Dawn of the patriarchy of the apes

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Yesterday I watched Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, sequel to Rise of the Planet of the Apes and presumed prequel to Day of the Dawn of the Consolidation of the Rise of the Planet of the Apes. I have some thoughts. If you are avoiding spoilers, please look away now.

Here be spoilers.

OK. So. HOW AWESOME WAS THAT?? Caesar totally rode a horse. He rode a horse and he totally told the humans off. He and the other apes built their own society. They taught each other sign language and spoken language and written language! Most humans don’t bother with all three. I loved the graphics (aside from one awkward establishing shot in a final battle scene where the apes look embarrassingly CGI, and my disbelief was entirely un-suspended). I particularly loved Caesar. What a babe. Hunkiest ape this side of the rise of the planet. And Caesar has a team of pretty cool, complex ape characters with which to interact. Overall, an impressive film.

I just, I have a little note. A small thing, really. You’ll probably laugh. But WHERE THE HELL were all the female characters? Female apes, female humans – missing! In the ape colony, we only meet one female ape – Caesar’s wife – who, I found out from the credits, was named Cornelia, although we are never given her name during the movie. In her brief on-screen time, Cornelia fulfills the female-movie-character trifecta of giving birth, providing motive for her man, and looking pretty while dying. Apparently she was played by Judy Greer. You wouldn’t know, since she doesn’t have any spoken lines and she mainly lays there looking ill. A waste of the vocal talent that brings us the unforgettable Cheryl Tunt on Archer. And yet I have read entertainment blogs actually heralding Greer as a “leading lady” in this film. Really? Silent, absent, and mostly uninvolved in the plot? But then, I guess this is what leading roles often look like for women.

There is one other female character in Dawn of the Rise of the Planet of the Apes: Dark of the Moon. She is a human woman, who – you guessed it – is the wife of the other leading man. The man who isn’t an ape. Good, so we’ve got one woman on each side of the human-ape war, and they each exist to show that the lead male has ‘something to fight for’. The human female (played by the way-underused Keri Russell – here you can see this leading lady describe her role in the film as “miniscule”) is named Ellie, and is listed on Wikipedia as a “former nurse” even though I had the impression she was a doctor, and she definitely performs surgery during the movie. During some staid exposition at the beginning of the film, we are casually informed that, before society crumbled, she worked at the Center for Disease Control. Sounds like Dr Disease-Expert Ellie would be pretty essential to establishing a new society in a post-Simian-Flu world. But instead we only see her administering hugs to Malcolm – the true leader – and asking him for permission to do things. (He denies her permission, by the way, because “I need you here” to care for his son from a previous marriage.) Why is Malcolm the preferential authority in the struggle to save humanity? Well, he’s an architect. And … tall? Have you heard how deep his voice is?

“Get behind me, Doctor, I have a degree in architecture.”

Yes, the gender imbalance in this movie greatly annoyed me. It is part of a larger problem with this film, where the human characters are not satisfactorily fleshed out (thus Malcolm’s role as leader of the humans is never adequately explained, while Caesar’s leadership status is easily established by his superior intellect, wisdom and physical strength). It annoyed me beyond all reason that the female apes were all wearing pretty, spangly, beaded headdresses that practically blinded them. I know this was probably intended as an aesthetic link to the 2001 reboot Planet of the Apes, but in that movie the male apes wore adornments as well. Giving only the female apes impractical jewelry just seemed to reinforce their status as decoration.

I don’t even know where the human females were. Apparently the human population had been thinned to near-extinction by the Simian Flu, while survivors of that were killed in post-apocalyptic wars. Surely, if we assume that men are usually responsible for wars and for fighting them (given all we know about history), there would be more women left than men. Even now, women represent a slight majority in the population. I’ve never understood why dystopian films have so much trouble imagining a landscape with women in it. Or why, with civilisation apparently dismantled and society being rebuilt, patriarchal structures have survived with ease. In the recent past, global wars have accidentally resulted in liberation for women, because with the dominant male class off killing each other, women have had to step into new roles. This is the kind of stuff that I find interesting about stories set in post-conflict societies: how new interpersonal dynamics emerge under unfamiliar circumstances.

We don’t get any such insights into the human world of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, but the ape society has evolved beyond recognition. They have chopped down trees, built a permanent home, even set up literacy classes. However, they haven’t socially gone any further than “Get all the females and young to safety”. OK, in a battle situation, I could understand “Get all the mothers and their young to safety”. But all the females? I mean, the apes were off to fight humans, right? And as a human, I find female chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans pants-wettingly terrifying. Any one of them could rip my arm out of my socket – I know it, they know it. Why weren’t there female apes in the battle? You could tell me that, in real-life chimp society, it is the males who fight the wars. You could tell me that ape society appears to follow a patriarchal hierarchy. This is all true. But this is a science-fiction film in which chimps are living alongside gorillas and orangutans, have domesticated the horse, and can talk. Even though chimps do not have a vocal tract. They also fire assault rifles. You telling me we can’t stretch the imagination to a female second-in-command for Caesar?

You could ask me why any of this matters, if it’s just a work of fiction. I’m tired of fielding that question. It matters. I’m over watching films where there are hardly any people who look like me, and all they do is hug the men and tell them they’re brave. There’s more to my life than that, and I’d like to see women in movies have more to their lives than that, too. Even the ape ones.


12 thoughts on “Dawn of the patriarchy of the apes

  1. Absolutely! Great article, I was so disappointed in the continued sexism of the film. Missed so much of the charm of the originals.

  2. Yeah I had these issues with this film as well, I was more annoyed than normal because Chimps in the wild when they have turf wars the female take part, in fact its the females who choose the alpha male and throw them out when they get to old. So half of Caesar’s head council should have been female and when they went in to battle or to hunt the female chimps would have been by the males side. This was Hollywood literally sticking sexist ideals on nature and doing zero study in to real wild chimpanzees and how their social structure actuality works because its not the same as humans and being genetically modified would not change this and Ceasar despite being brought up by humans would still have to follow these rules and this is true of any chimp raised by people who are put back in to the groups in zoos, they have to learn the social order because it will allows them to become an alpha one day. Its sad because if this female had been gender equal I think it would have been an amazing film.

  3. Amen. Imposing gender-based sexist ideals onto ape society made absolutely no sense. I have no idea how that line made it past editing. Sexism in movies is bad enough. Sexism in science fiction movies is incomprehensible and yet all too common. Even the 2009 Star Trek reboot edited out Pike’s female first officer and the Vulcan leader from the sixties!

    1. I had no idea about those edits in the Star Trek reboot! I recently rewatched (rage-watched) Star Trek Into Darkness and it drove me crazy the way they included that gratuitous “Carol in her underwear” scene.

      1. It’s more accurate to say that in ‘the Cage’, Pike’s first officer was a woman but they did not include her in the reboot so that Spock could be a more senior officer (although it isn’t clear why he needed to be first officer). When they rescued the Vulcan Elders, Vulcan leader, T’Pau (if she is intended to be T’Pau) is silent to give Sarek a larger role. Similarly, the original female lead, Janice Rand, was removed to make way for Chekov, as one of the ‘Big Seven’ from the later movies, and because the ‘girlfriend’ role was being folded into Uhura, and what else could Yeoman Rand be good for? The answer is in Harlan Ellison’s graphic novelisation of ‘the City on the Edge of Forever’. The portrayal of women in the franchise is just carelessly implemented. They didn’t do it deliberately but it was a side effect of moving male characters that they thought were cooler to the front and centre. They displayed a depressing lack of imagination when it came to updating the women.

        I think the fact that the infamous Carol scene was inserted as a visual treat for young men says a lot about how dated are the writers’ attitudes towards women are the equivalence of the sexes in a futuristic utopia. The Battlestar Galactica reboot was far more even-handed in its distribution of characters.

      2. I’m not so sure about “they didn’t do it deliberately” because moving female characters aside in favour of male characters is deliberate, whether or not they’re high-fiving each other and saying “Yeah! Women suck!!” while they do it. But wow, this is a really interesting breakdown of the Star Trek reboot and how they reshuffled characters. Thanks! (And BSG is great, any chance to talk/think about BSG.)

      3. As an aside, Geena Davis is doing a speech in London tomorrow on this very subject, including the representation of women in children’s tv. I also just started watching You, Me, and the Apocalypse on Sky One and, hats off to them, they seem to be doing a great job of featuring a wide variety of women in varied roles.

  4. Excellent post! I do postgrad study into anthropology and primatology (human evolution studies) and I love these kidns of movies, except the flipping sexism, and the bad primatology. I watched with dropped jaw.

    Koba is a primatology disaster. He is a bonobo and as such would be extremely submissive to females and quietly intellectual with greater demonstrations of empathy. yes, he is messed up but he acts like a male Pan troglodyte, not a Pan paniscus. As such, female bonobos would be equally joining strategy meetings with male common chimps, as species alphas. Regardless of species, all females in this movie do as they are told and bow their heads to the males.

    So many male action constructs are expressed through this film. My theory area is questioning unsupportable constructs of whiteness, ableism and patriarchy in evolutionary narratives. I can have an absolute field day with this movie. I thought BBC’s Walking with Cavemen was bad. This is a new level! I wonder if Frans de Waal has seen it and what he thinks.

    1. So glad you liked the post! I’m fascinated to hear a more informed primatology take on the movie. I love these sorts of movies too, but when the filmmakers shoehorn in these gender constructs it is just cringe-worthy. Your theory area sounds fascinating and I would love to read any of your work if you can point me to it. 🙂

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