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Dr T misses the mark

May 3rd, 2005

Dr Petra

I loved Olivia Judson’s book ‘Dr Tatiana’s sex advice to all creation’ when it came out a few years ago. The idea of animals seeking advice from a human agony aunt as a means of explaining reproduction was a truly novel biology text.

So I was really looking forward to watching the television programme based on the book on Channel 4 last night.

Sadly, it didn’t quite work.

For a start, it couldn’t decide what it wanted to be. Was it a musical? An advice show? A game show? A science programme? Or a show where Dr T shouted a lot about arses and shagging, betwixt Latin descriptions of species? In trying to be accessible the programme managed to get into a real muddle, which spoiled the whole thing. Had they reproduced the book – animals getting advice from Dr Tatiana, it probably would have been great. But throwing in songs, dances and half-finished costumes just made things confusing.

In an attempt to bring science to society (or something similarly well meaning) the show also managed to really mix up its frames of reference. The viewer was told consistently about how biology drives behaviour and sex is all about evolution. But sex was then explained with terms like ‘shagging’, ‘hanky panky’ and ‘orgies’, culturally loaded words that only have meaning if you’re the species of middle class human that lives in the West.

The show opened with Dr Tatiana promising the answers to all human sex and relationship problems. In fact the ‘I have the answer’ motif continued throughout, although by the end of the show I’d no idea what either the question or the answer was.

Because although the programme tried to make out human sex as a universal activity, there were a number of problematic messages hidden in it. Sex for pleasure, particularly gay sex, wasn’t seen as positively as reproductive (heterosexual) sex. Hermaphrodites were consistently presented as an oddity, and solitary sex was presented as abnormal. So if we were to do what the rest of the show was trying – apply other animal behaviours to the human species – it didn’t bode well for anyone who was LGBT, intersex, or a singleton.

Parts of the programme were fascinating; particularly the explanations of how different species develop their reproductive strategies. But any programme that tries to reduce sex down simply to biological reproduction is about as useful as one that only sees sex as solely being defined by language.

The success of the book version of Dr Tatiana was its focus on explaining different animal behaviours. The television version attempted to explain human behaviour through animal activity, but frequently took the example of human activity and attempted to match animal sex onto it. Surely it would have been much more interesting just to learn what other species do for sex, rather than have to relate everything back to a certain form of human sex.

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