Elephant Caught Cheating!

This article, published my NPR caught my eye originally because of my interest (some may call it a mild obsession) in elephants. As I read through this piece, I couldn’t help but notice the anthropomorphic language used to describe these elephants and their characteristics. I understand the appeal of testing an animals intelligence, and finding information on learning and problem solving capabilities; I do, however, find the language to be filled with stereotyped sexism, playing on ideas of how men and women relate to each other in a kind of essentialist dualism of “men are from Mars, women are from Venus” and imposed onto the relationship between animals.  The language of the article encourages the reader to think about this species in the way we would about our own. It uses characteristics – which it equates to those of male specific one near the end of the article – to explain the behaviour of this “cheating” elephant in a negative light. It refers to the female elephant named Neua Un, as “lazy”, “freeloading”, and “the smartest elephant of all, if you admire a cheat”. The article goes on further to suggest Neua Un has “figures out how to do something human males have been doing for years; she tricked her partner into becoming … a waitress”.

Ok, let’s pause here. Is this article admiring Neua Un for acting like a stereotypical man? The elephant is applauded for her work (or lack of) of manipulating the other female elephant to be her waitress. This kind of validation is not only perpetuating the acceptance for the power binary between men and women, but also through equating this kind of behaviour in nature as favourable. Imposing this kind of ideological conception about male/female relationship onto wild animals demonstrates how deeply our own perceptions about naturally occurring characteristics of men and women run.

The “theatrical show” Neua Un puts on for her partner to “serve the meal” uses a kind of 1960s vocabulary to describe what was expected of women from men in this era, oppressive gender roles which can still be found today.  By suggesting that she has tricked her partner into becoming the waitress implies that the relationship between the one in power and the one being manipulated can be reflected in terms of a male/female relationship.

This kind of discourse is a clear example of how domination of women can be manipulated into speaking about nature and the natural acts or intelligence of other species. In doing so, it reveals a perpetuating link between exerting power over the weak and researchers are surprised this female acts in such a manipulative manner. It is clear from this article, domination of the less intelligent sex is in parallel with domination over women.


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