As a child – okay, even still as an adult – I couldn’t get enough of adventure stories with animals at the center, whether in text or on the screen. Jack London’s Call of the Wild comes to mind, or Disney’s The Jungle Book. More recently, books like Bonobo Handshake, by Vanessa Woods (see my review) have captivated me. The newest book to be added to this list is Mireya Mayor’s book published last spring, Pink Boots and a Machete: My Journey From NFL Cheerleader to National Geographic Explorer.
Of course, books like Bonobo Handshake and Pink Boots and a Machete aren’t really like The Jungle Book at all, and that’s a good thing. Not only do they contain a strong narrative and interesting characters, but science is central in these books (sometimes, science is even a character itself, in some ways).
Pink Boots and a Machete is the story of Mireya Mayor, a “girly-girl” and yet also a “tom-boy” who was raised by three Cuban women in Miami. She was just as interested in things like fashion and make-up as she was chasing animals and collecting bugs and wading through creeks. The story is essentially an autobiography written in a very casual “bloggy” sort of way, with an often subtle dose of good humor. She invites the reader along for the ride as we follow her metamorphosis from from Cuban girl in Miami to National Geographic Explorer, with a stops along the way as an NFL cheerleader for the Miami Dolphins and a TV star. She presents herself as both an expert and as a “regular person,” something that is very hard to do. There’s no jargon here, and no pretense.
Busy with school and life and cheerleading, Mayor left her science course requirements for the end of her college career, when she found herself in an anthropology course. Through some combination of random chance and perhaps a little bit of luck, she found herself drawn into the world of primatology. She quickly realized that most of the graphics in her textbooks were line drawings rather than photos: why is that? “At a time when we had set foot on the moon,” she writes, “many places here on Earth had yet to be discovered.” In a very real way, that course changed her life. She continues:
After class one day, I nervously approached my professor – who looked me up and down, stopping at what I’m sure she thought was an all-too-revealing top and too-short skirt, along with platform shoes – and began to ask her a question. Before the words came out of my mouth, she said, “I saw you on TV. You’re a cheerleader.” I thought I would die. She’d seen me wearing the little uniform and shaking my pom-poms. All this before handing me back the assignment I’d turned in late as a result of that Monday night game.
I gathered my courage and said, “Dr. Taylor, I think I would like to become a primatologist. How do I do that?” I immediately realized how silly I must have sounded, but without missing a beat, she replied, “You need to develop a research question, formulate a hypothesis, and apply for a grant. There’s actually a university grant for women in the sciences, and the deadline is in a couple of weeks.” Noticing that she had answered my question without so much as cracking a smile, I felt like a scholar for the first time.
Dr. Taylor then asked me about my “other” life as a cheerleader, which had obviously intrigued or puzzled her for some time. As it turned out, Doc, as she soon let me call her, was a huge Dolphins fan. Despite her stern exterior, we shared another couple of interests: shopping and shoes.
And so began our lifelong friendship. I soon found myself hanging out less with friends, opting instead to spend hours in her office.
She went on her first expedition, funded by National Geographic, shortly after that, and started graduate school in anthropology. Since then, she’s been nominated for Emmy Awards (twice), become a National Geographic Emerging Explorer, starred in two TV shows (“Wild Nights with Mireya Mayor,” and History Channel’s “Expedition Africa: Stanley & Livingstone”), and become a Fulbright Scholar and a National Science Foundation Fellow. Along the way, she’s conducted and published a ton of peer-reviewed research, and discovered and formally described the smallest primate species currently known, the mouse lemur Microcebus mittermeieri.
And it hasn’t been easy. She writes about getting chased down by silverback gorillas and elephants, by getting bitten by scores of bugs and snakes, becoming very sick while on expedition and having to be airlifted to safety, and surviving a plane crash!
But this isn’t a book about discovering lemurs or getting chased by elephants. It’s a book about being a female scientist who is equal parts female and scientist:
Because of my cheerleader background, which everyone seemed to know about, in graduate school I was graded more harshly and initially treated like an outcast. To me it seemed that some of my professors wouldn’t give me the time of day and looked at me with amusement, as if to say, “Cute of you to ask and I love your dress, but you’re in the wrong field.”
Perhaps out in the jungle of Madagascar, there would be nobody to judge her except for the lemurs. Unfortunately, this attitude existed even in the field both among researchers and among TV crews:
I overheard one scientist turn to my producer, just five minutes after meeting me, and ask him, “Is she here because she has a pretty face?” I felt the urge to both thank her and smack her. I heard another say she would have preferred a male host to interview her, as my “look” would now force her to have to shave…And it wasn’t just the researchers. It seemed I wasn’t even safe from a few of the television producers, some of whom remarked on my looks before they even said hello. Rather than focusing on my experience or noticing my firm grip as we shook hands, they’d say things like, “How do we make you look more like a scientist?” Did my credentials not speak for themselves? I was a scientist.
And then of course, there are the TV critics:
Here’s an excerpt from one: “the show can’t decide whether to treat Mayor as an expert, or as the title and location hint, a bit of a sex symbol.” He then added, “But throughout the show she wears a wool cap and drab clothes that just beg us to take her seriously.” This was in contrast to the observation of another critic, who wrote, “Explorers require rugged gear, the sort Indiana Jones girds himself in. Then there’s Mireya Mayor, a sexy blond explorer. She fills out a tank top nicely.” I can’t win. If I wear tank tops, I’m vying for attention. If I cover up, it’s only because I want to be taken seriously. Regardless, the first critic lost all credibility when he called my clothes drab. They were both hip and designer.
As Bora pointed out in his review, this is a book that ought to be read by women both old and young, because it contains a very important message about doing what you want to do and ignoring the naysayers, both male and female, along the way. But in some ways, it is even more important for men, both young and old, to read it. There is no place in science (or really, anywhere!) for the sexist attitudes and snide remarks that Mayor recounts through the book. What does it mean to say, “you don’t look like a scientist?” Why do New York Times reporters insist on calling her things like “the female Indiana Jones?” Showering in waterfalls and bathing in rivers is indeed an important part of what happens on expedition – so why haven’t we ever seen Jack Hanna splashing around in the Zambezi River? Why does it bother some people so much to encounter someone who is both attractive and intelligent? Nobody should have to face the choice of looking “more scientific” or “less feminine.”
If there is one central theme of the book, it it this: that this sort of juxtaposition that many might find strange or odd – the mixture of the stereotypically feminine and the stereotypically masculine – is, well, not that strange or odd at all.
Secrets of the Universe: Past, Present, FutureX