David Attenborough accused of ignoring homosexual animals

University of East Anglia academic says nature documentaries should show "complex and changeable forms of sexual activity" in the animal kingdom

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David Attenborough accused of ignoring homosexual animals
Written By
Terry Payne

A university academic has taken a swipe at David Attenborough for not outing members of the animal kingdom as having homosexual tendencies.

Though the 86-year-old broadcaster is not directly named in the report, three of his series are singled out and blamed for perpetuating the notion that animal relationships are predominantly heterosexual.

In his study Dr Brett Mills of the University of East Anglia says that wildlife documentaries should be offering what he calls alternative interpretations of animal behaviour.

He says: "Heterosexuality is upheld as the norm in wildlife documentaries and the idea of the family it presents is one which equates the family with heterosexuality. The central role in documentary stories of pairing, mating and raising offspring commonly rests on assumptions of heterosexuality within the animal kingdom. This is despite a wealth of scientific evidence which demonstrates that many non-human species have complex and changeable forms of sexual activity, with heterosexuality only one of many possible options.

"Within the academic community there is clearly much debate over precisely what particular moments of animal behaviour mean, and the purposes they fulfil. Yet wildlife documentaries commonly offer a single interpretation as unarguable and uncontested. So there is this mismatch between what the science is saying and what is being presented in these programmes."

Mills, a senior lecturer and head of the university’s School of Film, Television and Media Studies, said he chose BBC wildlife series to study because of their dominance and reputation. The three series specifically mentioned in his report are Life in the Freezer (1993), The Life of Birds (1998) and The Life of Mammals (2003) all narrated by David Attenborough. And Mills blames the narration for reinforcing the heterosexual stereotype. “Voiceovers tell the audience how to make sense of what is being seen. The environment, via the voiceover, is interpreted and understood via decidedly human cultural norms and assumptions. Survival of the species depends on ‘traditional’ family units with the requisite number of parents and offspring with biological ties.”

Mills says it’s important for these documentaries to show 'alternative' lifestyles in the animal kingdom. "Through polygamous bondings, decoupling of social monogamy and sexual monogamy, instances of surrogacy and adoption, and the success of offspring raised outside the male-female pairing, a whole range of species show not only is there no such thing as a 'norm', but also that many species are willing to change the ways in which they organise their daily lives in response to factors such as mating competition, food scarcity, and offspring availability."

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