Animal Studies Bibliography

Crowther, Barbara. 1997. Viewing what comes naturally: A feminist approach to television natural history. Women's Studies International Forum 20(2): 289-300.

Nature documentaries appear to be objective renderings of what occurs, but they are in fact political texts that support patriarchy. This underlying message is crucial since much of people's exposure to science and nature comes through these shows, and the message might therefore have an important effect on gender relations. Since nature shows must combine science and education with entertainment, the narrative is crucial. By describing animals' sex in the terms of human gender roles, including taking the male's view and marginalizing the female, the narratives reinforce patriarchal assumptions. This anthropomorphism is dangerous because it allows people to confirm gender role stereotypes in human life because they have found them in animal life as well. For example, in describing mating, the concerns and feelings of the male are almost always the focus of the account, leaving the female's motivations and perceptions of the action untouched, portraying the female as simple receptor rather than active participant. The use of words like harem or virgin have strong and unavoidable human connotations and serve to strengthen the films' androcentric viewpoint. Other common narratives also focus on the male, including the battle for supremacy between dominant males with the often gory fighting it includes. (Nature film producers know that their film will de better according to how much coverage it includes of sex acts and fighting.) These focuses ignore the many other aspects of animal life, such as relations within the clan, aging, aspects of life unrelated to reproduction, or the animal as an individual. The male focus is often assisted by framing it within a parallel story of the (male) naturalist in search of answers. The researcher's quest and the male animal's quest (for dominance or to spread his genes) create a powerful narrative. Further, Western narratives are generally linear in form, seeking unity in theme and closure. This focus on closure as linear and single-stranded (293) reinforces the masculine focus and leaves out more feminine approaches such as including multiple viewpoints or stressing the hypothetical aspects of science rather than the rational, finding-out, neatly-solving-the-mystery approach. Nature shows are almost always narrated by a man. Their style, with authoritative male voice providing narrative that is then immediately validated by visual proof, positions viewers to accept without question the account being presented. One survey in fact shows that men like nature shows much more than do women, lending support to the notion that the style of the shows is masculine and marginalizes more feminine approaches. Nature shows are generally broadcast as family viewing, and the ways they encode gender is important since for many families, these shows offer a context through which to discusses sex. Women scientists are also marginalized and undermined in these shows, coded through the same techniques used in other types of films, such as low lighting as positioning the woman as subject of the camera's gaze. Nature films use realism, hiding all aspects of production and presenting an apparently seamless image that is actually composed of various bits and pieces. This technique makes the show seem like objective presentation of reality and hides the fact that it is necessarily subjective. Production of nature shows is extremely male-dominated, and this is one reason for the lack of alternative voices. The shows would be much improved by studying the feminist insights into the subjectivity involved in scientific inquiry, the oversimplifications created by strict dichotomies (human/animal, male/female, nature/culture), and the biological determinism and reductionism often produced by sociobiology and neo-Darwinism. Such misleading theories can be easily conveyed into public knowledge when they are presented in the objective, authoritative format of nature shows.



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