Monday, 28 January 2013

The big prize?

By now I should know better than to watch nature documentaries for escapism but amidst the January gloom what is a bit of patriarchal rhetoric in return for outstanding footage of places I will never go to and animals I will never see? Over the last few weeks, the BBC’s “Africa” has lured me into its beautifully presented world(view) until it simply went too far. To me, there is nothing ‘natural’ about linking butterflies and virginity...

It all started well enough. In a recently discovered rainforest, we are introduced to a large group of butterflies who, after a heavy rainfall, are basking in the sun. And “as soon as their wings dry out they will take to the air”, we are told, “[t]heir goal: to find a mate” (BBC 2013, 10:17-10:33mins). In the thick undergrowth, however, this seems far easier said than done.

But the butterflies are canny: “they have a remarkable solution”, “they follow rivers upstream and travel to higher ground” (10:53-11:01mins) until “free from the confines of the forest, they hold a butterfly ball” (11:33-11:39mins). They, we are led to believe by the repeated use of the 3rd person plural pronoun, are female and male butterflies alike – equal in the playfully musically underscored mating game.

However, soon enough, the usual protagonist comes to the fore: “[t]he male’s strategy is simple: fly higher and faster than the competition and, just maybe, you’ll win a virgin female” (12:09-12:17mins). While this puts the deluded viewer, i.e. me, in her place regarding any assumed inclusivity, the wording of the representation is here particularly interesting.

Firstly, it confirms the dominant idea of the dominant male as victor in the contest for as well as in dominating reproduction. He is the competitor who wins a/the prize, which is she. However, as a slip in pronoun usage highlights, he, whose strategy we are asked to admire, is not only a ‘he’ but also a you: ‘you’ll win a virgin female’. But then, who is this ‘you’? Who can ‘win a virgin female’? And to whom does that virginity matter?

After all, of how much value could our culturally laden concept possibly be to a male butterfly? And moreover, why would ‘we’ (only) consider him a victor? What about the female in this battle of sex(es)? Is she not as big a winner to have chosen the best mate? However, all we learn about her role/sexuality is that “[o]nce mated, the females descend back to the rainforest to lay their eggs” (12:51-12:56) – apparently the only natural place for female (sexual) activity.

But as Bernard E. Rollin argues in relation to the ‘nature’ of science: “science is neither value-free nor free of ethical judgment. Indeed, the very notion of what will count as a fact, as a legitimate object of investigation, or as data relevant to a given question, rests squarely on valuational presuppositions” (Lorenz 1998, 205) – the above therefore has not so much to do with rainforest butterflies’ sexuality but more with our own cultural positions, values and idea(l)s…

So the lesson is: even in nature there is no escaping patriarchy.


Lorenz, Dagmar C.G. “Man and Animal: The Discourse of Exclusion and Discrimination in a Literary Context.” Women in German Yearbook 14 (1998): 201-224

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