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UEA lecturer defends Attenborough criticism

A Film and Television lecturer at the University of East Anglia has recently hit the headlines after publishing a study regarding the nature documentaries of well-loved naturalist and broadcaster David Attenborough.

Gay prideGay pride? Photo: Image Broker-Rex Features.

The study by Dr. Brett Mills focused on three BBC wildlife documentaries created by Attenborough: The Life of Birds, The Life of Mammals and Life in the Freezer.

Mills states: “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.”

His paper aimed to address aspects of animal courtship which have previously been left undocumented, such as same-sex parenting, promiscuity and homosexuality within the animal kingdom.

Mills looked in particular at the commentary of the popular series of nature documentaries voiced by Attenborough, proposing that “voiceovers tell the audience how to make sense of what is being seen,” which he implied was presented largely through human cultural assumptions.

Mills also used two examples in relation to Attenborough’s commentary which described a male chimp embrace as a gesture of “friendly affection”, and circling ritual of male sandpiper birds as “aggressive”, rather than behaviour assimilated with male sexual desire.

Mills has received criticism from certain sections of the media. Writing on the Mail Online, Richard Littlejohn described him as “some mad academic”, writing: “The militant homosexual lobby never give up. Having won gay marriage, they simply move on to other targets. Even the saintly David Attenborough is under attack, accused of ignoring ‘gay’ animals in his acclaimed documentaries.”

Responding to some of the negative commentary in the press, Dr. Mills told Concrete: “The coverage of the story shows how some media outlets still have trouble accepting homosexuality. I’ve been accused of being a member of some lobby or having an agenda, and one newspaper reporter asked me outright if I was gay. Do you have to be part of a lobby to care about fairness? Can only gay people fight for gay rights? Such reporting shows that debates about the representation of homosexuality are ongoing and as important as ever.”

The article, Animals Went in Two by Two: Heteronormativity in Television Wildlife Documentaries is published in the European Journal of Cultural Studies this February.

19/02/2013

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