November 1, 2010

The Feminine Peacock

I'm currently reading The Artificial Ape for possible adoption in my spring Intro to Anthropology course. It's an interesting book, although the argument is not terribly linear. The author brings up several times the concept of sexual selection, as it is possibly tied to the evolutionary increase in humans' brain size. Perhaps the most well-known example of sexual selection, though, is the peacock's tail. Taylor writes (pp.105-6):

"The peacock's tail is costly in terms of nutrition and maintenance, inefficient for flight, and it visually attracts predators. Because of all these disadvantages, the shimmering fantail signals to a peahen that its possessor has overcome all adversity and is a super-fit prospective mate. (And desipte recent controversy over exactly which part of the overall display attracts the female--gaudiness, the number of eye-spots, or the accompanying calls during the mating dance--the males with the brightest feathers are measurably fitter than their brethren, as judged on a standard measure of the level of parasitic infection they carry.) A peahen eyeing up a male with a massive fantail is considering mating with a super-fit survivor; it will have no downside in terms of the size of egg she will have to lay."

A couple weeks ago, I was perusing the racks of toddler costumes at Old Navy and found a lone peacock costume. The tiny peacock head at the top of the costume has a bright purple bow, and the price tag had a picture of a little girl posing in the outfit. A quick google image search for "peacock costume" shows elaborate - and decidedly feminine - outfits. Searching for "peahen costume" provides far fewer results. Yet this awesomely outfitted couple proves that a peacock can be a masculine costume. I'm trying to think of other male animals that are coopted as costumes for female humans, but I'm drawing a blank. Maybe it's just the peacock, whose fantastic tail reminds us of modern displays of femininity, such as a Vegas showgirl or a flamenco dancer. Happily, the peacock costume I found at Old Navy was in my daughter's size - but the question remains whether I bought it because it triggered my enculturated ideas of femininity and adorableness or because it triggered my knowledge of sexual selection and ideas of gender transgression... probably a bit of both!

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Intro to Anthro course at what university?

Bone Girl said...

UNC Chapel Hill

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