The Esther Effect: Interactive Frames in the Case of Grassroots Animal Rights Activism

1 June 2017

I had the greatest opportunity to present a recent small-scale project at the 4th International Postgraduate Conference on Modern Languages, Linguistics and Literature at the University of Central Lancashire in Preston.  You can read my presentation slides: The Esther Effect- Conference ppt, read the full paper, or watch the presentation video here.

“ There is shock in recognizing that it is possible, perhaps morally obligatory, to care about these others. It is as if one suddenly realizes that sitting in the next room is a family member whom one has somehow forgotten – or, at least, forgotten to love. Such moments are powerful. They bring about change at the level of basic attitudes – a person’s consciousness is raised. He or she becomes, in the movement’s term, an “animal person.” – Kenneth Shapiro

Background to the study or: Why did I write this paper?

Having been an animal rights activist most of my life (and most of it was prior to social media), I naturally supported the few organisations that were available at the time: PETA, Animal Aid, FARM. I never heard of farm sanctuaries, being vegetarian was sort-of becoming acceptable and veganism seemed extreme.  Motivated by images of suffering animals in labs and in the meat and dairy industries, I would stand with others at demonstrations and sign petitions, but they would not be enough to make me go vegan. Not for another 15 years.

Esther’s dads, fathers to Esther the Wonder Pig, who frankly avow that although they always loved animals, it was their relationship with Esther that helped them make the connection and finally adopt an Esther Approved lifestyle. Much like Esther’s Dad’s journey into a compassionate diet, it was the personal encounter with farm animals that completed this journey for me.

Esther’s dads message of kindness and compassion made me wonder if this is a more effective approach to animal rights activism. I set out to explore their approach to animal rights activism and how they construct their very special family identity. More precisely, I was interested to see how that is co-constructed in interaction, i.e., in conversation. Using their weekly live-feed updates on Facebook as data, I transcribed Esther’s Dads interaction, following the interactional sociolinguistics frame work in which the “Social constructionist view of discourse as a series of habitual, reinforced social practices in which language is used as a resource for participants to actively and creatively reshape their surroundings shaped by macro, pre-existing social structures”.(Cameron, 2001:88)

Esther’s approach

As Kenneth Shapiro states, the animal rights movement has acquired a negative image of aggression and extremism which time and again threatens to discredit the efforts of many who feel passionate about animals and work to give them a voice. Lyle Munro, in his paper on DIY Animal Rights Activism, elaborates further and claims that there is a need to engage in a more moderate form of activism to gain effectiveness. For example, Peter Singer (1998) holds that vegnism and vegetarianism is a prerequisite for effective AR activism, a view supported by Munro asserting that ‘meat avoidance is for many animal protectionists the single most important thing an individual can do for animals.’(2011: 88) Farm Animal Reform Movement (FARM)’s influential campaign The Great American Meatout launched in 1985, exemplifies the positive turn in AR activism. The campaign to reduce meat consumption focuses on the positive message of the veg*n lifestyle rather than on the cruelty issues.

Esther’s approach goes even further, to show animals as agentive by giving Esther a voice and demonstrating a solution: both through adopting an Esther Approved lifestyle (i.e., a vegan lifestyle) and by changing the schema we have for farm animals. In effect, Esther’s Dads employ a counter-discourse on two strata: they offer an alternative discourse to the mainstream carnist discourse, and a counter-discourse to the mainstream animal-rights discourse.

Framework and sociolinguistic concepts

I analysed my data using the concept of frames (Goffman, 1974; Tannen and Wallat, 1993, Gordon, 2008), and footing (Goffman, 1986).  The notion of frames originated when Bateson (1955) observed monkeys in a zoo, playfully nipping at each other. He conceived that the monkeys had a way of decoding the interaction as ‘play’ rather than ‘fight’. Goffman, who later developed Bateson’s frames into interactive frames, noted that participants within one interaction, shift between multiple frames. Within one business meeting for example, participants can shift between different frames: a preliminary friendly, chatty frame, then moving onto a ‘business’ frame, all within one meeting. In my project, I illustrate how moving between frames helps Esther’s Dads accomplish their animal rights activism in their unique way, and construct their family identity.

Activist frame via a dark story frame

The first example from the data that I will share with you here, concerns a particular moment during Esther’s live feed on Facebook. (You can read my paper in full for further detailed examples – see the link at the start of this post). At the moment in question, Esther’s Dads are going through their ‘fan mail’, little presents and tokens of appreciation they receive from their supporters and lovers of Esther. Most of the interaction up until the change in frames is characterized by what I call a ‘fun’ register: overlaps, simultaneous speech, variation in tone and stress, mutual gaze, supportive laugh. The frame shift is entered intertextually through a letter sent by a supporter where they comment on a terrible accident where a truck full of pigs on its way to the slaughterhouse (my phrasing) spilt pigs all over the road, causing the pigs grave injuries and suffering. In other words, Esther’s dads draw from voices available in their community to discuss a difficult and sensitive topic. We must remember that although the live feeds are not scripted and represent authentic conversation, it is pre-planned to some degree. Esther’s Dads must at least discuss and decide what they will show and what the key topics they would like to cover in the live feed should be. Therefore, it is safe to assume they wished to discuss the accident but by using a letter from a supporter, they distance any direct activism and commentary on the ‘dark story’, as they call it.

Here is an extract from the transcript:

(17) Derek: so we’ve got some mail to share with you  ehh every week ehh Esther’s mailbox  is eeh full of very colourful things sent by you the fans so thank you so much
(18) Steve:                                                              *what are you doin*
(19) Derek: uh we’ve got a few pieces here  to share right now this is by no means all the mail that comes in but ehh a few pieces
(20) Steve: *that’s it*
(21) Derek:  we would like to share uhh
(22) Derek: this is                          this is fro:::m Eileen and Glen in England and they sent (-) a:::: (1) a pig plushie here/ (slow) (2)
(23) Steve:  that’s it no more (-) it’s all gone       all gone     all gone
(24) Derek:% I also smell all this other stuff% (-) and it’s a whole a bunch of [Lush cosmetics soaps=
(25) Steve:                                                                               [{oh}                            oh god        = that’s probably what she smells]
(26)Derek: soap a:::nd a whole bunch of Lush soaps and so Lush cosmetics actually they don’t they don’t test on
(27) Steve:           good girl
(28) Derek: that’s the:::
(29) Steve: no  Lush is vegan=
(30) Derek:= that’s right
(31) Steve: yeah/
(32) Derek:they don’t test on animals
(33) Steve: yeah (-)
(34) Derek: so thank you so much to Eileen and Glen in England  Esther’s gonna smell (.) like that/ [lets Steve sniff the soap]
(35) Steve: oh amazing that’s alright (.) it’s gonna smell nice *hey miss pig*/
(36) Derek: uhh we got a:: cupcake lover parking sign from Karen in Ohio and all of her canines
(37) Steve:         {laughter}
(38) Steve: violators will be covered in sprinkles/=
(39) Derek: =yes violators will be covered-
(40) Steve: aww hey Esther/
(41) Derek:uhh this is a touching one from (.) Bengt (?) Eric/
(42) Steve:                                                                     oh yes of course
(43) Derek: uhh and he says ‘I love you guys my heart was broken(.) when this accident in Burlington please give Esther a big hug for me’ and he hand drew a picture of a pig ahh
(44) Steve:                                                     aww
(45) Derek: there was a accident that happened a transport accident (.) that happened here locally about 15 minutes away where a transport truck of pigs uh flipped over on the way to processing and spilled pigs all over the road/ and uh (.) a really dark story unfortunately they mishandled the situation we were there to try to help uh but instead they let these pigs suffer all over the road and on the front lawn for four or five hours uhh and that’s uh (1)
(46) Steve: there hopefully will be criminal charges uh pending that/ there’s still an investigation apparently under way and from what I understand another (.) umm legal paper legal filing has happened against the people that are supposed to be investigating it so that story is not over we’ll keep you guys posted for sure (.) uhh  there seems to be a lot of mishandeling going on with that situation so we’ll keep you guys updated obviously that was a pretty personal (.) umm (.) situation you know we were there and we saw some things that I’ll never forget and umm (1)you know shouldn’t happen that way so (.) so we’re going to speaking up and do everything we can to make sure that those people are held accountable and (-) hhh yeah hhh that’s that so anyway sorry this went a little bit [=dark didn’t it.=
(47) Derek:*=uuuuhhh yes so here is a picture of a pig playing a guita:::::::::r* ]and it says ‘rock and roll Esther’ love Lynette and that is from(.) WI where is WI

You can see that until line 43, there are many overlaps, Steve talking to Esther, Derek and Steve talking together and lots of laughter and baby talk used with Esther. From line 44 – 47, we enter a new frame – there is a shift into the ‘dark story’ frame. Clearly, all of the live feed’s aim is animal rights activism, but this is done using different frames, one of which is this activist frame/dark story frame. The frame is characterized by a ‘serious’ register with a monotonous tone, with no overlaps, laughter or change of stress. We come out of the dark frame in line 47 which is signaled physically with Derek approaching the camera with another intertexual use of fan mail – this time a cute photo of a pig playing guitar. Here we can also see a change in tone and stress, back into the ‘fun’ register, and Steve and Derek resume overlaps and laughter.

esther family
Esther with dads and fur-siblings

Family identity of fur babies

“…attitude towards an object consists in the ensemble of scripts concerning that object”. (Ableson, 1976) Esther’s dads’ activism also consist of an attempt to change the mainstream schema of pigs as food. By including Esther as part of their family, they elevate Esther’s status from farm animal destined to become a commodity, to that of a child. This is accomplished via baby talk and referring to themselves as ‘daddy’. (You can watch this live feed here) (Tannen, , 2004, 401). 

In the next extract, Esther comes into the living room and dad Steve recognizes she is tired, as she starts knocking furniture over. Their relationship is so close that Steve understands Esther’s needs and is almost able to decode her soft grunts to give a structure of actual conversation:

  1. Steve: what are you doing/ you going to beddies/ you going to beddies/
  2. Esther: softly grunts
  3. Steve: yeah %good girl%
  4. Steve: hmm/
  5. Esther: grunt
  6. Steve: yeah go to beddies baby s *tired piggy*
  7. Esther: [side-eye]=
  8. Steve:=yeah:: (3)
  9. Esther: grunt
  10. Steve: mmm/ you’re tired/
  11. Esther: grunt (.)
  12. Steve: you’re ready for bed/=
  13. Esther: =[grunt
  14. Steve: yeah] go to beddies
  15. Esther: grunt (-) grunt [Esther knocks down chair]
  16. Steve: hey {hahaha} (-) *who put that there* (1) {laugh} good girl go to bed
  17. Esther: [threatens to knock down a table by lifting it with her snout]
  18. Steve: hey (-) *that’s enough*
  19. Esther: grunt (1) [pushes the table with her snout]
  20. Steve: {Esther} (2) that’s enough
  21. Esther: [starts walking into the next room where her daybed is]    grunt=
  22. Steve: good girl go to beddies (3) [Esther stands and waits] %*come on* daddy will make your beddies hey/% look daddy will make your beddies ok/(.) hmm/ %come on%
  23. Esther: [comes over to her daybed]
  24. Steve: %the:re%
  25. Esther: [starts making her bed with her snout]
  26. Steve: hey ah hey *no* (1) {hm}

In the extract we can see many instances of baby talk and ‘cute’ voice (.e.g 24, 22) as Steve puts Esther for a nap. In line 22 he refers to himself as ‘daddy’, in that 3rd person many parents often use with their young children. We can also see for example in lines 18, 20 and 26 moments where Steve taken on the identity of a disciplinarian, trying to teach Esther not to destroy her bed by rooting into it as she makes her bed the way she likes it. (providing Esther with a new bed frequently is an ongoing theme Esther’s Dads tell laughing).

What’s next?

It is hoped that this small-scale project was able to demonstrate how Esther’s dads co-construct new schemas for pigs and farm animals in interaction. Offering alternative compassionate discourse to mainstream carnism and mainstream animal rights activism, Esther’s dads use available voices in their community to discuss the difficult and harrowing issues of the meat industry. Their unique approach to animal rights activism is laminated together with their construction of family identity, where Esther is no longer a commercial pig, but an equal daughter and sister to dogs Shelby and Reuben.

This project was limited to examining the interaction on Esther’s live-feed videos. Further research of the interaction between the audience and Esther’s pages would provide a more comprehensive picture of the relationship Esther and her dads construct with their supporters. Additionally, it would be illuminating to conduct a comparative analysis of Esther’s page(s) and another animals rights organisation such as PETA, to reveal any differences in stance, attitudes and interactions, as well as supporter identities.




Gordon, C. (2008) A(p)parent play: Blending Frames and Reframing in Family Talk, Language in Society 37, 310-349.

Munro, L. (2011) Strategies, Action Repertoires and DIY Activism in the Animal Rights Movement, Social Movement Studies: Journal of Social, Cultural and Political Protest, 4:1, 75-94

Tannen, D. and Wallat, C. (1993b) Interactive Frames and Knowledge Schemas in Interaction: Examples from a Medical Examination/Interview, ed Tannen in Framing in Discourse, New York, Oxford University Press, pp. 57-76

Tannen, D. (2004) Talking the Dog: Framing Pets as Interactional Resources in Family Discourse, Research on Language and Social Interaction, 37:4, pp 339-420


4 thoughts on “The Esther Effect: Interactive Frames in the Case of Grassroots Animal Rights Activism

  1. A really interesting piece of research. Living in the UK I have noticed how a lot of North American sanctuaries such as Happily Ever Esther, Gentle Barn, Woodstock, Farm Sanctuary etc. are taking this very positive approach and sharing stories about the animals thereby creating these positive narratives about them. Not that they ignore the ‘dark side’, but it seems much less ‘in your face’. It might be interesting to compare with sanctuaries that take a more traditional activist approach. The biggest sanctuary here in the UK is Hillside and they seem to take a mixed approach with some stories about the animals, but also a big focus on undercover investigations and use of graphic images. It’s difficult, because the videos and investigations are obviously made to try and change legislation but seeing these photos on social media may have the adverse effect of reinforcing the idea that animals are or should be treated like this and that they are essentially resources for humans. I would much rather see a photo of a pig or a cow outside enjoying themselves.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Wow thank you Tim for your message. What an interesting observation. I can’t help but agree that difficult images may not be the most effective. In the art of rhetoric and persuasion, it is not the truth the convinces people. Personally, when I see ‘dark side’ images, I feel powerless and angry, both of which are not positive emotions. Others may even feel shame and guilt when seeing horrible photos and simply disengage emotionally and mentally. On the individual level, the best activism is going vegan – this hurts the industry where it counts. When supporting an organisation, as I mentioned in my post, concentrating on a positive message and reconnecting people with animals is more effective.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Mira! I thoroughly agree with your hypotheses — emotions evoked through an everyday moment, the kind that instantly bridges the gap with enlightenment. A single grunt from Esther reveals her heart. Using a snout to tuck a daybed lets us share an everyday moment too 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi Bill! Thank you for stopping by with your swift way with words. Esther’s soft grunts and daddy Steve’s fluency in her language shows their strong bond. Knowing Esther’s story and following her everyday moments is exactly as you said – bridges the gap. Thanks again Bill!

      Liked by 2 people

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