Are wildlife TV programmes “too heterosexual”? Portrayal of animal attraction is studied at University of East Anglia

Emperor penguin parents caring for chick, Antarctica. Photo: Frederique Olivier, for Penguin: Spy in the Huddle. Emperor penguin parents caring for chick, Antarctica. Photo: Frederique Olivier, for Penguin: Spy in the Huddle.

Saturday, February 9, 2013
6:30 AM

Darwin believed that animals only mated to reproduce, but scientific evidence suggests this is far from true.

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A team of common dolphins patrol the coastal waters off South Africa's Cape in search of sardine shoals. Photographer: BBC NHU, for Africa.A team of common dolphins patrol the coastal waters off South Africa's Cape in search of sardine shoals. Photographer: BBC NHU, for Africa.

A UEA academic has suggested wildlife programmes don’t represent the full sexual spectrum of the animal kingdom. Stacia Briggs finds out if it’s time for nature shows to come out of the closet.

It’s the love that dare not squeak its name – new research from an academic at the University of East Anglia suggests that BBC wildlife programmes may be “too heterosexual”.

A study by Dr Brett Mills published in the European Journal of Cultural Studies puts forward the theory that filmmakers fail to offer alternative views of animal behaviour and instead concentrate on reflecting human “norms” of sexuality and family.

Shows: Black Rhino silhouette at sunset, Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Reserve, South Africa. Photo: Jed Bird, for Natural World.Shows: Black Rhino silhouette at sunset, Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Reserve, South Africa. Photo: Jed Bird, for Natural World.

After examining BBC programmes including The Life of Mammals, The Life of Birds and Life in the Freezer, Dr Mills suggests that certain forms of animal behaviour are commonly missing in wildlife shows and that viewers are not being offered the full picture.

“I think that the issue of showing that homosexuality in the animal kingdom is present and is in fact completely normal is quite a threatening concept to some people,” he said.

“Presenting programmes that concentrate only on heterosexual animals perpetuates the belief some people have that being gay isn’t ‘normal’ and that this is proven by the animal kingdom.

“In fact, there’s a great deal of evidence to suggest that homosexuality in the animal kingdom is perfectly normal, yet documentaries offer a single interpretation which presents a mismatch between what we see on screen and what science tells us.”

There is well-documented evidence of homosexual and bisexual behaviour in the animal kingdom which includes sex, courtship, affection and parenting among same-sex animal partnerships.

Researcher Bruce Bagemihl put forward evidence which revealed that such behaviour has been observed in around 1,500 different species ranging from gut worms to primates.

“The animal kingdom does it with much greater sexual diversity than the scientific community and society at large have previously been willing to accept,” he said.

Roy and Silo, two chinstrap penguins at the Central Park Zoo in Manhattan, had a devoted same-sex relationship for six years which involved raising a chick together while studies show that 10 to 15pc of western gulls enjoy same-sex partnerships.

Other animal species that have been observed in non-heterosexual relationships include male and female bottle-nose dolphins, monkeys, sheep, reptiles, koalas, giraffes, butterflies, octopuses, molluscs and insects (male dung flies, for example, appear to mate with other males with the aim of exhausting them and reducing the competition for females).

It was, in fact, Roy and Silo’s gay penguin romance that inspired Dr Mills, a senior lecturer and head of the School of Film, Television and Media Studies at UEA, to investigate the way wildlife documentaries approach the issue of homosexuality and same-sex parenting in programming.

“I read about the gay penguins and thought to myself ‘I wonder if this is a common thing?’” he said.

“A book was written about Roy, Silo and the baby they raised, Tango, and it became the most banned book in America, which shows you how controversial a topic this can be.

“People look to the animal kingdom to provide them with answers about what it means to be human and it raises the question of whether homosexuality is a choice or a result of nature.”

Dr Mills believes that wildlife documentaries could be useful in a wider debate about sexuality and the way modern families are evolving.

“You only have to look back a few decades to a time when homosexuality was illegal.

“People were still outraged in the 1990s when Brookside showed its first gay kiss and only this week there has been a huge furore over the gay marriage issue,” he said.

“Wildlife documentaries have a story to tell and they tend to tell the easiest story.

“You wouldn’t see a documentary about humans that assumed that everyone was heterosexual, but with animals it’s easier to tell the stories of families: a father, a mother, offspring – even if it doesn’t tell the whole story.

“It’s very common for swans to raise cygnets in same-sex couples and if they do, the cygnets are statistically more likely to survive: two male swans can protect their offspring better than a male and a female.”

Channel 4 broadcast a documentary, The Truth About Gay Animals, in 2002 which was described by then-director of programmes Tim Gardam as “amusing and quite sweet” and was presented by an American comedian, Scott Capuro.

But Dr Mills said that documentaries which showed the full spectrum of sexuality in the animal kingdom – without reducing the issue to a series of clips narrated by a stand-up comedian – would help people become more tolerant and accepting.

“The world wouldn’t change overnight if wildlife programmes showed the homosexuality in the animal kingdom,” he said.

“But anything that helps to normalise all different kinds of sexuality would certainly help to make gay people’s lives just that little bit easier.”

The Animals Went in Two by two: Heteronormality in Television Wildlife Documentaries by Dr Brett Mills is published in the European Journal of Cultural Studies, volume 16, issue one, February 2013.

29 comments

  • Universities are over funded. Mind you I understand that in the French Parliament debate on gay marriage, someone has suggested it should also be legal for marriage to be between people and farm animals. I don't know if it was specified whether the animals could be straight or gay?

    Report this comment

    andy

    Saturday, February 9, 2013

  • So there was a lot more to it than we thought to the chocolate biscuit bar advert, "Pick Up a Penguin," after all! The nievity of youth.

    Report this comment

    BG

    Saturday, February 9, 2013

  • I know the weeks are going quick, but have we reached April 1st already, is this the EDP spoof article.

    Report this comment

    Bruce87

    Saturday, February 9, 2013

  • Crikey Nexus_6, for a moment I thought it said horsebu66erer!

    Report this comment

    Mr Cameron Isaliar

    Saturday, February 9, 2013

  • It really is a sad world when everything is over analyzed and skewed out of all proportion by some raving looney tune.Perhaps one day we will have a choice as to whether we want a gay or straight horseburger.

    Report this comment

    Nexus_6

    Saturday, February 9, 2013

  • The tax payer is lumbered with the salary of Dr Mills, who would appear to have too much time on his hands. The UEA is a white elephant, heterosexual or homosexual it needs neutering.

    Report this comment

    richard ash

    Saturday, February 9, 2013

  • CanaryvSloveniji, what an interesting idea. Hows about Brian Dowling?

    Report this comment

    Mr Cameron Isaliar

    Saturday, February 9, 2013

  • So there was a lot more to it than we thought to the chocolate biscuit bar advert, "Pick Up a Penguin," after all! The nievity of youth.

    Report this comment

    BG

    Saturday, February 9, 2013

  • I have made a serious comment about the waste of public money here and it has been censored. Is this subject matter somehow taboo, is the EDP afraid of some sort of trendy pc backlash?

    Report this comment

    Mr Cameron Isaliar

    Saturday, February 9, 2013

  • Alas, one is not 3-2-commentdotblogdotcodotuk

    Report this comment

    Mr Cameron Isaliar

    Saturday, February 9, 2013

  • Hi WTH. It didn't take long to flush out the right wing Tories then did it?

    Report this comment

    Canaryinslovenia

    Saturday, February 9, 2013

  • Nor canary did it take long to flush out the non scientists and the knee jerk PC brigade. If Mills wants to study sex and the media he would do well to look at why half the population is seriously under represented on all TV channels and the radio in the UK. Climategate and now this-the UEA needs to look to its image a bit I reckon.

    Report this comment

    Daisy Roots

    Saturday, February 9, 2013

  • In 2010 the good Doctor Brett was quoted as saying it was ok to film animals hunting, “ which were public events,” but questioned the ethics of more intrusive filming. He stated that the ethics of the media and privacy should be extended beyond humans to the animal world. Then last year with £300K of public money he was involved in a project to explore the creativity in British comedy. All I can say is I don`t know whether to laugh or cry!

    Report this comment

    BG

    Saturday, February 9, 2013

  • would this frighten the horses?

    Report this comment

    richguyb

    Saturday, February 9, 2013

  • What is it with this gay geo-political engineering stuff?? Britian, France, Obama in his speech, even Cameroon, Russia sticking two fingers up and now even an animal program....Not against gays, but there is more to this then meets the eye...And Attenborough is a legend!!!

    Report this comment

    WTH

    Saturday, February 9, 2013

  • We will soon see a LIon Pride Parade no doubt

    Report this comment

    Albert Cooper

    Saturday, February 9, 2013

  • I too was censored for suggesting that this study by a university acedemic was a waste of public money. The EDP has it's own agenda! Not difficult to guess what that is.

    Report this comment

    richard ash

    Saturday, February 9, 2013

  • I remember a comment in a wildlife program a number of years ago saying that penguins often didn't know the sex of their intended partner until they tried to mate. I have no problem with anyones sexuality and applaud the freedoms now enjoyed by all. However, there does seem to be a Gay agenda in some parts of the media and I believe, sadly, that the insecurity and doubts of a small minority of Gays & Lesbians are pushing this to make themselves feel comfortable.

    Report this comment

    Norfolk Lad

    Sunday, February 10, 2013

  • All this silly criticism of the institution that is David Attenborough made me realise the subliminal message in that film starring his elder bro. There has been some difficulty in paleontological circles explaining why the dinosaurs did not die out immediately, in the sense of geological time, following the Yucatán impact. This inconvenient fact can be readily explained by the theory that the impact not only killed a good many but the remaining individuals had their sexuality altered by it. You think I jest? The UEA will be submitting a case for a grant-funded study as soon as they read this.

    Report this comment

    Mr Cameron Isaliar

    Saturday, February 9, 2013

  • IT is time for dinosaurs like Attenborough to be put in a museum and have more modern presenters on the BBC more in tune with the 21st century. Unlikely to happen while the BBC is still frightened by its own shadow, the right wing Tory minority

    Report this comment

    Canaryinslovenia

    Saturday, February 9, 2013

  • What a load of TOSH

    Report this comment

    leslie cater

    Saturday, February 9, 2013

  • I have made a serious comment about the waste of public money here and it has been censored. Is this subject matter somehow taboo, is the EDP afraid of some sort of trendy pc backlash?

    Report this comment

    Mr Cameron Isaliar

    Saturday, February 9, 2013

  • I demand the right for single sex penguin partners to be married in church.

    Report this comment

    richard ash

    Saturday, February 9, 2013

  • This'll get the LGBGT or whatever their called at the moment parading with gay abandon.

    Report this comment

    Tudor Bushe

    Saturday, February 9, 2013

  • What is it with this gay Geo-political engineering stuff?? Britain, France, Obama in his speech, even Cameroon, Russia sticking two fingers up and now even an animal program....Not against gays, but there is more to this then meets the eye...And Attenborough is a legend!!!

    Report this comment

    WTH

    Saturday, February 9, 2013

  • To WTH, go and join Attenborough in the dinosaur park, I think there is one in Lenwade which has vacancies

    Report this comment

    Canaryinslovenia

    Saturday, February 9, 2013

  • Bring back the Magic Roundabout.

    Report this comment

    Rorping

    Saturday, February 9, 2013

  • To WTH, go and join Attenborough in the dinosaur park, I think there is one in Lenwade which has vacancies

    Report this comment

    Canaryinslovenia

    Saturday, February 9, 2013

  • I do believe tinky winky was also gay, not sure what sought of animal he was...but he was apparently a leading light for children coming out a tad back...more gay everything please on the box, to prove us normal folk are not not the real norm.

    Report this comment

    nrg

    Saturday, February 9, 2013

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