National Emergency Medicine Assoc. (NEMA)



a special program of the National Emergency Medicine Association (NEMA) 

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Week: 610.7

Guest: Desmond Morris, Author, The Naked Ape

Producer, The Human Animal, The Human Sexes, PBS, TLC

Topic: Gender roles, history & future

Host/Producer: Steve Girard

NEMA: Today’s world is increasingly complex, and not only in terms of communication, transportation and commerce...but in the one area in which we’ve excelled since the dawn of our civilization - male / female relationships. Our dyadic nature is what propels all other areas of our lives, and some would say that society’s craziness is in large part due to the lack of definition in male / female roles, responsibilities and goals. Men and women no longer know how to deal with each other, because the basic reasons we’ve prospered through the millennia are not as prevalent today. Today, we’re talking with Desmond Morris, author of many books...the most famous is The Naked Ape...and the producer of the acclaimed television series, The Human Animal...and his new series, The Human Sexes, which begins its premiere run on The Learning Channel February 2nd through the 4th....

MORRIS: The thing that we have to realize about prehistoric society was that the men had to go off hunting, the women were in the center of society...they were organizing most aspects of society...and the men were peripheral. They would disappear off for several days on the hunt and then come back with the meat. In the meantime, the women would be organizing society, looking after the children, collecting fruit, vegetables, building the huts, dealing with the cooking, dealing with most aspects of society...and were tremendously important. So there’s an equality of the sexes, even though they had very different roles. Men would make decisions about what kind of flint axe to use, what sort of weapon to have. Women would make all the other sort of decisions in society. So there was a division of labor. Now, in that situation, it was very important that there was a strong emotional attachment between the men and the women, because, after all, if the women treated the men badly, then they wouldn’t come back after the hunt, they would stay out and eat the food. If, on the other hand, it was the other way around, and the men treated the women badly, then when the men came back, the women wouldn’t be there. Why should they wait if these men had treated them badly? So, the hunter-gatherer system that was our way of life for a million years, wouldn’t work unless the men liked the women and the women liked the men. Because if they’re going to split up, they’re going to come back together again, and that meant that there was not only a balance between the sexes, not only a difference between the sexes, but a strong emotional attachment between the sexes. And then, there’s another factor...that when the men came back, they’d been on the hunt, they’d proved their masculinity, they’d been brave, they’d taken risks. So, when they came back, they didn’t have anything to prove, and you could then see the gentle side of men. And we found all this when we went, as we were making this series called ‘The Human Sexes", we went to tribes still living like this in Africa, and we found that when the men came back from the hunt, they would play with their children, they would be loving to their wives, they would be gentle and kind. Because they’d already been tough and rough out there on the hunt. They had nothing to prove. The difficulty now, and one of the problems we have in relationships between men and women today is that when men come back after a day’s work, they haven’t had excitement, they haven’t proved themselves, they haven’t taken risks, they’ve perhaps been given a rough time...they’d been bullied or humiliated. And so, when they come home, they’re not in a gentle mood, and what happens is that they start to take it out on their wives and their family. And as we all know...far too many cases of battered wives. And that, I think is the change that has taken place, and if we look back on prehistoric society, we can learn a lot from them about what is the ideal relationship between men and women, and how it’s gone wrong in so many cases.

NEMA: So, what you point to is something at the current core of at least American society now...that women have every right and purpose to be out working and doing the things that men have been trying to do in today’s civilized society....

MORRIS: Well, what has happened, of course, is that women in the 20th century have tried to get back to that primeval equality, which was taken away from them in earlier centuries. We, in the 19th century, women were treated very much as possessions, and they rebelled against that because their birthright is to have equality with males. But, unfortunately, in getting back that equality, they have done it by saying, "We’re the same as men, and we’re going to behave like men, and we’re going to go into business like men"...when in fact, men and women are very different. And the result is they’ve given themselves a very tough challenge, because it’s extremely difficult for women today to have a major role in business or commerce, or politics, or any other aspect of major importance in society, and at the same time to rear a family of children. That’s a terribly difficult task for her, and we’ve devoted an entire program to what we call, ‘The Maternal Dilemma’ because they still have strong maternal urges, and want to rear a family. And I’m afraid the rebellion has to go a step has to actually see a change in the structure of society that enables women to do both at once. And that’s something that has to be...that’s a problem that has yet to be solved, if women are going to get equality back without losing their femininity and their maternal satisfaction.

NEMA: Used to be that men lived longer than a whole...and that has changed for various reasons....will that change again because women are trying to do so much more?

MORRIS: Well, it’s very interesting that the change took place at the beginning of this century. In the Victorian times, in the last century, women didn’t have such long life, of course, because there were so many terrible birth practices. Women died in childbirth...we didn’t understand in those days the natural way for giving birth, and problems of hygiene weren’t properly worked out. And so, women were dying off far more in that way and that made it appear that men lived longer than women. Then, in this century, when that situation was improved, it turned out that women were living longer than men, and on average, women in your country and in mine live seven or eight years longer than men on average. So there is a biological difference. And when we looked for a reason for that, and we looked at many different cultures, we found that one of the most important roles that older women have is as grandmothers helping the young mothers. Now, a lot of that has been lost today, because families get broken up. But in earlier times, the grandmothers were tremendously important, and the longer lifespan of the females meant that they were better able to help the young mothers with their maternal burden, and that was something which the young mothers needed and welcomed. But that seems to be the reason...that grandmothers are more valuable for looking after grandchildren than grandfathers are.

NEMA: Now you’ve also looked into something called gender exaggeration...and in today’s world, it can be seen in penile enlargement...or breast implants, even for women who are in the corporate boardrooms, who decide that they need some enhancement of their attractiveness or self esteem....

MORRIS: One of the things that has happened, of course, is that women have in some ways tried to be more masculine as a way of joining the males...but there’s still a very deep seated urge among both men and women to display their own gender signals, and indeed to exaggerate them. When we went to other cultures, we found some very strange exaggerations, like the giraffe-necked women...because women have longer, more slender necks than men, so the giraffe-necked women in Burma make them incredible long...put 32 brass rings around the necks to make them longer and longer. And one can find exaggerations like that in many different cultures. In our own cultures, we do several very strange things. The latest thing is to have ‘bee-sting’ lips, because female lips are larger than male lips, and so you can be more feminine by having tissue put into your lips to make them pout. And this is being done now as a very standard operation for ‘bee-sting’ lips, by having put tissue put into them to make them much bigger. Also women have smaller noses than men, Therefore, having small nose is feminine, and having a super small nose is super-feminine, and so women have cosmetic surgery which reduces the size of the nose and makes them more feminine... The same with breast implants to make the breasts protrude more, which is a feminine quality...and women are still in our culture having these exaggerations done. Or if they don’t go that far, at least they will wear a bra that will make the breasts protrude more...even if they don’t have operations. Now the female bodybuilder....she does something quite extraordinary...because as I’m sure you know, women have 25% body fat, and men have only 12 and a half % fat in their body... so when the female body builder wants to increase her muscle power, she becomes increasingly masculine in her shape and her appearance, and indeed, she stops menstruating at a certain point because she has changed from a curvaceous body with a lot of fat, to an angular body with a lot of muscle, and what has happened now with some of them is they’ve had breast implants to try and get the breast back, and that looks very strange indeed. Where you have a female bodybuilder with protruding breasts, and the contradictions they are getting wrapped up in are causing serious problems for them, because they are doing things to their body which are not really appropriate for their gender.

NEMA: Let’s talk about "The Human Sexes" premise that the success of the human species is directly related to our playfulness with each other....

MORRIS: ...we evolved as a species that kept childhood playfulness and extended it right through adult life. And one of the secrets of good relationships between adult men and women is to retain that playfulness in the relationship. That’s why humor is so important in any marriage, and if you lose your sense of humor and your sense of fun, you find it much more difficult to maintain a loving relationship.

NEMA: Our thanks author and producer Desmond Morris...his new series, The Human Sexes, begins February 2nd on The Learning Channel.

SPOT: 15 years in the prevention of heart disease, stroke and trauma - The National Emergency Medicine Association. This show is just part of what NEMA does. We send out millions of pieces of prevention information to people around the country, give grants to organizations in research, public information and emergency services, and have been instrumental in the creation and expansion of the Chest Pain Emergency Room movement. To play a role, call 800-332-6362.

NEMA: Thanks for joining us for today’s program. If you have any comments or suggestions, contact this station. Or visit our home page at:

...for a look at transcripts of this or past programs, or to find out more about the National Emergency Medicine Association. I’m Steve Girard at The Heart of the Matter.