Friday, April 29, 2011

Birds of paradise

Express Staff Writer

Marlon Brando rides into a small town on a motorcycle dressed in black leather and looking for trouble. He encounters a local "square" who asks him what he is rebelling against.

"What ya got?" asks Brando with a mischievous grin.

The 1953 movie "The Wild One" was meant to be a morality tale, showing the tragic consequences of lawlessness in Middle America. Instead Brando's brooding style became a call of the wild for generations of young women in America.

Sexy bad boys are an abiding fear of parents of teenage girls, especially on prom night. Yet that only seems to make them more desirable, probably because they display the courage to defy authority without the fear of consequences.

Society needs its rebels just as it needs heroes, but rebels need a cause.

On the last weekend of ski season I saw a kid bomb down the top half of the Warm Springs run on a snowboard with a can of beer in his hand, laughing all the way. He didn't take a single turn to slow down. It was bold, reckless and breathtaking to watch. Several of us stood transfixed, waiting to see if he would survive the free fall, which he did.

"Who was that guy?" I heard one woman ask breathlessly.

"Who cares?" said her date, somewhat disingenuously.

I suspect daredevils become most desirable at just the moment when their DNA seems most likely to be removed from the gene pool.

In the rain forests of New Guinea there are bird species that depend exclusively on fashion, rather than feats of derring-do, to woo choosy females. Because birds of paradise have lived for millions of years in the absence of natural predators, keeping a low profile in the jungle lost its evolutionary advantages eons ago. Instead of developing fighting skills or defensive mechanisms, male birds of paradise instead evolved elaborate plumage and bizarre mating ritual dances to convince the relatively nondescript females of the species to partake in amorous activities. They transform themselves by puffing up their brightly colored iridescent feathers into odd shapes, sometimes swinging upside down from tree limbs to gain the attention of their dun-colored mates.

Birds of paradise represent an extreme example of the desperate measures some creatures must take in order to get the girl. (I tried a similar ploy once with a pair of plaid bell-bottoms from the Gold Mine thrift store, and it just didn't work out at all.)

Our world may be more complex than life in the treetops of New Guinea, but young humans are likewise compelled to read cues, judge potential and make choices based on a combination of learning and instinct. These choices are based to some extent on the shifting tides of fashion in our popular culture. And fashion is all about desire.

When I was a kid, hippies were cool and TV broadcasters wore long hair. Following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, women swooned over firemen. Gangsta rappers have huge appeal across America today. Presumably females also like plumbers, schoolteachers and bike mechanics, because they have not yet become extinct, either.

Some people might think that "diamonds are a girl's best friend." But if every girl in America saw the documentary "Inside Job," it would be hard for an investment banker to even get a date.

The sexual zeitgeist of each generation drives another hero up the pop charts, but the rules remain the same: We will go on caring deeply about what the opposite sex (with some obvious exceptions) cares about us.

Even Henry Kissinger did. He once said that "power is the ultimate aphrodisiac." But what kind of world would we live in if only the powerful found love?

The females of our species, just like the birds of paradise of New Guinea, have a power all their own, the power to define cool with a wink and a nod. They should use this power judiciously because love not only makes the world go around, it may also shape the future in ways we may never guess.

Tony Evans:

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