Home Health Sexist narratives on animals in David Attenborough shows leave Springwatch’s Lucy Cooke ‘screaming – iNews

Sexist narratives on animals in David Attenborough shows leave Springwatch’s Lucy Cooke ‘screaming – iNews

11 min read

Lucy Cooke has a bone to pick with David Attenborough. When his series The Mating Game aired last year, Cooke found herself “screaming at the television in utter frustration”. The problem with the series, and so many others like it, is that “stories about nature are still being told through the male perspective,” she explains – and inevitably, the result is a biased, sexist and sometimes completely inaccurate account.
Sexism in biology is something Cooke has become acutely aware of since researching her latest book, Bitch. A zoologist, author and director known for being one of the presenters of BBC’s Springwatch, Cooke’s latest work is an eye-opening exploration of how the females of most species have been “as marginalised and misunderstood as a Victorian housewife” as a consequence of “cultural pollution” – that is, the influence of sexist societal norms in science.
Have you ever stopped to question why female animals in films, books or TV are so often described as “doting mothers” with coy or shy personalities, waiting to be dominated by a mate? Many of us don’t, because we’re so used to anthropomorphism in our understanding of the natural world. But Cooke is on a mission to change that.
“There’s this sort of fundamental law in biology that sperm are cheap and eggs are expensive. So males will be promiscuous and females will be choosy,” she explains. “And the knock-on effect is that males ‘drive the bus of change’, they’re the ‘dominant force’ of evolution. It’s a perception that is drummed into us in school and university,” Cooke adds, “but I’ve since realised is just not the case.”
For centuries, our understanding of biology and the natural world has been heavily influenced by male, academic giants such as Charles Darwin, whom Cooke describes as “a genius”, but calls out as “misogynist” nonetheless. “I think Darwin was actually much more radical than his writings let on, but he faced a lot of pressure to adhere to the norms of the conservative Victorian society he lived in – and that’s how we’ve ended up with these mad descriptions of female animals as ‘coy’, for example.”
Frustratingly, despite brilliant work being done to challenge these norms – by the ecologist Jeanne Altmann and other women in science referenced within Cooke’s book – sexual stereotypes prevail in 2022. And this is where the painful subject of Attenborough comes up.
“Obviously I worship the ground David walks on,” she insists. “When I met him, I actually burst into tears and told him I’d met Gandhi and completely lost my mind.” But she takes the example of a particular scene in The Mating Game featuring chimpanzees: “David is saying in hushed terms how the males are obviously wanting to mate with as many females as possible, and that many females are being ‘coerced’ into sex.”
“The narrative is, ‘Here are these terrifying males with their libidos’… There’s no mention of the fact that female chimpanzees have a strategy of multiple mating with as many males as possible to confuse paternity and protect their offspring – they’re not being coerced by any means!”
In writing Bitch, Cooke came across several similar examples of bias in science storytelling and research. “Yes, there are examples of patriarchal societies in the animal kingdom where the males eat first, and are described as ‘dominant’ for that reason. But then there are primates like bonobos, where the females will eat first or they’ll share, but that narrative gets completely written off.”
Females are still seen as “the losing sex,” Cooke argues, but only because “men tell the stories.” Science is still weighted in favour of men – not enough women are supported into the top jobs, and so the problem continues. “A lot of the things that could be argued as examples of female leadership get lost in this kind of semantic whirlpool, and examples of female power get downgraded.”
Why does all of this matter? In short, because it feeds into sexist stereotyping in human society, too. A misogynist looking for evidence of how men really are bigger, stronger, smarter or more dominant than women need only look to nature – or rather, the false and sexist reports of nature that we have come to adopt as fact.
Bitch pushes back against this narrative, using stories of matriarchal meerkats running and controlling “cooperative breeding” programmes, and cannibalistic female spiders “sucking the life out of [a hopeful mate] in a matter of minutes, before hurling his desiccated carcass on to the burgeoning heap of failed suitors below”.
Then there are orcas, Cooke’s personal favourites. For decades scientists assumed that the larger orcas leading the pod were males. But eventually, “with some reluctance”, they recognised that the pod was made up of small, juvenile males, who stayed with their mothers well into their adult years -with the larger, matriarchal orcas leading the pod. More recently, biologists are looking to orcas to widen their understanding of the menopause.
“Orcas have this incredibly inclusive, caring society where postmenopausal females are taking centre stage and having tons of sex with all the young males,” Cooke says. “What’s not to love?”
The stories in Bitch are rich in detail, and Cooke is an hilarious and engaging writer. Could a TV series of its own be on the cards? “I am in conversations with people about it, but those conversations haven’t come to fruition yet,” she says.
Somewhat inevitably, “there are women who love it but there are often male gatekeepers at the top who just don’t get it.” But Cooke hasn’t given up just yet. “There are a lot of very visual great stories in there that haven’t been told before, and goodness knows we’ve all watched a lot of natural history programmes that feel a bit same-y. TV is begging for something different, the male narrative is tired.” Watch this space.
Bitch: A Revolutionary Guide to Sex, Evolution and the Female Animal by Lucy Cooke is out now (£20, Doubleday)
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