12 January 2015
ByAppeared in BioNews 785
'Darwin, you've got some explaining to do!'
The cry of overtly gay, hands-on-hips Bryce Sage flamboyantly sets the scene for this documentary's serious subject of enquiry - how has homosexuality, a trait you'd reasonably expect to reduce the chances of reproduction, survived generations of history, and how did it evolve in the first place?
The film follows Bryce on a fabulous expedition across the globe, as he seeks answers from top scientists.
He immediately gets stuck into laboratory work by undertaking penile plethysmography and a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) brain scan. Although his playful comments provide mild entertainment ('Are we sure this [penile circumference instrument] is going to be big enough?'), Bryce's arousal pattern and MRI results are unsurprising in that he perfectly fits the homosexual profile. It might have been more interesting to see how his results compared to someone of another gender or sexual orientation.
The film takes its time to get down to the evolutionary research, but when it does, it doesn't disappoint. Bryce interviews a range of experts from zoologists to anthropologists, each with their own intriguing theories as to why homosexuality has survived natural selection.
Bryce's trip to Samoa was particularly fascinating. Although Samoan communities don't openly accept gay men, they acknowledge a 'third-gender people' called the fa'afafine. The fa'afafine devote significant amounts of their time and money to helping extended family, and are often seen as 'nurturing uncles'. Professor Paul Vasey explains that this altruistic behaviour is an example of kin selection, which results in the male and female relatives of fa'afafine having more children than those of straight men.
About halfway through the documentary, Bryce goes to California to talk to a psychologist about gay behaviours and stereotypes. Although still interesting, I think this was a bit of a digression from the rest of the film; I didn't learn anything about the evolution of homosexuality by watching leotard-clad Bryce dance with another man.
'Survival of the Fabulous' unfortunately fails to look at sexual or gender orientations beyond that of the homosexual male, probably because of its presentation of Bryce's journey as much as a documentary.
Some may also dislike its promotion of gay stereotypes; besides having a very camp presenter, the documentary features some rather terrible animations of gay cavemen sporting pink loincloths.
Nevertheless, 'Survival of the Fabulous' is an entertaining and lively documentary, mixing scientific fact and conjecture with a personal narrative. Just be prepared to endure the energy of effeminate Bryce!