breeds and
species; different pets are connected to different characteristics, values, ideas and ideals; and
many species used as pets are mass-produced. But a pet also transcends the status of commodity;
Chihuahua handbook authors continuously emphasize that every Chihuahua is an individual with
unique needs playing an important role in the life of the owner, and so cannot be used as a mere
fashion accessory. The commodification of Chihuahuas, as well as many other pets, accords with
the logic laid out by Baudrillard (1996: 141f, 1998: 60ff): while modern economies are based on
the mass-production of objects, every single object must be perceived as unique and authentic to
become a desirable commodity. Yet, commodities themselves have no intrinsic value and are
exchanged incessantly without ever satisfying the consumers. Pets are the ideal merchandise
because they are considered to be unique individuals and true companions in spite of the fact that
they are commercially exchanged. Zygmunt Bauman (2000: 81) also points out that consumption
is an inherently open-ended process. He argues that consumerism is an identity project which
Westerners in late modernity engage in to try to fill the void left when urbanization and
individualization erased the pre-modern Gemeinschaft. But the project is endless since shopping
is an insufficient substitute for actual social bonds, and consumers are never able to give
substance to their identity projects. Yet, the purchase of a Chihuahua-individual opens up the
possibility of a continuous identification with another individual—exactly what Bauman says the
contemporary consumer is looking for. Consequently, Chihuahuas dissolve the tension of the
The Chihuahua handbooks’ authors explicitly condemn the very notion of trends in dog
breeding (see e.g. Gagne 2005:11; Hustace Walker: 2006:46f), but the books’ pictures present
Chihuahuas as small and cute, surrounded by a sentimental shimmer. Chihuahuas are depicted in
flower arrangements; in teacups; in non-functional clothes; and in knitted baskets, the last being
one of the most common depictions (see e.g. Coile, 2003: 4; Pisano, 2001: 107; Terry, 1990: 18).
In addition, many of the pictures simply depict Chihuahuas posing in a studio—‘Chihuahuas
make wonderful models because they are easily trained and respond well to direction’ (Terry,
1990: 22). In other words, handbooks simultaneously disapprove of and encourage the
objectification and commodification of the Chihuahua.
Several authors use economic jargon to discuss the advantages of the pet relationship, and
some even allude to prostitution. The Chihuahua is described as ‘the smallest, most economical
and compact bundle of love in dogdom’ (Pisano, 2001: 9). And it is a remunerative investment:
‘For every affectionate pat they receive, you will get double payback in love and loyalty’
(Dunbar, 1999: 2). One author pinpoints the tension between the Chihuahua’s status as both
individual and commodity by saying that ‘the Chihuahua is a living proof that you can buy love’
(Coile, 2000: 9). In spite of these cynical observations, all authors emphasize that it is a constant
struggle to maintain a healthy human-dog relationship. A Chihuahua is not a guarantee for
unconditional love (see also Haraway, 2008: 228). To earn your Chihuahua’s friendship, you
have to love it and care for it—‘An unloved pet is an unhappy pet’ (Terry, 1990: 87); you have to
be sensitive to the Chihuahuas needs and wishes; you have to endure ‘the midnight walks in the
rain, the soiled floors, the lack of freedom, the expenses, such as food, equipment, boarding and
veterinary, and ultimately, the grief of parting after a long life’ (Coile, 2003: 11). And not to
forget, Chihuahuas need to urinate at short intervals: ‘Small dogs have small bladders!’ (Gagne,
2005: 23). With all these obstacles in mind—both existential questions and problems of a more
mundane kind—readers are urged to ask themselves: ‘Are you up to the Chihuahua challenge?’
(Coile, 2003: 10).
The individual/commodity binary even frames authors’ discussions of death. Most
Chihuahua handbooks emphasize that it is natural to grieve one’s lost canine friend, and
recommend a funeral ceremony of some sort as a last celebration of the mutual devotion between
dog and owner. Thus, handbooks make the Chihuahua’s demise meaningful by connecting it to
the dog’s purposeful life and its genuine personality—in contrast to the prevalent philosophical
idea that the death of a non-human animal is devoid of all meaning (Smith, 2005). According to
the handbooks, the departure of an individual dog is a tragedy, but the reader is also reminded
that there are always new dogs available at the market. The human-dog relation, therefore, is
cyclical. One chapter on euthanasia ends with the dreadful words: ‘Enjoy your new Chihuahua!’
(Terry, 1990: 94).
Nature, nurture or neuter?
While the image of the Chihuahua as a brittle decoration item is present in handbooks, authors
also emphasize that the Chihuahua in fact has a pristine, animal essence. They describe the breed
as a ‘natural breed,’ which means that according to its race specifics, it is not necessary to
manipulate the dog’s physical appearance. The Chihuahua may be a toy dog, but nevertheless,
‘[t]oy dogs are real dogs’ (O'Neil, 2008: 16), and it is as good a dog as any larger breed (Terry,
1990: 173). The Chihuahua’s long history adds to the perception of the Chihuahua as a real dog
with a well-preserved essence: ‘As much as they have shaken off their wild vestiges, Chihuahuas
still speak the ancestral language of wolves’ (Coile, 2000: 41).
Again: the Chihuahua is a bonsai wolf. Even though the Chihuahua is described as a
sturdy dog, its bonsai body creates a number of problems that handbooks repeatedly mention: the
dog is easily hurt by falling objects, careless people and bigger dogs; it has a sensitive
metabolism; it is sensitive to rain and cold weather; it is particularly hard to housebreak; because
of its small body volume, it is especially vulnerable to household chemicals and insect stings; its
teeth may accidentally be pulled out when playing too roughly; and it is vulnerable to several
diseases common to small breeds (Mondshine, 1999: 37; O’Neil, 2008: 225ff; Waldorf Gewirtz,
2006: 148). Furthermore, particularly tiny Chihuahuas run a larger risk of suffering from organic
diseases: ‘perhaps some internal organs simply have met their lower limits of normal size and
function’ (Coile, 2003: 11). The Chihuahua is described as ‘[t]he tiny dog with the giant heart’
(Coile, 2000: vi), but in light of these medical facts, the figurative expression becomes a cruel
Whether the Chihuahua is a wolf-like creature or a fragile, somewhat deficient creation of
breeders, it must be nurtured by a caring human; otherwise it may face ‘lifetime personality
problems’ (Coile, 2003: 14; cf. Pisano, 2001: 90). Chihuahua-keeping implies development for
both dog and owner: ‘[T]raining your dog leads to understanding your dog, and understanding
your dog will make you a better trainer’ (Terry, 1990: 175). To facilitate this mutual
understanding, you have to learn to speak its language: ‘Wuzzzer-wuzzer-wuzzer, hoooser good
wuffer den?’ (Dunbar, 1999: 76). Chihuahuas may not be verbal, but they are definitely not mute,
according to the handbooks. By their sounds and body language, Chihuahuas are said to signal
for example playfulness, anticipation and bodily integrity (see e.g. Gagne, 2005: 43, 88; O’Neil,
2008: 123). Even misbehavior such as whining and excessive digging may be a way for the
Chihuahua to communicate boredom or separation anxiety (Hustace Walker 2006: 155ff).
The handbooks also encourage readers to endeavor to ‘think like a dog’ (Coile, 2003: 29)
in order to educate it properly. Taking on the role of the ‘pack leader,’ a position intelligible to
both dog and human, is crucial—as a dog owner, you must take control, keep it and act
consistently (Mondshine, 1999: 21). When, in contrast, Chihuahuas are spoiled, they turn into
‘pests’ (Terry, 1990: 31), ‘tiny tyrants and nervous wimps’ (O’Neil, 2008: 16), ‘little napoleon[s]’
(Coile, 2000: 9), or perhaps worst of all: ‘[i]f your dog doesn’t receive the proper training and
guidance, he [sic] very well may replace you as Alpha’ (Mondshine, 1999: 151). By properly
nurturing your Chihuahua, you make sure it does not cross the thin line between pet and pest.
Owners can adjust their Chihuahua’s behavior not only through training, but also by
means of neutering and spaying. Handbook authors recommend sterilization to prevent unwanted
pregnancies (Dunbar, 1999: 22), to eradicate dominant behavior in male dogs (Coile, 2000: 39)
and to stop dogs from masturbating (Gagne, 2005: 20). The discourse of neutering reveals a
common-sense biological determinism: dominant behavior is natural to males and can be warded
off with a simple cut. Thus, handbooks on one hand recognize the Chihuahua as a biological
organism with a nature of its own, but on the other hand suggest that owners must manipulate the
Chihuahua’s nature—its behavior and reproductive organs—to turn it into a real (family) dog.
Nurturing, therefore, requires neutering.
Finally, handbooks consistently invoke the nature/nurture binary by describing them as
eternal children, or ‘perpetual babies’ (Coile, 2000: 152; cf. e.g. Gagne, 2005: 110; Pisano, 2001:
2). In a chapter on Chihuahua puppy-rearing, the caption of a picture of a Chihuahua in a mini
crib says, ‘Congratulations! You’re expecting!’ (Coile, 2003: 21). Haraway (2003: 37) has argued
that the sentimental notion of dogs as ‘furry children’ is demeaning both to children and pet
animals since it does not take into account the differences between the two kinds of beings.
Although handbooks repeatedly describe Chihuahuas as children, especially in the puppy section
that each book contains, they also criticize this notion. For example, one author states that
‘[a]lthough many Chihuahua owners are inclined to think of their companions as “little people”,
it must be understood that the Chihuahua is first and foremost a dog’ (Coile, 2003: 21).
Handbooks encourage readers to treat the dog like a dog, in respect to the dog’s true nature. Yet,
the Chihuahua is acknowledged as an eternal child by nature. The books undermine the
nature/nurture dichotomy when they simultaneously present the Chihuahua as a child in need of
nurture and a dog whose wild nature needs taming. In the handbooks, the Chihuahua is at once a
baby and a beast.
Even though handbooks intermittently refer to the Chihuahua as a child, they also
recognize that there have been occurrences of ‘Chi[huahua]s being tortured, abused and killed—
sometimes in a ritualistic or sacrificial manner’ (Hustace Walker, 2006: 12). Some also mention
that Chihuahuas are sometimes caged and used as ‘puppy-producing machines’ in spite of the
large number of Chihuahuas killed because of the breeding surplus (Coile, 2000: 8). Because it is
a common, not to say fundamental, idea in most contemporary societies that every parent is
obliged to recognize and to care for their children unconditionally (Honneth, 1997: 32), the cruel
treatment of Chihuahuas is incompatible with descriptions of it as a child. Of course, human
children like Chihuahuas are in no way guaranteed the benefits of this universally prevailing
imperative, but while there are legislation preventing adults to abuse their power over children,
Chihuahuas have no individual rights and may, without any legal consequences, be destroyed
when regarded as superfluous. While Chihuahuas are treated as objects of nurture in handbooks,
they are also, as we have seen, described as a part of nature, and are consequently not granted the
same level of protection as humans. The Chihuahua’s transgression of the nature/nurture binary
thus allows an ambivalent treatment of the breed both in theory and practice.
To sum up, the two main binaries of the Chihuahua literature, individual/commodity and
nature/nurture, imply that the Chihuahua is both a subject and an object of desire; both a
commercially manufactured toy dog and a true companion; both a fragile artifact and a natural
breed with a wolf-like essence; both a perpetual baby and a dog that may grow up to outsmart
you with its dominant behavior; both a social being and a biologically determined organism. To
further investigate the dynamics of the Chihuahua, I now turn from the Chihuahua as a breed to a
particular Chihuahua, Tinkerbell.
The Simple Life: ‘Stilettos in cow shit’
In broadcasted public appearances by Tinkerbell and Hilton, Tinkerbell may seem passive in her
mistress’ arms. Upon closer examination, the intense dynamic between them becomes tangible.
Hilton’s and Tinkerbell’s identities are coproduced—a process which includes the actions of
mistress and dog as well as their discursive context (cf. Sanders, 1990). This mutual identity
construction is most evident in The Simple Life, a so-called reality TV show commonly referred
to as the original source of the Paris Hilton syndrome. The choice of medium is itself telling: the
reality show genre’s paradoxical mix of soap opera and surveillance film esthetic is the perfect
way to display Hilton’s play with superficiality and authentic individual expression as well as the
collapse between her career and her private life (Andrejevic, 2002; Hillyer, 2010). Tinkerbell’s
performance accumulates an analogously paradoxical identity. Her artificial character is
emphasized in the show by the clothes she wears: pink dresses, fake fur and glittery shoes. Yet,
Tinkerbell is a living, breathing, individual being, a fact stressed by Hilton’s concern for the dog.
Hilton asserts that she would ‘die’ if anything happened to Tinkerbell (season 3, episode 1), a
claim that contrasts with her reputation as a negligent dog owner. In the series, the couple enacts
and transgresses numerous stereotypical categories. Like the Chihuahua, Hilton has an
ambiguous character—‘[h]eiresses don’t need to be consistent’ as she puts it (Hilton P and
Ginsberg, 2004: 60). Because Tinkerbell and Hilton accentuate each other’s ambiguity, the duo
becomes an especially effectual holy anomaly—they both are given special attention in the
popular media. Four themes characterize The Simple Life’s interrelated depictions of dog and
mistress: gender, class, the binary opposition between human and animal, and the relation
between child and parent.
The Simple Life is premised upon Hilton and her friend Nicole Richie interacting with
‘common people’ who have ‘common jobs.’ The two women are consistently displayed as being
unable to manage the easiest of chores, and they seem to react out of proportion to everything
that happens, laughing frantically or screaming out loud with high-pitched voices. ‘They’re
TOTALLY OUT-OF-CONTROL’ as it says on the cover of the DVD edition of the first season.
Hilton and Richie are presented as the Freudian pleasure principle personified; they are depicted
as impulsive, childish, lazy and disloyal, and as having a burning need to impose their sexuality
on everyone they meet (cf. e.g. Freud 1961: 1–4). The depiction accords with modern,
androcentric conceptions of gender that define women as closer to nature and more governed by
their drives than men. Women, in this view, are less than human (Horkheimer and Adorno,
Although Hilton and Richie are gendered in this conventional way, the series emphasizes
that the two women do not know how to take care of a home or raise children (see e.g. season 1,
episode 3). To address this ‘problem,’ the series repeatedly attempts to re-domesticate this ill-
bred couple by placing them in host families with strong father figures. ‘[T]hey are learning
about a little thing called consequences,’ in the words of the speaker voice (season 1, episode 5).
Or as one of the substitute fathers says: ‘I’m gonna pop the whip on them’ (season 2, episode 4).
Hence, the presentation of the women as less than human also plays on the adult/child binary, a
theme emphasized by the small, childish, cheerfully colored dresses they regularly wear.
As a part of their education, Hilton and Richie are put into demanding work situations.
Hilton explains the situation by saying, ‘They are treating us like animals’ (season 1, episode 2).
Two themes reoccur throughout the women’s various jobs—meat and filth. Hilton and Richie
clean out barns, clean fish, clean an outside lavatory, pluck chickens, castrate dogs, fry
hamburgers and make sausages. According to one of the show’s producers, the concept of the
series is ‘stilettos in cow shit’ (Ryan, 2004), and accordingly, the filthy imagery adds an overly
explicit element of realism to the women’s usual lifestyle, which is presented as divorced from
such dirty realities. The meat scenes also pull Hilton and Richie down to earth. As Carol J.
Adams (2000: 41) argues, the cultural meaning of meat eating is interwoven with the notion of
enlightened civilization: when eating other animals, humans confirm their exceptionality.
Following this logic, scenes in which Hilton and Richie are talked into eating meat after
hesitating and expressing repugnance are best understood as invitations to the couple to re-
establish human status.
Even though Hilton seems to be disgusted by most animal encounters, she kisses
Tinkerbell on the mouth (season 1, episode 6, season 2, episode 2). This repeated display of
affection confirms Tinkerbell’s status as a perpetual baby, and intertwines with Hilton’s
performance of the airy-fairy, childless, sentimental, upper-class woman who is more devoted to
her pet dog than to the people around her (McHugh, 2004: 85ff). To keep an animal for non-
utilitarian purposes is something of a cross-cultural symbol of wealth; small dog breeds have
been used this way in Europe and in Asian Buddhist cultures for centuries (McHugh, 2004: 80ff;
Serpell 1996: 43). This publicly broadcasted exchange of saliva is a challenge against Hilton’s
hosts’ and employers’ eager attempts to uphold the hierarchy of the human and sub-human. The
kiss confirms a certain stereotype, but it also shows Hilton’s and Tinkerbell’s mutual recognition
and cross-species bond (cf. Turner, 2010).
The image of the couple’s intimate and equal relationship is questioned in Tinkerbell’s
autobiography, The Tinkerbell Hilton Diaries: My Life Tailing Paris Hilton (Hilton T and Resin,
2004), which is written in first person singular. Of course, Tinkerbell did not actually write her
autobiography all by herself, but neither did Hilton (Hilton P and Ginsberg, 2004). As if to
emphasize that the book should by no means be taken seriously, the cover is decorated with the
words ‘FICTION/HUMOR’ in capital letters. Tinkerbell is portrayed as raising her voice,
rejecting the notion of the accessory Chihuahua, and thus challenging the stereotype of the mute,
weak and passive victim. According to Tinkerbell’s written statement, she suffers from being
dressed in stupid-looking clothes, listening to her mistress’ gibberish and endless shopping
sprees. In the book’s diary-like narrative, these luxury problems soon lead Tinkerbell into
suicidal thoughts (‘I spent the rest of the morning trying to lick a power socket,’ Hilton T and
Resin, 2004: 75). Nevertheless, she persistently protests against Hilton by relieving herself on
Hilton’s possessions and even on one of Hilton’s friends. Again, the fecal matter is supposed to
pull Hilton down to earth. The protests are also framed as a cry for help—the fictional Tinkerbell
lives under constant fear of being abandoned or euthanized. In her own words: ‘That’s a lot of
pressure to be adorable’ (Hilton T and Resin, 2004: 7). In Tinkerbell’s confessiones, the
perpetual, furry child thus becomes yet another of Hilton’s many masters, reprimanding her for
her irrational behavior.
Since Hilton never risks losing her fortune, no matter how badly she behaves, and since
even Tinkerbell wears jewelry and designer clothes and lives in a mini-mansion which most of
Hilton’s employers and host families probably could not afford (Hilton P, 2009), The Simple Life
cannot be seen as a cautionary tale about the excesses of the upper class. Moreover, because
Hilton takes on low-wage occupations even though she was born with a silver spoon in her
mouth, her socio-economic status is also highly ambiguous. The other characters in the series
describe Hilton as uneducated, uncultivated, incompetent and incapable of dressing properly.
These characterizations, together with the fact that Hilton is forced to live in a trailer together
with Richie and Tinkerbell during the show’s second season, associate her with the ‘white trash’
stereotype (Newitz and Wray, 1997). Hilton thus inverses the logic of the stereotypical nouveau
riche American—‘trash with money’—and is depicted instead as ‘money with trash’ (cf. Brown
Hilton and Tinkerbell enact a child-woman-animal trinity in a topsy-turvy way that
challenges the binary oppositions adult/child, man/woman and human/animal. In this imagery, a
furry child suddenly becomes her mistress’ mistress, a stereotypically gendered blonde runs
amok while dozens of nuclear families are mobilized to put things straight, and an animal turns
out to be much better off than a human with an honest job. Hilton’s ambiguity is emphasized by
the series’ simultaneous infantilization and sexualization of her, which gives her appearance a
tabooic twist; the merging of the categories ‘child’ and ‘sexual object’ slips by without comment,
although it would normally evoke repugnance. This is because holy anomalies deal with both
logical and moral paradoxes. The characters in The Simple Life act against all reason and smear
any sense of moral virtue; yet, their behavior is completely innocuous. After all, it is just
The Chihuahua has never been modern
This excursion into the meaning of the Chihuahua reveals that the Chihuahua has never been
modern, as Bruno Latour (1993) would have it. This means that the Chihuahua is still holy—it is
still at the centre of rituals and myths. Like Toltecs and Aztecs, Westerners in late modernity both
embrace and exploit the Chihuahua. The breed is neither completely natural nor cultural; it is
both an asset and a companion; and cultural expressions emphasize its ambiguous character, just
as in Toltec and Aztec societies. This observation stands in contrast to studies arguing that the pet
relationship in late modernity has become less anthropocentric and more personal and intimate,
as in Adrian Franklin’s (1999: 57) ambitious study of animals in late modernity. In opposition to
what Franklin (1999: 61) suggests, I argue that there is no way to differentiate true human-
animal relations from ‘socially constructed’ ones. ‘Chihuahua’ designates today both a group of
organisms with a common gene pool as well as a network of values, meanings and practices of
breeding and consumption, and there is no way to definitely differentiate between the material
and the semiotic aspects of the creature.
The point of departure for this analysis was the fact that the Chihuahua is characterized
by two paradoxes—it is at once a natural and a cultural creature and simultaneously embraced as
a unique individual being and exchanged and exploited as a commodity. The analysis of
Chihuahua handbooks and Tinkerbell’s life has identified a number of additional, more or less
intertwined binary oppositions to the dog’s ambiguous character: human/animal,
synthetic/authentic, tame dog/wild wolf, rational male/irrational female, subject/object, social
being/biological organism, adult/child, rich/poor and verbal/mute. In addition, I have argued that
the Chihuahua’s and Hilton’s ambiguous characters mutually reinforce one another, resulting in a
complex, yet comical play with stereotypes and binary oppositions. Hilton, Tinkerbell and
Chihuahuas in general thus lend themselves to a restorative staging of binary oppositions in
popular media, books and art. Popular media and comedy shows are the myths, chants and rituals
of contemporary Westerners, and because they are neatly and comfortably separated from
everyday life, they reinforce the same oppositions that they challenge.
FICTION/HUMOR is the cue that the ritual has begun, and that the participants can lay
their orderly thought systems and their meticulously defined categories aside for a moment. This
is obvious in relation to Hilton and Tinkerbell, because of the tongue-in-cheek way they are
framed in The Simple Life and in popular media in general. But it is also apparent in the wit of
the Chihuahua handbook genre—in most books, jokes are frequent, and the breed is both
embraced and ridiculed by the authors. Sentimentality is another way to circumscribe the ritual
confrontations of the Chihuahua; the dog is often surrounded by an over-romantic shimmer, as
when depicted in baby’s clothes and pink accessories in Chihuahua handbooks or when tenderly
embraced by Hilton on the TV screen. The comfortable distance between The Simple Life and
ordinary life, and the disarming, objectifying cutification of the Chihuahua in breed-specific
handbooks and popular media, allows Westerners to neglect the fact that symbolically, there is a
bit of a Chihuahua, and perhaps also a bit of Paris Hilton, in each and every one of them. Again,
Chihuahuas have never been modern—and neither have Westerners, even if they like to think so
(Latour 1993: 7). The holy status of Hilton and the Chihuahua breed is also evident in the
controlled forms of profanity (the ‘stilettos in cow shit’ and the peculiar focus on housebreaking
techniques in the Chihuahua handbooks) and the tabooic twists (the allusions to prostitution in
the handbooks, the simultaneous sexualization and childification of Hilton, and the treatment of
Chihuahuas as disposable children) that characterize their portrayal. Such treatment gives
anomalies the power to cement not only categorical boundaries, but also moral boundaries.
Because these holy anomalies alleviate fundamental tensions in a general western conceptual
framework, the Chihuahua and Hilton must never be allowed to grow up—to change. Just as
J.M. Barrie’s fictional character Peter Pan, accompanied by the mute fairy Tinker Bell, never
grows up, Hilton is presented as an eternal child who needs to be told off in each new TV
episode, season after season. In the same way, Chihuahuas are viewed as ‘perpetual babies.’
Research mapping out the intersection between exploitative structures such as
heterosexism, racism and anthropocentrism should also include the study of holy anomalies. In a
society’s celebration of holy anomalies, categories otherwise taken for granted are brought to the
fore and made more palpable than ever. But it is also in these celebrations that stereotypes seem
the least harmful, since the rituals are disconnected from everyday life, which in turn is the
reason that the ritual cementation of these categories can continue undisturbed. By critically
examining contemporary holy anomalies and scrutinizing all things FICTION/HUMOUR, we
can rob such anomalies of some of their magic. In other words, critical research of holy
anomalies should be prepared to claim the role of the ‘killjoy’ (Ahmed, 2010). By doing so,
researchers can shrink the distance between ceremony and everyday life, and the people who
used to celebrate the anomalies can actually start learning from the anomalies’ transgressions.
When we stop laughing at Chihuahuas, the comfort of our old dichotomous conceptual
framework is suddenly challenged: if a Chihuahua can challenge the human-animal divide, how
human are we humans?
Furthermore, a critical examination of holy anomalies must recognize that the anomalies
themselves matter. After more than a century in the limelight, Chihuahuas have attracted
unwanted attention from inept owners and corrupt entrepreneurs. The popular media condemn
the objectification and mistreatment of Chihuahuas while Westerners simultaneously continue to
reproduce an order in which dogs and other animals lack any juridical rights and are regarded as
property. Thus, the Chihuahua has a lot to win from its Entzauberung—a demystification of the
Chihuahua would make it lose some of its appeal. As we have seen, Chihuahuas are not mute and
passive. The handbooks highlight the way Chihuahuas express themselves through body
language and sounds, and Tinkerbell the Chihuahua is starring as herself in the show about her
and her mistress’ life. Chihuahuas take an active—but neglected—part in their own discursive
production. Nevertheless, the Cartesian notion of the speechless animal-machine (Descartes,
1988) is curiously persistent. It is present, for example, in Baudrillard’s (1994) writing, who
argues that non-human animals threaten a universal human identity because they remain silent,
no matter how humans treat them. This study argues quite the opposite—non-human animals
threaten anthropocentrism in their constant attempts to communicate with humans (be it by
digging holes in the garden or barking out loud) but we humans persist in refusing to take their
What if the Chihuahua were one day no longer available as a holy anomaly? What if one
day, all Chihuahuas decided to return to the Mexican mountains, where they lived in peace for
centuries? In the movie Beverly Hills Chihuahua (Gosnell, 2008), the spoiled Chihuahua Chloe
from Beverly Hills gets lost in the desert of the Chihuahua region, but is saved by a group of
hundreds of Chihuahuas, living in an Aztec temple. Montezuma, the leader of the group, teaches
Chloe about her noble ancestry and why the members of the Chihuahua guerilla have turned their
backs on human society. In his speech, each line is followed by a ‘No más!’ from the other
We Chihuahuas are not toys or fashion accessories.
We were not bred to wear silly hats and ride in purses.
We will no longer be spoken to with baby talk. We have been called ‘teacup’ and ‘tiny toy’ for too long.
Names like Fifi, Foo-Foo, Pookie, Pumpkin or Squirt.[…]
Yes, we are tiny, but we are mighty!
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