Patrick, the Dallas Zoo's recently departed lowland gorilla, was never quite a social butterfly, but he wasn't always quite so angry, either. Embittered by his best friend's death at the hands of Dallas police in 2004, he retreated further into himself, lashing out at his fellow primates -- especially the females zookeepers hoped he would mate with.
And so, when the Dallas Zoo decided to send him to a South Carolina facility after 18 years of trying to get him to shape up, the storyline was too good for the media to pass up. "'Sexist' gorilla being kicked out of Dallas Zoo," the New York Daily News announced. "Male Dallas Zoo gorilla to get therapy for sexist attitude," NBC News proclaimed.
The Dallas Zoo, apparently unfamiliar with the Internet, expressed shock and dismay at the "sensationalism and inaccuracy" of the news reports and attempted to set the record straight.
Patrick, they wrote in a Facebook post, isn't a bad gorilla. He's just misunderstood. He's not violent. He's just a "dominant silverback, and in the wild, such animals establish dominance regularly." Nor is he misogynistic or sexist. "These are human psychological behaviors and shouldn't be attributed to gorillas."
That was almost two weeks ago, and there hasn't exactly been a rush by news organizations to amend the record, not least because "Patrick the Sexist Gorilla" makes a much better headline than "Primate Falls Victim to Human Tendency to Anthropomorphize Animals."
Leave it to NPR to suck the fun out of the Internet by talking to experts and reflecting thoughtfully on what was supposed to be a click-generating disposable piece of ephemera.
Here's Barbara King, comparing Patrick's "sexist" label with claims that male orangutans rape females for NPR's Cosmos & Culture blog:
I'm uneasy with using words like "sexist" and "rape" to describe situations like these. Why is that? If I'm ready to say that other animals express "grief," even "love," why balk now at using human terms?
Here's my answer: For the most part we're dealing with actions taken by men against women and these actions occur within, and are enabled by, uniquely human cultural systems of power and oppression. Patrick and his orangutan male counterparts may indeed act badly toward females, yet they aren't willfully choosing to inflict harm or violence as an expression of institutionalized male dominance.
King's experts, a philosophy professor and a women's studies professor, offer similarly nuanced expressions of discomfort.
"Once we believe that male domination is just natural, it's a very small step to believing that it's inevitable -- and, for some people, that it's divinely ordained or otherwise meant to be," Emory University philosophy professor Erin Tarver told King.
Valid concerns in a culture rife with misogyny and domestic violence, but booo-ring. The Internet is a place for perpetuating old stereotypes and coining new ones, not for an academic debate of philosophy and gender theory. Next they'll tell us that Zola, the Dallas Zoo's new gorilla, can't actually breakdance.
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