‘All television is educational television, the question is: what is it teaching?’ ~ Nicholas Johnson

The promotional image for the Dynastie’s series

The BBC series ‘Dynasties’ aired in 2018, with 5 one-hour long documentaries on the family lives of 5 species: emperor penguins, lions, chimpanzees, tigers and painted wolves. As the series’ title suggests, the focus was on the animals’ struggles to continue their family lineages; thus, the intricacies of sociality, mating and rearing offspring were central to each episode. What I found the most interesting was the difference in the way that courtship and intercourse were depicted in each species.

The carnivores (lion, wolf and tiger) were depicted similarly (and so are represented in this essay by the lion), yet the way the sex lives of the carnivores, the apes and the birds were visually represented was strikingly different. By looking at stills of video footage, we can see how the videography told the stories about the sexual encounters of lions, penguins and chimps. It got me asking, what might this reveal about human attitudes toward sex in different species?

Lions

The courtship and mating behaviour of Charm and her suitor is on screen for 16 seconds. The start of this footage is of playful engagement prior to mating, where the pair is shown licking, nipping and nuzzling each other. Both have their full body, head to tail, on screen. The music that plays in the background is very soft, with gentle chords that gradually ascend, becoming more audible, and reach an uplifting crescendo.

The camera angle changes as the lion mounts charm. The camera looks up at the pair from ground level, with the lower half of the shot hidden by earth and grass. We cannot see Charm’s eyes and the lower halves of their bodies are entirely hidden from view.

Charm’s face is shown once more, unobstructed by the grass, as she looks up at her mate. The camera angle pans upwards to follow her gaze, but the males face is not fully shown. Instead, the mating scene ends with a shot of the male lying down in the grass by himself and looking into the distance.

Penguins

The courtship and mating behaviour of the penguins is on screen for 39 seconds. The start of this footage is of the female lying prostrate in the snow and the male walking up behind her. As he mounts her the music begins to play; it is a light, comic piano piece.

There are 7 different camera angles used throughout the sequence, ranging from wide angle, where the pair is shown amongst the larger group, to mid-range front and side shots with their whole bodies on screen. There is also one close-up shot of the male’s flipper and foot being dragged down the females back as he tries to remain on top of her.

We hear Attenborough’s narration explain: “A penguin’s is beautifully designed for many things, but mating is not one of them”. We hear the up-close sound of the male’s claws scraping against the females feathers and the constant chatter of surrounding birds.

The final scene is of the male dismounting – or rather falling off the back of the female. At this point the piano piece which has been playing in the background has perfectly timed notes to accompany the wobble and the fall, as if lending a comic soundtrack. We watch as the male and female rise and stand next to each other after mating.

Chimps

The chimps’ mating behaviour is on screen for 6 seconds. The initial footage is a close-up of David’s eyes before he walks behind the flora and meets a female. There is a blurred view of copulation, mainly shielded by branches in the foreground. The music playing is of gentle chords, quiet and reverential. More noticeable is the crunch of leaves under their feet as they walk; sound is heightened as if it has been given specific consideration.

Once body contact has been made, there is a change of camera shot – now looking at a young chimp as he or she looks off screen towards the mating couple, eyes darting about. The footage returns to the couple behind the branches and we see David thrusting behind the female for 3 seconds. The young chimp jumps onto the female and mating finishes as the couple break apart. Two aerial shots of the forest follow, for 20 seconds, accompanied by almost silence, with a few gentle piano notes.

Comparison

This table shows the key differences of the three clips.

 PenguinLionChimpanzee
Clip length39 seconds16 seconds6 seconds
Camera angles6 (high angle)3 (low angle)1 (eye level)
Body exposureFull bodyUpper bodyObscured
Animals namedNeitherOne (female)One (male)
Background musicComicalPeacefulPeaceful
Silence post-mating3 seconds7 seconds20 seconds
Key differences in representation

Clip length: Mills (2010) explains that, with the new era of wildlife documentaries, an ethical debate has arisen over animals’ rights to privacy. Production teams have the challenge of balancing the viewer’s expectation of witnessing the crucial events in the lives of the animals with a species’ desire not to be seen. An argument is made that, in order to create interest and concern around the future of the animals depicted, an inevitable consequence is the denial of their right to privacy.

Perhaps the balance lies in |length of footage. A key consideration of zoos is areas that allow animals to remove themselves from human presence and provide privacy (Hosey, 2013). In an analysis of |CCTV footage of a giraffe’s labour, Buckler (2017) quotes Chambers (2008), stating: ‘CCTV intimates a feeling of control over that which is under view’ (p129). It is the sheer pervasiveness and length of time, believes Buckler, the giraffe is on screen that violates privacy and asserts human dominance. With this in mind the diminishing length of footage of animal mating, from penguin to lion to chimp, could be seen as an increasing right to privacy and admission of the self and sentience of the ‘other’.

Camera angles: Most of the camera angles in the penguin sequence are shot from a distance at either eye level of high angle. With the lions, there is one eye level and two low angle shots, and, with the chimps, there is one eye level angle as they are behind the tree. What can the nature of angles tell us about the differences in portrayal?

High angle: tends to make characters look small and symbolically suggests detachment and insignificance. Eye level: are used to explain story development. Low angle: highlights the size and importance of a character, symbolically demonstrating power and authority. Based on this it could be suggested that the mating of the lions is lent an air of majesty and power, that of the chimps an air of storytelling at a distance and that of the penguins, an air of detached triviality.

Body exposure: Close shots, especially of the face, imitate an ‘intimate relationship’ with the animals on screen. The shots used in the penguin sequence are all further away, showing both penguins’ whole bodies, suggesting a less intimate investment in their mating. The only close-up shot used is of the male’s claws scraping the females back as he tries to maintain purchase. Conversely, the shots of the lions are close-up, focussing on the upper bodies and faces of the couple. The scene feels far more intimate, especially as the camera is nestled in the grass at the lion’s feet and pans from the females face to the males as he mounts her.

Lastly, there are no close-up shots of the chimps during mating (perhaps this was necessary as they were behind a tree). However, the intimacy, instead, can be seen in the close-up shot of the male’s face, particularly his eyes, as he walks towards the female and almost portrayed through the look int the eyes of the young chimp who looks on at the mating. The lack of intimate shots and body exposure in the chimpanzee scene feels as if it is due to respect rather than a disregard for intimacy.

Animals named: Giving animals a name often draws them closer to us, allowing us to think of them as an individual and less so as something ‘other’. “As we have come to regard other animals with greater complexity (and consider, for instance, that they might be able to think or feel), it has become more common to use human names for them”. Consider, then, how the penguins remain nameless, whilst we learn that the lioness is named ‘Charm’ and the male chimp named ‘David’. Are the film makers, consciously or unconsciously, depicting a perception of greater mammalian complexity and emotional capacity?

Language choices in wildlife documentaries may invoke ideologies about sex and sexuality. Film makers have a choice of pronouns – either the neutral ‘it’, the gendered ‘he/she’, or the use of personal names. The latter being a way ofestablishing empathy between commentator, audience and the animals represented. Perhaps a greater sense of empathy and connection has been established between the audience and the lion and chimps (as we know at least one of the partners’ names in both cases) than between the audience and the penguins, who both remain nameless.

Background music: Many times has it been stated that music is filled with meaning and emotions. For example, an ascending major elicits feelings of outgoing, assertive joy whereas a minor pattern elicits feelings of gloom, brooding and fear. Comedy in music can be achieved through compositional techniques such as unexpected turns of melody, tempo and musical textures. An example of this can be heard in the musical accompaniment to the penguins, where the tempo of the piano notes both slows and descends until a final deep note is played as the male penguin falls off the female’s back.

It has been demonstrated that the music of animal documentaries can affect the way that people feel about the animals being portrayed. As non-human animals cannot speak for themselves, background music may be a powerful factor in the way we perceive animals on screen, even extending to which species we should or should not care about. In the case of the gentle, harmonic, major chords playing during the chimpanzee and lion mating, it seems that the producers aim is to imbue the scene with a sense of joy and reverence. Conversely, the mating of the penguins has a sense of comedy and farce lent by the varying tempo and pitch of the humorous soundtrack.

Silence post-mating: In many cultures, silence is an act of respect and reverence; ‘a moment of silence is an act of reverence we can all comfortably share’. In film, silence is used to heighten the importance of a particular scene or event. In Dynasties, each scene of copulation is followed by a period of silence. If this silence is indeed an indicator of reverence and respect, the length of each post-coital silence may be a measure of the import that the producers imbue the act of sex in each species. With silences of 3, 7 and 20 seconds for penguins, lions and chimps respectively, the connotation may be significant.

Photo by Colin Perry @ Flickr Colin P2009

A sliding scale of sentient sex?

This sliding scale of depiction, from hard-core penguins to soft-core lions to pre-watershed chimps, could rest on the producers’ notions of what they, and their audience, wish to view as other and what they wish to view as similar. To make an animal other is to remove their characteristics, behaviours and motivations out of the realm of human possibility, a way of separating our human culture from the ‘bestial’ nature of animals.

Some species, however, can fall on the human side of this metaphorical them and us dividing line. This may render some of the more humanised animal behaviours unacceptable, lest they hint that we are capable of the same. Could it be that chimps, and to a lesser extent lions (which have been humanised and represented in human cultures as ‘kin’) are portrayed in a way that 1) protects their right to privacy, as closer-to-human others and 2) reduces the portrayal of their sex lives as vulgar and animalistic, to protect the stronger links we see between them and us?

Of course, for these reflections to be valid, we would need to ascertain whether the Dynasties footage is a product of necessity or design. Was this the only footage of the chimps mating, and therefore all that could be used? Were wide angle shots used for penguins because the camera crew couldn’t get closer in the crowded colony? Was the camera low to the ground in the lion scene because a fixed ground camera was used? The practicalities of filming may say more about the scenes presented to viewers, rather than intent-laden production and editing. However, despite numerous attempts to ascertain this information from the BBC, their policies meant that this kind of information could not be obtained. For now, we will have to be content with some stimulating thought and debate on the obvious and numerous differences in sex depiction between these species.

References on Page 2…

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