A mascot is a powerful visual tool. Whether it is being used for commercial marketing purposes — like a brand’s animated logo or dressed-up spokesperson — or to amplify the rallying cry during a ballgame, a mascot has a huge ability to represent a common goal, without ever having to say a word.
What’s fascinating about a mascot is how it works on the world stage. For instance, for two centuries the bear was associated with Russia; the dragon with China; the eagle with America. Yet, over the last few decades, the Chinese emblem has been softened and made more cuddly and adorable. Rather than the sinuous and dangerous dragon, the People’s Republic of China has adopted the panda bear as its “animal spirit.”
This was definitely on full view during the presidential trip to China in early November. The Trumps and their entourage were given a whirlwind tour of the country, and Mrs. Trump acted as a goodwill ambassador by visiting many child- and animal-centric locations.
First Lady Melania Trump spent a healthy amount of time at the Beijing Zoo. During her outing there, she was surrounded by happy, smiling children, enthusiastically waving the stars-and-stripes and their national red-and-yellow flags. Since the zoo is home to a multitude of animals — some specific to the Asian region — it was a perfect photo op for Melania and the tiny urchins. It was also a great place for the huge stuffed-animal exchange.
Yes, all of us arctophiles and plush-pal proponents should have been overjoyed when this exchange of “hugs” occurred. The First Lady handed out toy versions of our national bird, the Bald Eagle, and she, in turn, was given cuddly replicas of the giant panda. It was like a Secret Santa swap done on a global scale!
The panda has a stellar reputation, whether it is deserved or not. Due to their slow-motion movements (watch one munching on bamboo, and they give a sloth a run for their money … well, not actually a run, more like a steady trot), pandas are often equated with gentleness and kindness. Their big eyes and super-cute faces make them seem like cuddly creatures that would make fabulous, loyal pets. Or, like in “Peter Pan,” potential guardians of little tots, like the fiercely loving Nana dog.
Pandas are known as “giant bear cats” in the Chinese language, and their preference for catnapping and their sleek fur do have a lot in common with the feline persuasion. Pandas are physically charming, even though their days are rather mundane. They spend most of their hours slumbering, and, when awake, they seek the sun to sleep beneath, eat pounds of bamboo, and then expel consumed bamboo in frequent purges.
Still, it makes sense that a nation would prefer to be known as a friendly, joyful, peaceful bear rather than a fiery, reptilian hell beast ready to scorch its enemies. Regardless of its public policy, public perception is all. And in the case of China, a mascot that is welcomed by children the world over is much more advantageous than a dragon that might consume children!
The United States’ mascot is the American Bald Eagle, and it, too, has a rather complicated reputation. According to the many myths that have sprung up about Ben Franklin, the Philadelphia philosopher championed the turkey to be America’s national bird. In the musical “1776,” Franklin, Jefferson, and Adams sing a song about the “hatching of the nation,” and correspondence between Franklin and his daughter lends credence to this tall tale.
Apparently, Franklin wasn’t seriously suggesting the turkey, but he was not happy with the eagle selection. According to his letter, the Founding Father told his daughter Sarah that the eagle was a duplicitous and cowardly bird: “He is a bird of bad moral character. He does not get his living honestly. He steals food from the fishing hawk and is too lazy to fish for himself.”
When musing about how any other bird would have been a better choice, Franklin proposed elevating the turkey to that status. “The turkey is a bird of courage that would not hesitate to attack a grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his farm yard with a red coat on.”
Franklin was celebrated for his witticisms and his easygoing sense of humor. He never made public this fowl vocalizing. Rather, it was just a pleasant exchange between him and Sarah — a way to show his displeasure with his fellow patriots’ decision and to make his daughter laugh.
Even though Franklin was jesting about the turkey as America’s avian emblem, he does make a case for it. He calls it “a much more respectable bird” than the eagle, and “a true original native of America.”
Certainly during the last Thursday of November, all U.S. residents borrow a page from Franklin’s enthusiasm and pay tribute to the mighty turkey — by eating it.
We may not be dragons like China’s emperors, but we Americans certainly know a thing or two about incinerating, roasting or frying a turkey. We turn them into stuffed birds on that day, and stuffing takes on a whole different meaning.