"Exoticizing the Otter" is a phrase that has almost nothing to do with an otter or animalkind, but it connects a bunch of ideas which should be of interest to anyone who styles themself an intellectual and yet feels a bit silly about it. And if you can identify with all of that, and you don't already know what I'm talking about, have I got a comic for you.
It starts with Cat and Girl which is this webcomic that features a Cat (anthropomorphic, wearing clothes) and a Girl (human, often wearing a grimace). In most strips they talk to each other. Or at least, they both talk, and you can imagine that they might be exchanging ideas. And sometimes they both talk at the same time, and it's hard to tell if it's a conversation. It's sometimes funny ha ha and sometimes funny oh God.
Cat: Did you hear about the girl who went looking for the last unmediated experience?
Girl's most frequent activity is posing philosophical questions, often despairing of accepted modern culture. Cat's most frequent activity is whimsy. Contrary to Girl's default consternation, he'll commonly accept things as they are, or ignore the matter entirely to ruminate on the quality of his meal. (He eats ice cream often.)
Which brings us to the source of the otter confusion. There's a lot of text in the source — more than I can quote. So pardon me as we meet the team in media res:
Cat: Not just generational but differences of education — of socialization —
Girl: We're told to eat food made of plants and animals —
Cat: My professors had such bad handwriting —
Girl: Then we're told these plants and animals are pale shadows of the real plants and animals that exist outside of mass industrialization —
Cat: I spent a decade exoticizing the otter.
Ostensibly, the strip is about the increasing use of specialized food
choice to represent a weird kind of moral superiority.
Meanwhile, Cat concerns himself with his education, where he was taught the phrase "exoticizing the other", but he was too embarrassed by not understanding this confusing phrase to ask for clarification. I'm sad to admit that in my own education, I often presumed I understood something when I didn't. It was easier than asking for clarification and potentially seeming not as smart as a result. I hope both Cat and I have grown out of that.
The phrase itself, "exoticizing the 'other' ", is concerned with a common tendency to build elaborate systems of respect and mysticism around a partially-understood group. It's happened on cultural levels throughout history with concepts like the noble savage and the European Egyptology obsession of the 1800s. And it continues today in American culture where it seems better to be in a fringe group of any sort than to be normal.
It is this interplay of multiple serious considerations, silly ideas, and offhand references that make Cat and Girl amazing. It's dense without being pretentious. And it's why I love "exoticizing the otter".
In a classic Cat conclusion, this one winds up cute and fuzzy. They (and by "they", I mean Dorothy Gambrell, the artist and writer of the comic) made a shirt out of the phrase. It offers no explanation whatsoever of the origin; it's a confusing phrase surrounding an adorable otter with a cartoon heart. This is the constantly perturbed but ultimately happy weirdness that's Cat and Girl.
The strip ends in a light-hearted joke too. You should read it.