Tag Archives: mating

The Venus Flytrap: Creature Coupling

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If you look up moorland hawkers, a species of dragonfly, you’ll find that their conservation status is a cool “Least Concern”. They’re thriving just fine with or without human intervention, but a new study has drawn our attention to them. The females of this species have been observed doing something the females of our species may find familiar: finding resourceful ways to avoid unwanted sexual advances. While we give out fake numbers, plaster on fake smiles in discomfort, and finally namedrop fake boyfriends (the worst one – because an imaginary man’s claim is given more respect than your right to refuse), pregnant female moorland hawkers are simply dropping out of the sky and faking death. Like I said, least concern. Literally no ‘F’s given.

The researcher who observed this phenomenon, Rassim Khelifa of the University of Zurich, hadn’t seen this behaviour in ten years of studying the dragonflies, but further investigation revealed that 27 out of 31 dragonflies were noted making this risky plummet to get away from an aggressive male. I can just imagine the first dragonfly who decided that a predator isn’t just one who wants to consume you, but also one who wants to have sex with you, performing a freefall then telling her friends about her dramatic escape.

The animal queendom is full of extremes when it comes to courtship, and for every example of brutality by one sex, there’s one of brutality by another sex. The black widow spider is famous of course, but you’ve got to appreciate her frankness as compared to the males of the nursery web spider species. They keep food in their mouths and play dead, then begin to copulate when the female comes to inspect these gifts. Then again, a Darwin’s bark spider is forced to perform oral sex up to 100 times in one session; so that his partner won’t eat him. Enough of spiders and their seriously kinky but totally unsexy mating. Take the hermaphroditic banana slug, some of which are pretty much all penis (that’s eight inches for you). They must take care to choose mates that are able to accommodate their size; otherwise, the slug in the female role may find the phallus stuck inside itself – and have to chew it off to live. Drones break their penises off inside the queen bee. And you thought your sex life was interesting.

These are known behaviours in species propagation, and evolutions in the same, such as the moorland hawker dragonfly’s death plunge, are fascinating. Consider more innovations in the world of creature coupling. Two species of the African queen butterfly can no longer produce male hatchlings owing to bacteria; they mate with migrant males, but create only female lineages in a newly evolving subspecies. Oh yeah, and the female caterpillars eat their dead brothers. Last year, a female shark in a Seoul aquarium got so annoyed by the brat who kept bumping into her that she ate him (the brat was another shark; she just another man-eater like you and I). The unicorn is passé (and according to legend, can only be touched by virgins) – maybe your spirit animal is one of these.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on May 4th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Her Perfect Equal

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At the beginning of her long affair with Harold Pinter, Antonia Fraser was warned by her brother, “You are a woman and a strong character yet you want your husband to be stronger. Women with strong characters who want to dominate are always fine because there are plenty of weak men around. Also plenty of strong men for weak women. But yours is a special problem.”

It is because of this special problem – this particular affliction of being an alpha female looking for neither her master nor her mutt but her perfect equal – that I reacted with a dismay not usually reserved for celebrity gossip at last week’s more plausible than usual reports that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are separating. The end of this power pairing isn’t yet another Hollywood meltdown; to me, it will be the combustion of the only modern relationship paradigm that I find truly desirable.

In recent years, I’ve found myself drawn to Jolie, an unlikely role model – too famous, too contemporary to truly analyze, and hounded by public obsession and private demons both. I find something very inspiring in the way in which, as a woman of a highly dysfunctional nature, she has turned her life around without ever losing the essence of her idiosyncrasy. In creating her family, she has revitalized the idea of the matriarch, updating the archetype without losing its noble connotations. Her advocacy has helped people around the world, and her artistic body of work shimmers with a certain aptitude. But it is her partnership with Pitt that ties this all together – it is an alliance that subverts the notion that intense, eccentric women cannot be partnered, at least not in any significant non-disastrous fashion. Like Jolie herself, it originated in scandal and evolved into something admirable, intriguing and undeniably powerful.

There is a danger in suggesting this, because it is an admission that mating is important – a very conservative idea for some. But more draconian still is the denial of passion, devotion and basic need – these are human impulses, not just female ones. I am interested in the idea of romantic partnership as collaboration, and have long puzzled over why there are so few examples of successful pairings that involve an unusual, forceful woman.

I read somewhere once, “Who could Madonna possibly date? She’s Madonna. Jesus, maybe.” The punchline, years later, is that she did date a man named Jesus, but the underlying contention remains: a theoretically post-feminist society has come to accept many things, but the virago with a domiciliary instinct is not one of them. This is neither a fault of the movement nor of the establishments it challenges. The notion boggles our minds simply because there is no existing marital script, at least in the archives of the collective psyche, to offer a successful example of such a couple.

Brangelina is the closest we have ever come to it. I want them to stay together not because of any vicarious tabloid satisfaction, but because they represent to me a sort of hope, a trajectory upon which to chart my own path. Can a woman be mother, martyr, magnate, mad – and still have her mate? Like Jolie, I intend to have my cake and eat you too – and hers is the only recipe I know so far.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.