The XX Factor

Girls, Animals—What’s the Difference?

A still from Girls.
A still from the HBO series Girls

Photograph © 2012 HBO. All rights reserved.

Listen, ladies! You know the HBO series Girls? Were you under the impression that the series was perhaps intended as a send-up of the mores of the urban elite, a commentary on the effects of the Great Recession on today’s post-college job-hunters, or a critique of the unintended effects of the sexual revolution on young women? Well, you’re wrong—it turns out the show really functions as an allegory for the animal kingdom, point blank.

Or so claims the New York Times Science section today, in a mess of an article called “The Spirit of Sisterhood Is in the Air and on the Air” that uses Lena Dunham’s series about female friendship in New York as a lens into the social behaviors of elephants, mice, baboons, horses, and chimpanzees. Apparently, ladies are the same regardless of species, in the sense that “female friendship is one of nature’s preferred narrative tools.”

If that assertion gives you pause (What other narrative tools does nature use? Plot twists? False protagonists? MacGuffins?), you’re probably better off not reading the whole article, which draws comparisons more tenuous than Hannah’s argument in the series pilot that her parents should give her $1,100 a month for two years while she writes her memoirs (she’s 24). Female monkeys “groom each other into a state of hedonic near-liquefaction”—much like Marnie and Hannah in the bathtub on Girls! Female baboons thrive when they have three close same-sex companions—OMG, that’s just like Hannah and her three besties on Girls! “And,” the Times adds triumphantly,

female elephants keep in touch with their chums through frequent exchanges of low-pitched vocalizations called rumbles. “We liken it to an elephant cellphone,” said Joseph Soltis, a research scientist who works with elephants at Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Florida. “They’re texting each other, I’m over here. Where are you?”

In this regard, elephants would appear to be even more advanced than the characters on Girls, given that the last episode revealed that Jessa refers to incoming text messages as “word alerts.”

I’ll stop here, both because the phrase “elephant cellphone” is hard to top (and would incidentally make a great band name) and because I don’t mean to rip this article in particular to shreds, tempting though it may be. That’s because the problems with this Times article aren’t unique to this Times article. They expose the pressures and prejudices that affect the way both science and women are covered in the mainstream press.

Articles that compare television characters to elephants get written because popular science writers are under a lot of pressure to dumb down and sex up scientific research to make it click-worthy. (The author of this article succeeded on this count—at the moment, it’s at the top of the Times’ most emailed list.) In the process, they inevitably take some shortcuts, elide some nuances, and make some generalizations.

Sometimes these generalizations are relatively benign—the “elephant cellphone,” in and of itself, is an ungainly and inaccurate but inoffensive way of trying to make animal behaviors make sense to people. But sometimes pop-science writers take liberties with facts that work the other way around: Instead of helping people understand scientific phenomena by translating it into human terms, they dehumanize people by relying on lazy stereotypes.

There’s a line between generalizing thoughtfully and in good faith and generalizing carelessly for page views, and the Times has crossed it—and, in the process, done the science it cites a huge disservice. Animal species are meaningfully different from one another, humans are meaningfully different from animals, and being female does not trump being human as a defining trait. Point blank.