Elizabeth Hsieh

In an ironic twist, the modern pig has become both food and friend. Besides being the most consumed meat in the world, pigs have gained prevalence in popular culture as the cartoon characters and icons of countless books, television shows, and toys.[1] From the British television series Peppa Pig to the American classic novel Charlotte’s Web, fictional versions of pigs exaggerate their cute features, including round bellies, floppy ears, and pink coloring. These representations have had a highly reductive effect on public knowledge about the portly animals, which are in reality quite varied in size, shape, and color. The positive public image of pigs has also obscured many of the ethically controversial practices of the meat industry overall. When thinking about the antithetical industrial and cultural positions of farm animals, the prevalence of pigs in cute culture provides space to investigate how their various anthropomorphizations construe and break away from their gruesome, bodily function as sources of meat. Cuteness plays an especially relevant role in the process by which pigs have gained interchangeability between the positions of food and friend, consumed and coveted.

Figure 1. Peppa Pig.

Traditionally, the fascination around pigs as cute animals has been concentrated in television shows and other forms of media marketed toward children. Many fictional pig figures not only have cute physical appearances, but also appeal to audiences through their human-like personality traits, such as sociability and intelligence. A foundational example of this charming pig figure is Wilbur from E.B. White’s 1952 children’s book Charlotte’s Web. In White’s tale, Wilbur is cutely illustrated as a pink piglet small enough to fit into the arms of Fern, a young girl who saves him from slaughter since Wilbur was the runt of his litter. Wilbur inspires empathy and care from an adolescent audience, who may recognize themselves in Fern and feel inspired to view Wilbur as a small, cute, and vulnerable companion. While Charlotte’s Web portrays him as a part of the realities of farm life, subsequent fictional pig figures have focused on their cute aspects in complete removal from their true environments. For example, the globally successful children’s program Peppa Pig centers around a pig family living in a small house in Peppatown, located near London and populated with other anthropomorphic farm animal families. The titular character, Peppa Pig, is presented as highly sociable and friendly and gets along with her younger sibling, George Pig, and best friend, Suzy Sheep.[2] Peppa is simplistically drawn (as if by a child), with a wide smile and pink and primary colors (see Figure 1). Peppa’s urban living environment and humanlike relationships add to her cuteness by making her seem less like an animal. From Charlotte’s Web to Peppa Pig, children’s media and content evidently show how cuteness has turned farm pigs into more relatable figures who struggle with the same life experiences as human children, such as maintaining friendships or arguing with siblings. The anthropomorphization of pigs also imagines their animal existence into urban environments rather than solely rural farms. 

Figure 2. Many pig figurines and toys represent elements of cuteness while ironically playing on the role of pigs as food. This figurine depicts a pig dressed as a chef, which appears cute due to the pig’s pink complexion, chubby cheeks, and small hat. The pig’s cuteness conceals the morbidity of its role as a chef, which may involve the handling and slaughter of animals (possibly even its own kind) for meat. Cuteness in pig toys may also be used to make light of the slaughter of animals for meat. 

Building upon the fame of fictional figures like Wilbur and Peppa Pig, pigs have transitioned from screens and books to homelife through the popularization of farm animal toys (see Figure 2). Among modern toymakers, the brand Jellycat has been greatly popularized online and in stores for its higher-end plush toys. The brand markets its products as bringing together “luxurious fabrics with designs that are sometimes quirky, sometimes cute, but always with a little something different.”[3] Among the many products created by Jellycat, its Farmyard Collection features soft toys of barn animals and many versions of pig plushies. All the pig plushies have fluffy exteriors, round bellies, and pink coloring and sit up instead of standing on their legs. Additionally, Jellycat often names each of its stuffed products, making the pig plushies lose their animal anonymity and achieve a more human and affectionate quality. In an article about material culture and dolls, Robin Bernstein argues that toys “script” children and “invite behaviors that its maker both did and did not envision.”[4] As a highly popular object of play, pig plushies may be scripting how children learn to treat animals outside of the fictional realm. The plushies' cute exterior invites a practice of care or delicacy when handling the toys, teaching children to treat real animals with care. Alternatively, pig toys made for baby teething or for dogs may suggest that pigs are creatures that can be easily overpowered. The above Jellycat Farmyard Collection is one example of how toys have turned the body of the pig into a particularly cute object as opposed to a consumable one. Jellycat’s emphasis on the “Barnyard” roots of its pig plushies romanticizes farm life by encouraging children to simulate a pig in play without being taught its true functional purpose to provide food products including meat and dairy. Other barnyard toys have represented farm animals as tools for learning, such as teaching the alphabet or basic sounds to infants, and children who play with these toys are scripted to think about the meat industry as rather positive and harmless.

Figure 3. Two pet “teacup piglets” stand next to a human hand, showing the extent of their smallness. Even for the smallest breeds, the size of piglets rarely remains the same as they grow and mature.

As product brands like Jellycat have associated pigs with play through plush toys, real pigs have also become objects of play and gained popularity as pets (see Figure 3). Referred to as “teacup pigs” or “mini pigs,” miniature pig breeds have been marketed as intelligent creatures “ready to beat the heat and go chill in air-conditioned forever homes,” as stated on the website of the PeeWee Piglets Nursery, a breeder based in Tennessee. The name alone of this particular nursery markets its piglets with an unserious, lighthearted tone. Its website features adoption photos of month-old piglets, typically placed next to a hand or object to display their small size. As indicated by their breed name, smallness has become a feature of cuteness that has ascribed great monetary value to pet pigs, which can sell for over $1,000. Given the preceding popularity of pig toys and plushies, expensive mini pigs can be seen as the next capitalistic outcome made possible by the marketing of brands like Jellycat. When tracing the historical connections between cuteness, animals, and capitalism, Allison Page explains that “contact with animals receded during the late eighteenth through the nineteenth century due to a reconfigured daily life; as such, animals were brought back as a new type of commodity to be engaged during leisure.”[5] As pigs have emerged as new pet figures, cuteness has enabled their capital value to be reallocated from providing food to “leisure.”

When speaking about contemporary society, Page further notes that cute animal videos have become entangled with the maintenance of capitalistic systems of work, as they provide emotional relief and distraction from otherwise unbearable labor conditions. Mini pigs have reached their current popularity in large part due to cute video marketing; pet owners post and gain millions of views on YouTube or TikTok after posting clips of their pigs scampering downstairs or playing with furry friends. While Page’s article demonstrates how cute animal videos have changed human lives, the online popularity of mini pigs reveals that various media also change the lives of animals. As pigs have begun trending as pets, debates have taken place over how their marketed name, such as “teacup pigs,” misconstrues their full-grown physical size. According to the American Mini Pig Association, pet pigs can be expected to weigh 75 to 150 pounds after they reach maturity at five years. However, photos of full-grown mini pigs are rarely shown on breeder websites, and viral videos tend to show only the smallest and cutest of pigs. Although digital cute content has made it possible for pigs to gain new “urban” lives within human homes, it has led to misinformation and false expectations among consumers. As many as 10,000 pigs have been reported as pets in the U.S., yet many have been forced to relocate to rescue centers after being abandoned by owners who were unaware of how large they would grow to be.[6]

As traits of smallness and friendliness have become main selling points for pet pigs, the current priority of cuteness revives some of the historical breeding practices in animal husbandry. As pet pig breeders seek to breed the smallest possible litter, their practice resembles the way in which older farmers experimentally bred and crossbred pigs to meet the changing goals of the meat industry.[7] Unlike other farm animals like cows, pigs’ “visible external characteristics such as size, back length, hams, and the number of teats in sows were the very criteria that distinguished good pigs from bad ones.”[8] However, while older farm breeders sought to create the largest pigs, pet breeders have actively worked against those efforts to create the smallest, cutest pigs possible. Moreover, even as cuteness has led to drastic changes in deciding which traits are valuable, it also revives the old “beauty contests” and resumes a breeding practice based on exterior characteristics. For pet pig breeders, certain breeds such as Vietnamese Pot-Bellies have risen in popularity and become more “trendy” than others.[9] This emergent practice of valuing certain pet pig breeds has turned the old “beauty contests” into cute ones, as some breeds may prove to be more profitable and marketable.

Figure 4. Pigs on a factory farm in Canada. Even outside of their cages, the animals are tightly crowded and kept in minimally managed warehouses. Being kept indoors can hinder the physical mobility, energy, and strength pigs are known to have.

While cute pigs are highly visible in popular culture, modern farm pigs have largely been erased from the public eye despite their vast demand and domination of the global meat industry (see Figure 4). According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, global pork consumption may increase by as much as 50% by 2050.[10] The U.S. has met this demand since farms in the early twentieth century began to “consolidate and specialize: growing fewer in number, larger in area, and producing fewer types of products.”[11] For the actual pigs in “factory-farms,” such practices have been detrimental to their living conditions and physical health. For the duration of their pregnancy, a female breeding pig is “caged in a narrow sow stall” that is “just bigger than the sow herself, and it prevents her from exercising or even turning around.”[12] As pigs have become popularized in the toy industry and popular culture, representations of their cuteness have significantly outnumbered representations of their factual, harmful living conditions on farms. 

Following the major popularization of pigs on television shows and in literature, toy makers, pet breeders, and pet owners alike have capitalized on the cuteness of the animals. Owing to the prevalence of cute animal videos and photos, the image of the small, pink piglet has dominated public perception and displaced awareness of the real farm animals, which weigh hundreds of pounds and have diverse shapes and fur colors. In contrast to the beloved, coveted status of the fictional and pet pig, farm pigs are solely raised to provide meat and typically spend their lives in the cages of factory farms. As pigs are consumed for both their meat and cuteness, there remains a vast and problematic contrast between their lives on farms and their lives in screens, books, toys, and homes.

Published: 6/30/2023


[1] Kelly Zering, “Hog Farming – Past, Present, and Future: An Economist's View,” Journal of Land Use & Environmental Law 34, no. 2 (Spring 2019): 315.

[2] “Peppa Pig,” Peppa Pig World, accessed May 31, 2023, https://peppapigworld.co.uk/pages/peppa-pig.

[3] “Farmyard Soft Toys,” Jellycat, accessed May 31, 2023, https://www.jellycat.com/us/farmyard/.

[4] Robin Bernstein, “Children’s Books, Dolls, and the Performance of Race; or, The Possibility of Children’s Literature,” PMLA 126, no. 1 (January 2011): 126.

[5] Allison Page, “‘This Baby Sloth Will Inspire You to Keep Going’: Capital, Labor, and the Affective Power of Cute Animal Videos,” in The Aesthetics and Affects of Cuteness, ed. Joshua Paul Dale et al. (New York: Routledge, 2016), 78.

[6] Richard Lutwyche, “Pigs & People,” in The Pig: A Natural History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019), 154.

[7] Bert Theunissen, “Breeding a Pig for All Parties,” in Beauty or Statistics: Practice and Science in Dutch Livestock Breeding, 1900–2000 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2020), 95.

[8] Theunissen, “Breeding a Pig,” 111.

[9] Lutwyche, “Pigs & People,” 154.

[10] Zering, “Hog Farming,” 315.

[11] Zering, “Hog Farming,” 316.

[12] Philip Lymbery, “The Welfare of Pigs,” in The Global Guide to Animal Protection, ed. Andrew Linzey (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2013), 175.