A drably colored peahen has her pick of peacocks with whom to mate. The peacocks flash their gaudy plumage, just begging to be the one she chooses. In the animal kingdom, females set the rules, and males will do whatever it takes – elaborate dances, fancy ornamentation, serenades – to make them happy.
Charles Darwin was the first scientist to recognize that it’s almost always a species’ females who select mates; he outlined his theory of sexual selection in The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. The males compete with each other, and for the females’ acceptance. But even as recently as the 1970s, people balked at the notion of female choice. According to Evolutionary biologist Michael Ryan, “One writer even said that all you had to do was look at our own species to see that females had no input whatsoever in mating decisions.”
Here in the human world, we women are the ones doing most of the “peacocking.” Dyeing our hair, painting our faces, wearing uncomfortable yet “sexy” outfits, getting breast implants. Oh, sure, women do those things “for themselves,” not to attract men! But why would doing those things be personally satisfying if not partly because they are accompanied by social approval and patriarchal praise? How often do you see a really hot man with a plain Jane on his arm? How often do you see the reverse?
How did we humans manage to flip sexual selection completely on its head? I know the answer is “patriarchy, duh,” but I’m still curious about exactly how. Women’s eggs are scarce and men’s sperm abundant, just like in the animal kingdom. Maybe our advanced intelligence allowed men to strip women of their perceived selection power, using their superior physical strength to enforce the rules.
From Socialogical Images comes this German advertisement for Men’s Health (reads “It’s all about men”) that suggests they think everything a woman does is done in an effort to attract them, and that women’s masochism is funny and flattering (but still loathsome).
Early and often, women are hit with the message that they’re nobody until a man – any man – chooses them. See: the offerings “for women” at your local cinema. Knowing that we human females are relatively alone among our non-human sisters adds an extra layer of meaning to the word “backwards.”
For further reading: Animal Attraction