Television Reviews: Battle of the Sexes and Fidel

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The Independent Culture
BY THE TIME the average child is eight, he or she can expect to have witnessed upwards of 150 explicit sexual acts on television, some of them accompanied by disturbing levels of violence. But since nearly all of this activity is wildebeest on wildebeest, we tend not to worry - indeed, we probably even congratulate ourselves on giving the next generation a rounded, unsentimental view of nature. Animal sex is all right for Sunday teatimes; human sex is taboo until after 9pm. So, in one sense, we clearly don't find it hard to see a distinction.

The trouble starts when you try to talk about animal sex: if you want to keep the conversation approachable and non-technical, the only words available are the ones we use for humans. And, unless you're very careful, this can be misleading. Take Battle of the Sexes (BBC2). At the beginning of last night's opening programme, over a shot of two lions making bestial whoopee, the voiceover announced the recurring theme of the series as being the idea that "the burden of reproduction falls mostly on the female, and this inequality riddles the relationship between the sexes with mistrust". Oh really? What are we saying here: that lionesses sit at home fuming about being landed with the kids while his lordship swans off down the waterhole to mess around with his mates? To talk of inequality creating mistrust seems to imply that animals can imagine another way of doing things - that they nurture a dream of a fairer society, where lions and lionesses will strive together for the greater good.

This peculiar anthropomorphic strain kept cropping up. At times it was just plain funny, as when the male angler fish was characterised as the female's "lifelong sexual slave", a description which carried a whiff of baby oil and leather. Elsewhere it was more pernicious. Inviting us to admire the plumage of a mandarin drake, the narration cautioned us that they were "Beautiful - but displaying for sexual dominance," as if that fact (and you could hear the crack of the whip behind the phrase) somehow sullied their gorgeousness.

But the main problem was that this sort of language just got in the way of understanding. Take the case of the Californian side-blotched lizard. The males come in three distinct forms - the blue-throated ones, who are steady, dependable mates; the red-throated ones, who raid their territory and aggressively steal mates from the blue-throats; and the yellow-throats, who sneak past the blue-throats by pretending to be females. It was fascinating, but the narration was so busy sorting them out into "Lotharios" and "transvestites", that it never got round to the business of how these competing strategies might have evolved, and what makes them effective.

Mustn't grumble, though. The programme did have its share of amazing stories -- like the male phascogale, a small marsupial whose single bout of frantic sexual activity ends in death from sheer exhaustion - and the BBC Natural History Unit's traditionally extraordinary camerawork. I particularly liked the red-capped manakin, a small Puerto Rican bird which actually performs a moonwalk to attract females. I rather lost the thread at this point, but I gather that once he has mated successfully, he takes the eggs back to his ranch where they play with chimpanzees and sleep in oxygen tents. Or am I anthropomorphising?

Of course, male sexual display has its part to play in human as well as bird life. Watching last night's documentary on the Castro revolution, Fidel (C4), it was obvious that he is an icon not so much because of his political acuity as because of his luxurious beard. The very week of the revolution, an American TV interviewer was asking whether he intended to bring his beard with him to the US, and, at that stage, it was a comparatively wispy, juvenile affectation.

As seems to happen with Castro, Estella Bravo's film was dazzled by his personality, and not over-inclined to be critical. We were told about Castro "overseeing personally every aspect of Cuban society", and cautioned that "human rights are in the eye of the beholder" - which sounds like a euphemistic way of describing a dictatorship. Still, one fact seems indisputable: America's blockade of Cuba is one of the longest sulks in modern history, a piece of political infantilism which has less to do with ideology or practical politics than with US politicians showing how macho they are. Why can't they just grow beards?