This scene from the 1931 film Blonde Venus is a perfect illustration of a recurrent motif in Hollywood films: the pairing of women with gorillas. The woman/gorilla pair has provided Hollywood a vehicle by which women can be exploited as spectacle and contained by the male social order. The pairing is used to illustrate the patriarchal belief that women are primitive and dangerous, and that, when uncontrolled by the patriarchy, they threaten to undermine and harm the (male) social order. This pairing is not exclusive to one genre or period, and its repeated use has been instrumental in imparting the same patriarchal containment theory on generations of film audiences.
The films considered here span a range of years and genre types: King Kong (1933), Mighty Joe Young (1949), Gorilla at Large (1954), and Gorillas in the Mist (1988). Each film reflects the male social order's fear of women as forces capable of undermining the patriarchy, and each film satisfies the male order's desire to contain and control female sexuality. These films pair women with gorillas by showing them to be similar, and then demonstrate how that pairing threatens to violate the heterosexual union1 upon which, due to the control it affords men over women, the patriarchy's authority depends. Furthermore, the films punish the woman/gorilla pairs with a severity proportional to the violation they have committed.
|Kong arrives at the sacrificial altar|
Kong is certainly identified as "other." Like all the gorillas in these films, he is, of course, non-human. Kong is also atypical of his own kind: he is impossibly large for a gorilla, and, as far as the film reveals, he is the only giant gorilla in the world. His habitat, Skull Island, also makes him different, as it is far removed from the civilized world (indeed, unheard of until Denham produces his secret map). The island natives further Kong's identification as "other" by alienating him from their own order. They are terrified of him, and separate themselves2 from him with their giant wall. In this way, the natives, who are most certainly "others" themselves due to their skin color, their remoteness from civilization, and their primitive ways ("remoteness," "civilization," and "primitive" of course being relative to the white patriarchy controlling the film), establish Kong as "more other," or "wilder than the wild."
|Ann, the only woman among the ship's crew,|
is further singled out by the natives
|Kong and Ann at center stage|
|Kong takes a swipe at an attacking airplane|
|Kong falls to his death, Ann ends up with Jack|
|King Kong (1976): Dwan, swarmed by press photographers,|
and Kong's lifeless body
|King Kong (2005): Kong reunited with Ann|
Mighty Joe Young
|Jill and Joe after their first encounter with O'Hara and crew|
The film establishes Jill and Joe as an obvious team. The two are, in effect, twins. Both are raised together from early youth on the African farm. Both have similar first names, and share the same last name (Young). Jill describes Joe as "the only friend I have." The two are protective of each other: Jill stops Gregg from shooting Joe when his attempts to lasso the gorilla fail, she yells at the crowd at the Golden Safari Club when they throw bottles at Joe, and she helps Joe escape the authorities at the end of the film; Joe, in turn, threatens Gregg, O'Hara, and Crawford with a rock when he thinks they are at the farm to harm Jill, and he rescues Jill from the burning orphanage. The two work together as a team, both on stage during the tug-of-war with the strong men, and at the orphanage during the final rescue.
|Performing at O'Hara's nightclub|
What makes the relationship exceptionally close, however, is the control Jill has over Joe. Jill is the only one who can command Joe, and Joe consistently obeys her commands. She prevents Joe from hurting O'Hara after O'Hara's men attempt to capture Joe. She stops Joe's destruction of the nightclub by commanding him to return to his cage. She commands Joe during their successful rescue effort at the orphanage. By controlling Joe, then, Jill controls the female sexuality which he represents, and thus controls her own sexuality.
|Greg and Jill kiss after Jill requests he return|
to Africa with her...
|...then Joe rampages through the nightclub|
While Jill and Joe are the film's central protagonists and never fail to maintain audience sympathies, they do, as a pair, pose enough of a threat to the male social order for that order to desire their containment. Quite simply, what the pair represents is the possibility for female sexuality to exist beyond the confines of the white male social order and to escape the containment of the patriarchy. Furthermore, if Jill and Joe are both considered representatives of femininity (Jill quite obviously of its physique, Joe of its unbound sexuality), then their unmediated coupling suggests that a female/female relationship could be of equal of greater value than a male/female relationship. (While Jill eventually confesses her love for Gregg and her desire for him to return with her to Africa, her initial desire is to return to her exotic and removed homeland only with Joe.) This clearly violates the all-important institution of heterosexual coupling. The destruction which Joe causes at the nightclub also indicates, as does Kong's destructive rampage through Manhattan, that uncontrolled female sexuality (the Jill/Joe pair) is dangerous. If it is to be allowed to exist within the male social order (i.e., if it is to be allowed to exist at all), then it must come under the control of that order.
|Jill and Joe contained: by Greg's lasso, by Crawford's camera|
Gorilla at Large
|Laverne in the spotlight|
Obvious connections are made between Laverne and Goliath even before Laverne's criminal activity is revealed. The two are, like the other woman/gorilla pairs, objects of spectacle. Their act, in which Laverne performs on trapeze over Goliath, is the main attraction at the carnival (which is owned by Cy Miller, Laverne's husband, therefore clearly establishing Laverne and Goliath as objects of a male-controlled spectacle). The two have also shared a similar relationship with the gorilla's trainer, Kovacs: Laverne was once married to him, and Goliath can be controlled by no one else. Kovacs, then, has had dominance over both. The replacement of his wife with a gorilla further identifies Laverne and Goliath as similar — indeed, they are interchangeable. The two are more closely associated, however, through Laverne's crimes against the patriarchy.
|Laverne and Joey get close|
The murders Laverne commits are shown to be components of her liberated sexuality7, and that sexuality is therefore explicitly defined as dangerous to the male order. She killed Cupie because, as Kovacs explains, "she was tired of him." Her next two victims are murdered because they know of her affair with Cupie and threaten to divulge that information. Significantly, all of her victims are men.
|Laverne, wearing the gorilla costume, attacks a cop|
|Laverne is taken away|
Gorillas in the Mist
|Dian is nervously examined by the Batwa|
|Dian and Bob watch movies of Dian and the gorillas|
|Dian among the gorillas|
|Bob leaves Dian|
|Dian in bed with pictures of the gorillas|
|Terrorizing a poacher with a mock hanging|
|Bob's concerned looks suggest something is wrong with Dian|
Gorillas in the Mist completes a progression of increasingly greater crimes against the patriarchy and their correspondingly severe containments. Interestingly, this progression follows the chronology of the films' release dates. Significantly linking each film to the social attitude10 of its time would require a separate investigation, but it could be suggested that King Kong appears shortly after the free-spirited twenties (which witnessed such shocking aberrations as women who smoked, drank, and even voted!), Mighty Joe Young and Gorilla at Large appear in the decade following World War II, when fighting men were returning to a nation where wives had satisfied the demand for increased self-sufficiency and had played an important part in preserving the "home front," and Gorillas in the Mist, which posits the most threatening view of the uncontained feminine, is a product of the post-"women's lib" eighties, which marked the decisive emergence of the "career woman," to whom marriage and motherhood often became secondary considerations.
It is also worth noting that each successive film shows the woman to be more the source of the violation against the heterosexual union. Ann is set on marrying Jack — it is Kong who threatens to prevent the union. Jill desires marriage, but initially wants only to return home to Africa with Joe. Laverne's sexual desires prompt her to violate the heterosexual relationship and kill men — Goliath merely provides an alibi. Dian repeatedly resists and destroys the male/female coupling on her own, while the gorillas become helpless victims in need of her protection.
Furthermore, as the violations against the heterosexual relationship become more severe, the size of the gorillas decreases, and the gorilla-like behavior of the women increases. Kong is an impossibly large gorilla; Joe is also unnaturally large, but hardly as huge as Kong; Goliath is perhaps not impossibly big, but certainly larger than standard; and Digit and his group are of normal size (some real gorillas were used in production). Correspondingly, Ann is unwillingly abducted by Kong, Jill befriends Joe, Laverne masquerades as Goliath, and Dian becomes one of Digit's group.
Inherent in this progression is the suggestion that women are essentially bestial and primitive. Because of their evolutionary relationship to humans, gorillas represent non-evolved humanity. They reflect the primal base from which humans have evolved into a more "advanced" being. To associate women with gorillas, then, is to assign women the status of "underdeveloped," or "non-evolved." As the women in this series of films become more ape-like than their gorilla counterparts, they become increasingly "de-evolved." There is a visible retrogression in humanness from Ann to Dian: Ann is a city dweller, Jill feels at home in "darkest Africa," Laverne exhibits the behavior of a degenerate criminal, and Dian is assimilated into a gorilla group while apparently experiencing mental deterioration. By pairing women with gorillas, then, these films can more easily rationalize containment — indeed, containment seems the only way to safely integrate these primitive creatures (women and gorillas) into the male social order. That the (patriarchal) Hollywood apparatus would pair women with gorillas is entirely logical, for mankind's relationship to both is the same: once born from them, it defines them as "other" and relegates them to mere spectacle — attractive ornaments to cage and possess.
This essay was inspired by Linda Williams' "When the Woman Looks," published in Re-Vision: Essays in Feminist Film Criticism, edited by Mary Ann Doane, Patricia Mellencamp, and Linda Williams. (Frederick, MD: University Publications of America, 1984), p. 83-99.
1 . . . threatens to violate the heterosexual union upon which, due to the control it affords men over women, the patriarchy's authority depends.
This statement about the heterosexual coupling sounds kind of assuming when taken out of the classroom where these ideas were first generated, where my target audience and I had already worked out certain assumptions, and where I was therefore free to let them go without explanation in order to keep the paper within the page limit. Here, however, I think I should explain the thoughts behind this statement.
I'm basing this view of the heterosexual coupling upon the biblical tradition, where a woman takes her husband's last name upon marriage, is instructed to "honor and obey" (Genesis 3:16: "…thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee."), is a sort of property, like Jacob's wives, etc. Modern relationships have attempted to redefine this kind of thing, and it is true that the heterosexual attraction exists in both sexes of that orientation naturally, before and beyond any containment it can imply. However, the idea of the marriage bond, or contract, I think originated as a male thing, a way to make women property (like Jacob and the other patriarchs did), to contain them and their sexuality. Thus the thinking that women should remain virginal until marriage, as a way to guarantee men "unused property," despite the license afforded to men in expressions like "sow your wild oats," etc. Keeping women virginal until marriage, until they are promised to one man, is a way to contain their sexuality. They have no freedom to explore their sexuality before marriage, and after marriage any exploration is limited to the one male partner.
Also, when I talk about the guiding force behind film and society, it is the patriarchy, the white male social order, which, despite social changes (or the illusion thereof) from time to time, is still essentially based, I believe, in the above way of thinking. These attitudes, though many have sought to change and redefine them, exist today, arguably to a majority extent. Sexual discrimination still exists, as do many older attitudes about the role of women in society, the workplace, the home, etc. (The "white" in "white male social order" is another assumption, but as sexual discrimination exists today, so does racial bias. That, though, will need to be the topic of another essay.)
Sexist commentary in film is often glaringly obvious. It shows itself in the way women are fetishized on screen, often picked apart, segmented by the lens (the classic introduction of a female character starting with the feet, the camera tilting slowly up her legs in the private eye's point-of-view shot). Female nudity is as often required as a selling point for a Hollywood film as male nudity is shunned to avoid controversy and an overly-strict MPAA rating.
On a more subtle (and, to me, more interesting) level, film often slights women with the way it is constructed. Denying women point-of-view shots is one way to undermine a female character's credibility, as is ending a conversation with a man on a shot of that man, even if his reaction shouldn't matter as much as the woman's (see the example from Gorillas in the Mist later in this essay). Die-hard psychoanalytic theorists would argue that film, by its very nature, can not truly communicate to women. It has been theorized that because women do not have penises, they can not experience castration anxiety: they simply have nothing to lose. Because they have nothing to lose, they can not fully appreciate the system of loss and recuperation upon which film's pleasure is based, either narratively (boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy regains girl), structurally (one scene ends, another takes its place; one shot ends, another takes its place), or physically (one frame vanishes, another takes its place).
This is not to say that there are no feminist films, or that every movie made has a male bias (although I think that accepting the castration theory makes it tough to believe otherwise). I find it easy most times, though, to find such a bias seep through in some way, even in movies that on the surface seem to espouse feminist ideals. These gorilla movies are certainly no exception.
2 They are terrified of him, and separate themselves from him with their giant wall.
|Kong vs. a dinosaur|
The natives occupy only a small area along the shore of the island. They have built their giant wall to protect their marginal space, like soldiers come aground on enemy land, who fight to gain a few hundred feet, then put up barriers to hold their line. We assume that the wall is to protect the natives from Kong, as Kong is the only creature we ever see near the wall. Judging by the stomping and chomping with which Kong greets the natives once he breaks through the wall, the natives certainly need protection from the giant ape. But they also need protection from all those other gigantic creatures, the dinosaurs, which demonstrate a penchant for mammalian flesh in their attacks on the rescue party and on Ann.
Perhaps the natives, then, champion Kong as much as they fear him, for he is, as they are, mammalian, trying to stake a claim on an island dominated by reptiles. They certainly find the need to appease — if not worship — Kong with their offerings. As far as we know, the natives do not perform a similar ritual for the reptiles of the island, and have chosen to revere Kong, not the reptile majority. During the sacrificial ceremony, the natives dress in ape-like costumes and mimic the way gorillas walk, seemingly aware of the likeness between apes and humans, seemingly knowing that they are somehow "on the same side."
3 She is the only woman aboard . . .
|"I guess I love you," says Jack.|
(This playing-out of possession — of loss and recuperation — is really what film is all about, in many ways. Many people believe, in terms of narrative, that Hollywood movies are always structured around some variation of "boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy regains girl," where "girl" is a woman, a best male friend, a career goal, territory, etc. Some have theorized, incorporating psychoanalytic theory, that all film — Hollywood or otherwise — is pleasurable only because of the constant loss and recuperation it presents as scene replaces scene, shot replaces shot, and frame replaces frame.)
When Denham leaves the ship to look for his female lead, he says "I'm going out and get a girl for my picture, even if I have to marry one!" The joke seems to be that Denham will subject himself to marriage if it helps his film. In light of what the theatrical agent says, though, about women being afraid of Denham's reputation for courting danger, this more likely means that Denham will get a female lead even if he has to capture, contain, and drag her off!
(This has nothing to do with the "women and gorillas" topic, but when Denham says that he's going to give the audience "what they want" I think of Charlie Chaplin's original version of The Gold Rush (1925), which has a subtle and clever comment at its end about Hollywood's plot requirements, in this case the "happy ending.")
4 Ann is further identified as different on Skull Island . . .
No name is actually given to the island. There is a large mountain on the island called Skull Mountain, though.
5 . . . this force which escapes the confines of the male social order . . .
|Jack comforts Ann moments before she|
is re-abducted by Kong
6 That Joe represents unbound female sexuality, a sexuality that, through Joe, Jill controls . . .
|Jill trades her father's flashlight|
7 The murders Laverne commits are shown to be components of her liberated sexuality . . .
After Cy walks in on Laverne and Joey and tells Laverne to "Let him go," he and Laverne have the following exchange:
Laverne: There's nothing to worry about. He's just a nice kid. And by the time summer's over he'll be gone.
Cy: I wonder.
Laverne: Are you starting that again?
Cy: I was about to ask you the same thing.
Laverne: Don't be silly. Every time a new partner shows up, you go into the same routine.
Cy: I was a new partner myself once.
Laverne: Then why don't you tell Joey the deal's off? That you're too jealous to have anybody come near me?
Cy: I'm only warning you.
Laverne: You really ought to warn him. About how accidents happen...to partners. Remember Cupie!
She then picks up the Cupie doll Joey left behind and throws it at Cy. It falls to the floor with a clatter.
|Spider woman, swinger|
There are two scenes which may hint at why Laverne moves through sex partners so frequently. In the first, Joey and Laverne are practicing their new act, which requires Joey, dressed in the gorilla costume, to lift Laverne above his head. Joey is unable to lift Laverne that high. In the second, Joey proves Cy's innocence by asking Cy to open a stuck window. Cy, his arm still suffering from an old injury, is unable to lift the pane. Symbolically, the men in Laverne's life can't "get it up."
8 . . . her immediate capture and containment by the male order.
|On the loose|
Garrison acts as the patriarchy's enforcer, determined to crack the case. In the last scene, he has Laverne taken away, then points Joey toward Audrey, directing their reunion and the restoration of patriarchal order. Present in this scene, and in many of his others, is his (Freudian?) cigar.
9 "I really expected to get married, have children."
Dian seems to know that this fate threatens to consume all women, and that to avoid it she must take these seemingly extreme measures (moving to a remote mountaintop in Africa, like Jill, living with gorillas, not men).
10 . . . linking each film to the social attitude of its time . . .
Finding social "causes" for a movie is tricky, and I tend to avoid doing it. (Of course, I'm still doing it here, but that's the advantage of using these notes — I can add these disclaimers!) It could also be that the changing social role of women throughout time is not as relevant to the male order's desire to contain them as is the male order's constant psychological anxiety about women and its "need" to contain them. Again, more psychoanalytic stuff — but if women do represent to men the loss of the penis, and if at some traumatic childhood moment boys do have the realization that the penis is power, and if exposure to women actually creates anxiety by reminding men that they too could lose that source of power, then they perhaps will have this subconscious tendency to contain women anyway, whether those women are in a position of social power or not. I often wonder if it is not as involved as that, and if men are threatened by women because the male role in perpetuating the species, in creating life (the most powerful act of all), is rather slight compared to the role of women. Perhaps men have a subconscious feeling that they're not really needed beyond their role of inseminator. Who knows? Anyway, the social causes thing is just a suggestion, as finding a social cause at all — especially pinpointing one within a decade — is really tricky, if possible at all.