I was watching a documentary with my son this weekend that followed the story of a troop of Macaque monkeys, their ousting from their home by a rival gang, and the emergent leadership of a lower-caste monkey called Maya*. Maya was the underdog in this story. Pre the dramatic eviction from their home, the monkey troop is described by the narrator – Tina Fey – as ‘led’ by a male ‘alpha’ called Rajah who is ‘backed-up’ by a ‘sisterhood’ of three female monkeys. Maya is at the bottom of this hierarchy, forced to live on the ground and scrounge for scraps while the ‘higher class’ monkeys live in the abundant branches of the tall trees. The pickings are slim on the ground and Maya often has to use her ingenuity to scrape together enough food to feed herself and her son Kip. She is beaten, and has Kip removed from her, when she doesn’t prioritise the ‘sisterhood’s’ first dibs on an important food source. But it’s the kind of scrappiness and creativity that Maya has had to use day-to-day that becomes critical to the troop’s survival when they are all forced to relocate from their territorial rock to a city. And it is Maya’s enhanced survival instincts and ‘leadership’ that brings the troupe back home again in a dramatic retaking of their home rock. The story ends with the demotion of Rajah and the ‘sisters’, and with Maya and Kip at the top of the rock. But it is Maya’s baby daddy Kumar who is now described as the ‘alpha’ of the troop.
I use the terms ‘described as’ and the inverted commas on purpose here. We ascribe meaning to stories, or roles, depending on our view of the world and the cultural ideals we hold on to. Including, dare I say it, our interpretations of science. The ‘truth’ of it is that much of the natural sciences research has been written by men within historical contexts where domination is recognised as a legitimate form of capital advantage and the subjugation of women has been seen as a ‘natural’ extension of their reproductive role. The consequence of this is that the observation of the ‘natural sciences’ has often been based on dominance and control as the axes of group survival. So the story that then becomes told is that the ‘alpha’ is the leader and, at the end of the day, the leader is a male.
What if we shifted our perspective on this story? What if we reframed the language that has been used to tell it?
What if we said that it was the ‘sisterhood’ who were the original leaders of the troop? Three females coordinating between them, instead of one male?
What if we said that it was Maya who became the ‘alpha’ of the troop at the end? And that the survival of the troop, and the ‘success’ of their ‘leadership’, was based on ingenuity and creativity? Rather than the domination, control, aggression and sexual prowess categorised in Rajah’s and then Kumar’s behaviour?
The studies of primates, as our closest living cousins, have long been used as a mirror for our ‘natural’ human selves. What would we look like without the intervention of a sentient intellectual culture? But there is no ‘true’ interpretation of this. Because the language and voice, of those with the most power, articulates what gets said and what doesn’t. Science is not fixed and absolute, but a political debate for what counts as public knowledge.
I’ve been reflecting on the kinds of leadership behaviours that are being categorised as ‘successful’ throughout Covid-19. What will count when we go back to stable ground? If we ever go back to some form of ‘normal’ that is. It’s not types of leadership that are necessarily ripe for re-articulation here, but what allows expressions of leadership to be brought into being, or not – to be recognised as legitimate.
I’ll leave you with a simple exercise to practice on this topic. It’s one especially for parents. Observe how many of the main characters in your kids bedtime stories are boys? How often do personified characters (i.e. the talking animals, vehicles, toys) get referred to as ‘he’ more than ‘she’?
Because when I wrote to the zoo to send me a pet** they sent me a whole lot of ‘he’s’. So if there is one thing within my power to do, it is to make a conscious choice about how I articulate the world to my son – to express that women can feature in our stories as the main characters, the leaders, just as much as men and monkeys.
*Monkey Kingdom on Disney+
**Referencing the popular children’s book Dear Zoo.