The penguins in Kyoto Aquarium in Japan have become a public favourite and captured the imagination of netizens because of the complexity of interpersonal relationships they exhibit. Us humans, who are still struggling to go beyond the narrative of heternormativity can learn a lot from the behaviours that are being exhibited by the penguins.

Oliver Jia, a researcher based in Japan, shared details about the inter-personal complexities that exist among the penguins on Twitter, earlier this month. The museum maintains a complex flowchart where the visitors can map the various relationships that the penguins share amongst each other. It maps the heteronomative couples i.e the ones who have been mating for a long time and raising offspring, penguins that are currently romantically involved, penguins that have undergone breakups and the ones that are more than just friends. There are also instances of polygamy, incest, same-sex relationships, and much more.

Penguins and Queerness

The dominant belief that has existed is that penguins are monogamous, they mate for life and when they lay the eggs, they are committed to each other for life. If this sounds like a manual of good marriage 101 it probably is because (gasp!) penguins are not monogamous. A section of the penguins can be heteronomative and monogamous, but it might be the exception and not the rule.

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Now, you might be wondering, what does this trivia have to do with human relationships? Human relationships, or the kind of relationships that are socially approved, are based on heteronormativity and monogamy. In such relationships, two people of the opposite sex live together and raise a family together. We have projected our norms and ideals of relationships on the animal world and expect animals to be monogamous, one of them being penguins.

There is a common story that has been used to justify same-sex relationships among humans- when two opposite sex penguins abandon an egg after mating season is over; the egg is then taken care of by same-sex penguins that are living together. The flowchart in the Kyoto Aquarium exhibits the same tendencies. Penguins have biological fathers and they have social fathers who raise and help them socialize in the ecosystem.  Hence, in a world, where it is a social taboo for a same-sex couple to venture into public, there are penguins who have been living together and raising children.

Monogamy is another idea that is valued and prized by society. However, there are many queer identities, like those who identify as polyamorous, the ability to experience attraction to multiple people irrespective of gender, which challenges the idea of monogamy. Like the penguins who mate with multiple partners at the same time or at different times, humans are also capable, perhaps even desirous, of having multiple partners. Polyamory is considered to be ethical non-monogamy where humans exhibit their desire to love more than one person at a time.  Much like penguins who have multiple partners, the ones they mate with, and the ones they are romantically involved with and the ones who are more than just friends.

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Why It Matters?

There are many examples in the animal kingdom which directly challenge our prized institution of heteronormativity. The complex flow chart of penguins and their saga of breakups and relationship being one of them. One of the penguins in the Kyoto aquarium has left a string of broken hearts in just one year, where she went through six relationships in that period. A classic sign of heartbreak among penguins is their refusal to eat. Now don’t we all know a heart breaker? Haven’t we all felt like withdrawing from the world at the first sign of heartbreak? After all, we are just another species of animals and exhibit the same, if not more, complex flowchart of interpersonal relationships.

Priyanka Chakrabarty is an intern with SheThePeople.TV. The views expressed are the author’s own.

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