In the few months I have been a volunteer for the Seattle Aquarium, I have realized that this place perpetuates and teaches gender roles. Of course, so do most places. The three reasons why I think the aquarium’s situation is worthy of discussion are 1) humans are projecting our ideas about gender roles onto animals 2) impressionable kids are the ones absorbing these ideas 3) I am guilty of most of the behaviors I’m about to criticize. Before I go further, I also want to acknowledge that by “our ideas about gender roles” I am limiting myself to the ideas from the culture that most aquarium visitors and I share (American, white, middle class, culturally Christian, etc.) and am not claiming that all people construct gender roles in the same way.
My job at the Aquarium is to stand near exhibits and answer people’s questions. During these conversations, I’ve noticed that people (including me) consistently address some animals as “she” and some as “he”, regardless of the animal’s actual sex. For example, there is one large, dark red octopus that tries to escape the tank, splashes onlookers with water, and constantly harassed a wolf eel that briefly had the misfortune of sharing the tank. The conversations surrounding this animal are along these lines: “What does he eat?” “Look at his suction cups, [child’s name]!” “He must weigh 60 pounds!” etc. This octopus is actually a female. Conversely, elsewhere there is a much smaller, more delicate octopus who usually has pale pink skin. This one is graceful when it glides around, although it prefers to stuff itself into a tiny hole in a corner. I’m not sure what the sex of this octopus is, but I do know that everyone says to their child, “Do you see her back in that hole?” “She’s so shy!” etc. Even I find myself saying “she doesn’t like to come out very often” and “she can change her skin color, although she usually sticks with pink.” Most of the time I realize what I’ve said right after it comes out of my mouth, and I feel bad for reinforcing some kid’s idea that boys are active while girls like pink/meek. To give a few more examples, the aforementioned wolf eel is always a “he”, even though it is actually female, sharks are “he”s, some tropical fish are “she”s, etc.
Some invertebrates don’t even have a sex, or they can switch back and forth. In these cases, for example with starfish, jellyfish, etc., the default pronoun seems to be “he”. I think this phenomenon shows that we still think of male as the default sex, and females as the “other.” So, even if an animal doesn’t have a face, much less a backbone, we still cannot even begin to discuss an animal before giving it a gender, and that gender is male.
On a related note, not only do the visitors and I automatically view these animals through a gendered lens, but there is a heteronormative lens in use as well. For example, sea otters like to hold hands in pairs. When I see this cute sight, my mind is automatically like “couple! boy and girl! romantic!” even though I know in the more thoughtful part of my brain that sea otters hang out in single sex groups…so these pairings are actually two female otters or two male otters. Otters of the same sex swim close together and hold hands, but a male/female pair would never hold hands, let alone float in close proximity to one another unless they were mating. (side note: you don’t need to see this video to understand my point…but if you want to see something adorable…watch this).
So far, I think I have painted the aquarium, its visitors, and myself pretty negatively, but this isn’t the whole story. I still think that aquariums and zoos can help open people’s eyes: for every conversation where I catch myself calling that dainty octupus a “she”, there are other conversations where I point out that male seahorses are the ones who incubate the eggs, that the feisty octopus and the intimidating wolf eel are females, that many animals in the touch tank are asexual or hermaphroditic, that I’m not sure whether the black tipped reef sharks are male or female, etc. I hope that rather than enforcing gender roles and heteronormativity by projecting them onto animals, I can complicate these stereotypes such that visitors leave the aquarium with more nuanced views…but it is hard to break old habits.