A critique of Millan’s methods and philosophies cannot be divorced from an investigation of how Millan himself performs, both by choice and by capitalist coercion, for his clients as a colonized subject. Through the television series and its attendant commercial industry, we can see Millan constructed and sold as a human product. Yet, Millan also participates in this construction, enacting his own version of the American Dream.
Millan crossed the U.S./Mexico border illegally as a youth; he did not know any English. He was sheparded by a “lobo,” a Mexican guide experienced in border crossings. Into the United States, Millan brought his deep affinity for and knowledge of dogs. He learned about canine behavior from his grandfather, a fact he proudly acknowledges. In celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month in 2007, for example, Millan tells his readers that:
“My grandfather was one of many workers and ranch families in Mexico who earned a meager income working parcels of land rented from the richer families. On every farm in the area including his, there were working dogs... Through observing my grandfather's behavior with the pack on the farm, I learned much of what I apply in my work with dogs today (Millan, 2008)
Once in California, Millan “worked his way up” from dog groomer to dog trainer of the stars. He remains still clearly physically marked as a Mexican of indigenous heritage, with brown skin and accented English.
Neither the Millan industry nor Millan deny his background. The very presence of Millan as a national star and pop culture icon makes visible and valuable the unseen or disappeared histories of economically oppressed Mexican migrants, both those who are undocumented and those who successfully become American citizens. Millan’s history, however, is necessarily also tailored to fit the desires of his clients and customers. Lobo literally means a “wolf.” The transformation of self that Millan’s border crossing ultimately allowed him was aided, metaphorically, by a wild canid. On the National Geographic Channel, Millan carries with him a trace of the primitive, of the wild to be tamed.
In the opening credits of The Dog Whisperer, a montage depicts Millan running with his pack of canines, swimming, climbing and playing with them. He is almost a dog himself, albeit the one in charge; the opening sequence also shows him wrestling ferocious-looking dogs, teeth bared and bodies tense, into submission. We see him enjoying his dogs and taming them, by himself. These images hearken back to his familial history, to the lessons learned from his grandfather. They also portray a man who is able to spend his time doing the thing he loves, who has been able to sell his unique skills, who might be a role model for others who look like him. At the same time, the introductory montage constructs Millan as closer to nature, as distinctly other than his American clients because of his relationship with the dogs. He is constructed asa mystical, primitive native born with a gift that makes him more nonhuman than human. With his human clients, Millan often imitates their dogs, panting and wiggling. The dominance paradigm Millan sells includes himself: he can acceptably be the alpha male of the dog pack because he is like a dog, and therefore, is himself subject to culture’s dominion over nature, the developed and colonial United States’ dominion over the backward and developing Mexico.
Albert Memmi identifies two ways in which the colonized can survive colonization: he can assimilate or he can revolt (1965). Assimilation is denied by the colonizer; the colonized will never be given complete access. Revolution requires a violent upheaval of the colonial structure. Millan proffers a third option: assimilate just enough in order to remain nonthreatening. In doing so, Millan partially both preserves and sacrifices his heritage, creating opportunities to both put forward and sublimate parts of his “Mexican-ness.”
Millan, despite having a wife and two children who sporadically appear as his helpers, is shown to be happily more comfortable with dogs. His clients, therefore, do need not to worry about him jostling for a position more powerful than theirs; he contentedly performs for them according to their wishes. Additionally, he always comes from elsewhere: that is, he arrives at his clients’ homes in his truck. They need not worry about him crossing any more borders by moving into their neighbourhood. Millan is assimilated just enough into the power structure of bourgeois American culture to remain outside of it as a South of the Border servant. Because he does not threaten to revolt against the power structure, he is acceptable as a “good Mexican” who has learned to be civilized in and from America.
The tension between Millan the product and Millan the man, both of which are mediated through a consumer culture, creates an unstable identity in which the “real” Millan perpetually comes into focus and slips away. For his economic wellbeing, and for his survival, Millan negotiates, in his multiple performances, a bridge between two cultures by way of his relationship with dogs. Memmi writes, “a man straddling two cultures is rarely well seated” (1965: 124). Perhaps. Millan, however, seems to have found a way to be both American and Mexican, an embodiment of layered histories dependant on his relationship with nonhuman animals. The dogs are placed in service of their owners’ desires and Millan’s identity formation.
Millan gains license to participate in the ultimate American Dream of remaking one’s self: a person can come from nothing and, with hard work, rise to the heights of riches and fame. Millan also legitimates a colonialist cycle of oppression and dominance, performed by a brown body who mediates the exchange of dog bodies between white bodies. Both races exploit nature; Millan remains complicit in the capitalist system of the pet industry. The dogs, once again, are the extra bodies that permit the economic exchange of monetary value and cultural hegemony. As Millan walks across the pavement to pull Ruby into the gorgeous swimming pool of his affluent clients, he strolls past meticulously cared for landscaping. What we do not see is who cleans the pool and who tends the flowers. In southern California, it may well be Millan’s countrymen and women, possibly illegal, disenfranchised or impoverished. Their absence combines with each dog’s missing history and moves from a local to a national scale, in which “bourgeois norms are experienced as the evident laws of a natural order” (Barthes, 1972: 140). Millan’s presence may critique the culture of the colonizer, but his presence is also an image of how the colonizer wants to see him. Boundaries between species are used to support boundaries between race and class and vice versa.