Planet Earth, and taking a break from gender.

The BBC miniseries Planet Earth avoids annoying gender essentialism by avoiding humans (and therefore gender) altogether, and it’s intensely relaxing to watch.

It’s absurd, the degrees to which they went to get the most stunning shots possible. It was in production for five years. You could make a drinking game out of the phrases “never before captured on film” or “rarely seen by humans.” They sent a guy to the Pakistan-Afganistan border for three years to get a total of twenty minute of footage of snow leopards in the wild. It’s a breathtaking twenty minutes– intimate moments between mom and cub, day-to-day routines, plus a complete hunt– and, of course, it’s an animal “rarely glimpsed by humans,” even those who dedicate their lives to studying them. But still– three years. In an active war zone. Waiting for the perfect shot. (Another guy spend more than 300 hours in solitary confinement, basically, waiting for bird of paradise mating dances. At least the leopard guy got to walk around. After they cleared the area of mines.)

Watching it restores my faith in our planet. Not humanity, necessarily– humanity rarely shows up, except in the “making of” diaries, and the film is the better for it– but in the planet’s ability to foster life anywhere. There are some absurd creatures on our planet– monkeys that live literally on the faces of cliffs, leopards that try to stick it out through the Russian winter, and panda bears– god, panda bears! They eat one food, which grows only in a precise altitude, which happens to be an altitude that endures harsh winters. Except that the one food that pandas eat (bamboo) is so low in nutrition, they can’t store enough fat to hibernate. So they just have to hang out all winter, trying to to freeze. Plus, they’re the size of mice when they’re born, so mothers have to hide in caves holding their babies (except for the few hours when they leave to eat, leaving the cubs totally defenseless). It’s three months before they can crawl, and six month before they can start to eat bamboo. Most mammals learn to walk within hours of being born, but not so the panda bear! The more we learned about them, the more I couldn’t help but laugh. How absurd is it that a creature like this exists, that it continues to exist? Now I understand why we have to work so hard to “save the pandas”– they make no evolutionary sense!

But, as Planet Earth shows us, our world has produced a multitude of plants and animals that somehow persist in the most absurd of situations. Really, even moose are absurd, in their own way. I mean, they eat pine needles. Pine needles have resin to make them less tasty and less nutritious, but the north of our planet is covered in coniferous trees, and so, something had to come along to eat them. Thus we have moose, and birds with specialized beaks to pry the seeds out of the pine cones, and wolves and foxes to eat the moose and the birds…

The fundamental law of the universe seems to be, however harsh the environment, something will grow there. (Yes, even there.) And then something will come to eat whatever grows. And then something else will come to eat the things that eat what grows. And then humans will come screw it all up.

Okay, well, Planet Earth mostly avoids that last one. Like I said, humans are never seen in the main show, and rarely mentioned (except in the “human eyes have never seen…” way). But almost every creature featured was suffering from hunting and “habitat loss.” Like the beautiful, beautiful Amur leopards that live in Russia; we see two of the thirty that remain in the wild. Even in protected areas, they are hunted for their pelts. Or the polar bears, who have to change how they live to survive in their melting habitats. I was constantly torn between thinking, “I want a baby polar bear of my very own!” and “Will there still be wild polar bears fifty years from now?” It’s a powerful pro-conservation message.

So by now you might be wondering, what does this have to do with gender? And the answer is– nothing! Animals don’t have gender! They just have sexes; only humans get so silly about what our reproductive organs mean.

It was actually refreshing to see how the same sex binary played out differently across species. It was great fun watching the male Birds of Paradise doing their “sexy dances” to try to win mates, but if you think about it, it’s also an exact reversal of the “natural” gender roles humans have adopted. The male birds are valued almost soley for their appearance; they have to cultivate impractically extravagant appearances to get noticed, whereas the female birds just have, y’know, feathers. The males actually have to sacrifice their safety in pursuit of beauty– the female brown-and-darker-brown patterns would surely blend right in, in the dark rainforest floor, but the males all had bright, reflective patterns colors that would surely make them easier targets. It compares rather nicely to the expectation that women will wear skirts, and heels, and pantyhose, and makeup, all of which impede mobility (and therefore safety), but which are “necessary” for male approval.

The big cats also gave us plenty of examples where women were the only “breadwinners” in the family– from prides of lions to single leopards providing for their cubs, we got plenty of exciting hunt scenes where females took down huge prey, but nothing from the males. It perfectly debunked the idea that men are the “natural” providers.

There are also, obviously, plenty of examples of behaviours that dovetail with human expectations– lots of females who stay behind to look after the nest and babies in the birds, and some exciting macho posing from the deer. But everything’s just the way it is for that species; the narrator, thankfully, didn’t impose a human viewpoint on the division of labor for each species. And in many cases– like with the massive flocks of snow geese, or the miniature deer, boars, and leopards in South America– the “division of labor” wasn’t discussed at all; there were other, more interesting things to focus on.

Part of the reason this is such a huge relief is that Hollywood has a tendency to make movies about animals, but them completely ignore the social dynamics of the animal in question, in favor of the human social hierarchy. And then people point to these movies as proof, proof!, that the human way of doing things (i.e., patriarchy) is “natural,” because all these other animals do it too. Except they don’t. Like in Bee Movie. So many people have said it better than I can: WORKER BEES: THEY ARE ALL FEMALE! ALWAYS! Less than one percent of the bees in a hive are male, and they don’t do anything but have sex with the queen (then they get their genitals ripped out). If a bee has a stinger, it’s female. Basically, unless you’re a beekeeper, any bee you’ve ever seen has been female. I can understand not wanting to have an all-female cast (though I think it would’ve been awesome)– but going all the way to all-male-except-the-useless-token-ladies isn’t just stretching the truth to tell the story, it’s totally counter to reality.

Bee Movie isn’t the only one to do this– Antz and Bug’s Life both gave us hordes of male worker ants, despite ant colonies having a similar gender hierarchy to bee societies; Barnyard recently gave us bulls with udders, in a stunning departure from fact– I mean, ordinary people see cows. We know that milk comes from the udders. We know that males do not lactate. This isn’t obscure ontology, this is the Being A Mammal 101. And yet, it doesn’t matter; it’s more important that even when showing other worlds, they look just like ours, as defined by the patriarchy.

That’s the real beauty of Planet Earth: it shows our planet, not how we pretend it looks, but how it actually is.

It was almost a surprise to learn that our world is beautiful. But it is.


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