Bitch! An homage to those of us fortunate enough to have the upper hand

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Women Outside, Fall 1998

Bitch! An homage to those of us fortunate enough to have the upper hand
By Mike Grudowski

Everyone has heard of nature's most notorious femmes fatales, the black widow and the praying mantis. Their habit of snarfing down their men before, after, or even during the act of coupling vicariously sates the darkest impulses of every red-blooded girl-next-door. But over the decades, our friends the wildlife biologists have observed all manner of other aggressive, spiteful, and endearingly nasty male-bashing behaviors in females of various species, whose cyclonic mood swings can make Joan Crawford look like The Little Mermaid. Several millennia ahead of their time, these critters were violent radical feminists when violent radical feminism was just a twinkle in its human mothers' eyes.

The Deep-Sea Anglerfish
Life among several species of angler starts out sweetly enough: small fry darting about, half an inch long, wild and free. Then, alas, the youngsters buy a one-way ticket to codependency hell. Each male sniffs out a female and latches onto her with his teeth — permanently. Soon his eyes weaken, his mouth fuses with her chassis, and their circulatory systems unite, she providing him — sometimes several hims — with food and oxygen. Meanwhile, she balloons to several feet longer and several thousand times heavier and more gruesome than her man, resembling either a finned Jabba the Hut or a lasagna gone horribly awry. The puzzled male, now little more than a fanny-pack with sperm, has nothing to do but wonder what became of the waif he knew in school.

The Scorpion
Scorpion amore begins as a whirlwind. The infatuated arachnids face each other, claw in claw, tails curled, scuttling back and forth like a semitranslucent Fred and Ginger. "The little forelegs flutter in feverish caresses," wrote the nineteenth-century French entomologist Jean Henri Fabre. "What are they saying to each other?" As it turns out, the female is saying, "Sweet Jesus, am I hungry!" The morning after they've mated, Fabre observed, "the little male is by her side, but slain, and more or less devoured. He lacks the head, a claw, a pair of legs ... When night returns, she goes out ... to give him a decent funeral, that is to finish eating him." A nascent theory that the female then belches and asks what's on HBO has yet to be confirmed.

The Spotted Hyena
Refreshingly, the female hyena — Crocuta crocuta — never pretends to be gentle or affectionate; she's a raging, growling, sharp-toothed, ill-tempered, unholy vixen from the get-go. Hyenas rove around sub-Saharan Africa in female-dominated clans like packs of snarling biker chicks, with the biggest, butchest mamas calling the shots. Clans sometimes mob-attack rival clans. To top it off, an apparent oversupply of male hormones has endowed the ladies with all the equipment one normally expects to find on a male. So how do you tell males from females? Easy: The females are larger. A male who for some reason wants to mate with one of these charmers approaches apologetically, bowing to the ground and pawing. If she responds aggressively to his Don Knotts-style advances, the male bolts at once — presumably to the nearest monastery.

The Greater Rhea
A textbook case of guys getting stuck with the play-now-pay-later plan, this time on the pampas of northern Argentina. He — up to 50 pounds, flightless, with plumes historically harvested for feather dusters — cockily gathers as many as 15 concubines at once. Each of them returns to his communal nest on several occasions, depositing up to 50 eggs. Polygamous bliss seems imminent, but then the First Wives Club lowers the boom: Every female takes off, leaving the male with the eggs and all future parenting woes, while the gals zero in on some other hapless schlub so they can pull the same stunt on him. Each female repeats this as many as six times per season. Ornithologists call this "sequential polyandry" or, sometimes, poetic justice.

The Northern Elephant Seal
As winter breeding season begins, the biggest, brawniest male Mirounga angustirostris are rolling in stud-farm clover. Swimming ashore along the Pacific coast of California and points south, the slovenly, Durante-schnozzed bulls (weighing as much as two tons) compete for the attention of the womenfolk, scowling and honking and occasionally coming to blows. The victorious alpha-slob then forms a harem of perhaps dozens of females and embarks on a days-long mating binge, coming back for helping after helping at the Smorgasbord of Love. Then, just when he collapses from exhaustion, convinced that he's The Man, the females change tactics and shack up with the younger, smaller bulls that up until now have watched from the sidelines — the junior varsity, if you will — leaving the original bevy-master fagged out and perhaps thinking up bad verse about the fleeting nature of romance.

More at Outside

Elsewhere on the Web