Thursday, June 17, 2010

He's Pregnant

People, as I may have mentioned about forty thousand times, drive me crazy. And not just the people in zoos, of course, but people in general, and the ways in which they unwittingly perpetuate the most infuriating and detrimental stereotypes about everything—class, race, sex, gender, you name it. It’s part of why I can’t watch television unless I skip through the commercials (those grotesque, manipulative upholders of the status quo); no one in an apartment building likes to hear a madwoman shrieking imprecations at every ad that comes on.

One of the many specific things that drives me crazy about people is how they tend to assume that every animal they see is male. This is not only highly unlikely, statistically speaking—it’s also representative of the way that females, of any kind, get left out of discourse, from The Developments of Mankind to the actions of an ant (if it’s doing work, it’s probably female, people). I heard Marlene Zuk, the renowned biologist, discuss just this problem at an Inclusive Science conference a couple of years ago; she also mentioned the dangers that these assumptions pose for those trying to study and understand animal behavior. And other people, far more incisive critics than I, have addressed this, too: Sherry Ortner, Rayna Reiter, and Kate Millet, among others. (No, I’m not that good; I have a mother who knows these things.)

It’s easy to see these androcentric attitudes in action at the zoo, where every animal a child or adult comments on—unless said animal is actively nursing young—is a he. This is true even when very visible placards explain otherwise. For example, does the orangutan you’re looking at have large cheek pads? No? Then call her “she.” Or, is the gibbon in front of you blonde—the color, the placard tells us, of mature females? Then maybe “Bill” is not an appropriate nickname for her, unless you’re interested in gender-queering your zoo experience (and we both know you’re not).

[This orangutan cannot believe you thought she was male]

You could even try referring to 50% of the animals you see as “she,” just to acknowledge statistical likelihoods. Or here’s an even better idea: just call all the animals you see “she”; you’ll only be half-wrong, and at least you’ll be bucking the trend. And, more importantly, trying to see animals as female might make you think of females differently: you might realize that they do more than just sit on nests—that they are jumping, eating, climbing, yowling, imitating you, scratching themselves, rolling in water, chasing one another—that they are active and interesting. And, most of all, present.

Or you could keep doing what you’re doing and then watch an action movie.

Hell. I think I’ll go reread The Female Man.

["You callin' me 'he'? You callin' me 'he'? Well, I'm the only one here..."]


Anca said...

You make me laugh with those terrific captions!

pattinase (abbott) said...

I can add to your frustration by saying unless you dress a baby girl in pink or lavender, the same assumption is also made.

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