Culture Dose | Bitch | Disclosure | Getting Curious

Culture Dose | What to Read, Watch and Listen to Now

This Pride Month, we celebrate same-sex female albatross couples, murderous mother meerkats, and trans-species gender fluidity. We wonder at the queerness of crustaceans and shape-shifting clownfish. And in keeping with nature’s endless creativity, we marvel at the Solanum plastisexum – the “sexually fluid” plant. We’ll offer up a podcast that runs all month from JVN (Jonathan van Ness –the Fab Five Queer EYE “grooming” guy who is also an activist, a writer, a comedian, a producer who can rock almost any look from full length).

Then highlight a few book titles (with some cross over to the pods), and suggest a docs about and by trans people exposing and upending how nature and biology and media were/are weaponized against queer cultures.

Read: Bitch, by Lucy Cooke

A fierce, funny, and revolutionary look at the queens of the animal kingdom

Since Charles Darwin, evolutionary biologists have been convinced that it’s the males, promiscuous with their pretty plumages, who are of interest. Females are relegated to the roles of dull, passive, and devoted.

In Bitch, Lucy Cooke takes on the “grand old man”. Whether investigating same-sex female albatross couples that raise chicks, murderous mother meerkats, or the titanic battle of the sexes waged by ducks, Cooke revels in a new evolutionary biology: more inclusive, truer to life, and, simply put, more fun.

A wealth of examples, ranging from cannibal spiders to sex-switching reef fish, dismantle a mass of misconceptions about binary sex roles. G­leefully rebutting assumptions about male dominance and female docility, Cooke turns many an old trope on its head.

Where Darwin saw the female of the species as passive and coy, Cooke rebuts. “The main problem with this neat binary classification is: it’s wrong,” she writes. “Female animals are just as promiscuous, competitive, aggressive, dominant and dynamic as males.” Decades of research, much of it conducted by female scientists, refutes the Darwinian dichotomy that had dominated the thinking of (mainly male) evolutionary biologists. Cooke describes how an ancient network of genes and sex hormones interact, “to create a mixture of gametes, gonads, genitals, bodies and behavior that disregard binary expectations.” The African spotted hyena, for example, has an eight-inch clitoris shaped like a penis; she also gets erections. Female bonobo apes pursue sexual bliss (with each other). Patricia Brennan, a University of Massachusetts evolutionary biologist who collects giant clitorises of bluenose dolphins contends that females really like sex.

Other creatures glide through multiple switches in gender. The Caribbean chalk bass fish swaps sex up to 20 times per day. The brain of the clownfish, or anemonefish, starts out as male, and becomes female – Disney’s Dorey notwithstanding. Belligerent female anemonefish defend territory while the male cares for their eggs. But if the female is, say, chomped by a barracuda, the male anemonefish will transform into the new dominant female. During transition, the fish has a female brain but male gonads.

While studying zoology at university, Cooke said she felt like “a sad misfit”, an “egg-maker … doomed to play second fiddle to the sperm-shooters”. But after three years of delving into the dizzy variability of what’s really going on out there, she feels liberated. As science and research continue opening to “a mixture of sexes, sexualities, genders, skin colours, classes, cultures, abilities and ages” the female experience in nature for what it is: “variable, highly plastic”, and refusing “to conform to archaic classifications” will become ever more clear.

Watch: Disclosure

“My own life is such a profound example of what representation can do.” says Laverne Cox.

The positive visibility of her character on Orange is the New Black resulted in countless trans people finding the courage to no longer live in stealth.

But at the same time, “trans people have experienced unprecedented levels of violence, and this legislative assault in state legislatures and on a federal level is unprecedented”.

Cox thinks really seeing the history of trans representation –from early damaging, insidious, portrayals to more complex and representative – is what’s called for. So she’s produced a groundbreaking bit of cinema exposing the minefield of dangerous thinking in an effort to change hearts and minds. It’s about as compelling a doc as I’ve seen for a long time. There are many a painful yet even more joyous moments. It might not always be comfortable viewing, but we find it essential. Don’t miss it.

Listen to “How Queer is the Animal Kingdom?”

Jonathan van Ness kicked off his Pride month podcast with the perfect person, author Eliot Schrefer talking about his new book called Queer Ducks (and Other Animals). It’s on backorder with our favorite bookshop (.org) so take a listen and then order up here.

Two decades of research is reduced down to an exuberant look, with humor and wit (hello queers, it’s some of what we bring to the table). Part memoir, part serious science, with cool comic illustrations by Jules Zuckerberg, Schrefer questions how off original perceptions of animal sexuality once was. And how the mistaken belief that animals evolved on the straight and narrow led to LGBTQ+++ discrimination. Join the discussion of intersex deer, sex-changing fish, les liaisons dangereuses of male bottlenose dolphins. With over 1500 scientifically validated same-sex behaviors recorded, it’s for the curious and hopefully all library bookshelves.

–KL Dunn

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