gender representation on King Kong

I decided to see the new King Kong while i was in Hawaii and i have to say it was an unbelievable experience. First, there was something so utterly astounding to be in a theater with mostly Hawaiians Hawaiian residents while watching a film with an atrocious and offensive depiction of Islanders as a “savage” population incapable of hygiene with their eyes rolled back in their heads. Of course, the kids in the audience didn’t seem to mind – they happily talked their way through the entire film, more ecstatic at the action scenes than anything else.

Putting the problematic racial depiction aside, what really fascinated me was the representation of gender performances intertwined with the dichotomy between nature and technology. Kong is a stand-in for pure masculinity, pure nature while Jack (and crew) represent a technologically-aided masculinity. Ann on the other hand represents pure femininity in society, but her representation in the “wild” is a complicated mix of feminine beauty and stereotypically masculine strength and will. The masculine side of her tames the beast while the feminine side brings out his vulnerabilities and nurturing side. The crew’s masculinity comes out in trying to preserve the female while Kong’s masculinity is tamed by the female.

In the wild, neither Kong nor Ann represents a cleanly gendered split while their representations in human society are, by the very nature of that society, split into a clean binary (best represented by Kong and the fake Ann’s interaction on stage back in New York). Conversely, in society, Jack is a nice metrosexual but in the wild, he develops into a pure masculine energy, determined to heroically save the girl. The crew view Ann as a completely vulnerable individual who must be saved while Kong saves her for bringing out his vulnerabilities.

Juxtaposed against the monkey vs. robot narrative, the gendered aspect is intriguing. In the wild, there’s more flexibility for complicated gender performances but when technology evens the playing field, gender must be dichotomously maintained through performance.

What i found intriguing about Jackson’s representation of gender in King Kong was that it was so over the top caricatured that it was fascinating to watch unfold (while his racial representation was disturbing at best).

Anyhow… just some random thoughts. Mostly cuz i’d love to hear others’ thoughts on the representations in the film.

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21 thoughts on “gender representation on King Kong

  1. Louis

    Welcome back!

    I haven’t seen it, and I won’t see it.

    I simply believe it is a really stupid movie. A big furious monkey that destroys things? *sick* It reminds me of that marvel guy, the big green one I can’t even remember his name. Why do guys like to watch brute force demostrations? It is simply so primitive…

  2. Mark

    Sorry, haven’t seen it either, but I’ve been reading, thinking, and writing a bit about gender lately and am extremely curious as to your comment that “when technology evens the playing field, gender must be dichotomously maintained through performance.” Why the “must?” I’m not sure if I agree or disagree (the real problem is I think it may be both) and would love a bit more explication of that statement.

    Feel free to point me to something you’ve written previously or another source, if you prefer. I have done a fair amount of work in the history and philosophy of technology and a bit in gender. Currently, I’m still of the mind that the dichotomy comes from society in a historical context (specific period) as it does seem to oscillate. Maybe technology exacerbates that dichotomy…?

    Anyway, I’d be highly interested in hearing a bit more about that statement if you feel like it. Thanks!

  3. Dori

    Although I don’t presume to speak for Native Hawaiians, as someone who has grown up in Hawaii, here are a few of my thoughts (which I’ve posted on my site along with a more involved, rambling discussion): The reason the audience didn’t respond with outrage at the over-the-top representations of “islanders” is because most people who live in Hawaii probably don’t identify with or associate themselves at all with the outlandish caricatures. The caricatures seem so fictional, distorted, and distant that there is no recognition by audience members of these representations as bearing any relation to the self–at least during an initial viewing of a movie approached as escapist entertainment.

    As a side note, most of the people in the audience were probably not Hawaiian (Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders only make up about 9% of the state’s population). Most of the theater audience would likely be Hawaii residents of various ethnic backgrounds. In Hawaii, we are quite clear about the use of “Hawaiian” to mean Native Hawaiian rather than a blanket term for all Hawaii residents.

    Thanks for the interesting perspectives, Danah–and I always enjoy reading your postings whenever I have the chance to drop by.

  4. Jon Moter

    I got the sense in the movie that Jackson was, in part, paying homage to the context that the original King Kong came out in. The movie plot was set in the depression era, so the costumes, cars, and technology were all apropriate for the time. But beyond that, it seems he was playing with the sort of gender and racial stereotypes and norms at the time as well.

    The natives especially seemed like caricatures to me. It definitely seemed over the top, and anachronistic given our current social norms. They behaved more like the Uruk Hai from Lord of the Rings than like humans. I imagine their purpose was to highlight the disparity between the island and the rest of the world. Here was a place where civilization barely occured, people are barely human, and dinosaurs roam the land. To me, the natives were props more than characters.

    Regarding gender, Ann’s character seemed to explore femininity throughout the movie. She used her beauty and sex appeal for her work, but drew the line at working as a stripper. She was girlish and timid when meeting Jack, but became strong and fearless with Kong.

    For me, I had a hard time engaging with the movie, ’cause it seemed like Ann and Kong were the only real characters; everyone else seemed like a caricature without any real humanity underneath.

  5. Kevin Bjorke

    Role exploration doesn’t excuse the first hour and a half of the movie, which should have just been removed… seriously.

    While watching I thought exactly the same thing about Kong as a parody of hyper-masculine behavior. One can easily imagine Kong on that post-fight mountaintop with a brew in his hand, watching the game. I’ve been a bit surprised not to hear criticism of Ann’s continued apparent need to get his attention at this point in the story (why does she need that big ape’s validation?).

    Watching the diminutive Serkis’s performance videos must be great fun.

    In the end, modern society has no place for Kong? This is where the gender-role metaphor strains the most.

    And the movie’s end line is still dumb.

    PS: As a another former Hawaiian I’d echo Dori’s comment (Watching “Castaway” in our neighborhood theatre in Kailua was unusual mostly because locals kept cracking up at Hanks’s failed attempts to open a coconut…)

  6. Matt Norwood

    Hey, Dana. I posted my anxieties about the racial issues in King Kong a few weeks ago here, but after seeing it last week in Toronto, I have to say that he dealt with the intractable racial issues in the original as well as anyone could by making the film primarily ABOUT something else, namely: the nature of art, entertainment, beauty, spectacle, violence, sex, and the movie industry. And the gender stuff – and how gender related to the primary theme I took away from it – was really interesting too, as you point out. I’m still digesting it, but I’m amazed to find that it might be one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. Ask me again in another week.

  7. ...the thoughts are broken...

    The Riddle of Gender

    Last night (9 Jan 06) I finished The Riddle of Gender: Science, Activism, and Transgender Rights by Deborah Rudacille. I enjoyed this book, as much as one can enjoy a book so full of the pain and suffering of others. I have to thank my friend and forme…

  8. jam

    I haven’t seen the new release or the original. But I was wondering if you have seen both and if you believe the new release is following in the steps/traditions set forth by the original or if a lot of the gender based and racial things you talk about are newer influences?

  9. Lukas

    In retrospect, the only thing that really bothers me about the potrayal of the islanders is this: they’ve been living with Kong forever, and their way of interacting with him is stringing up a sacrifice and hiding. Naomi Watts is on the island for 12 hours and they’re best friends. Now she’s pretty and all, but come on.

  10. Chris

    When viewing any movie you have to frame it with this question: “What story was the director trying to tell?”

    As a child, Peter Jackson was enthralled by the original 1933 version of King Kong. He says that it was that film that made him want to be a film maker.

    He was very clear from the beginning of the production that what he wanted to do was to capture all of the kitsch of the original, but with 21st century effects. I think he achieved his goal 110%.

    Regarding the natives, consider this: because of Kong, and the myriad other monster creatures on the island, they were forced to restrict their existence to being outside of the wall. That left them with little room, little food, little water, little of anything. I’m completely willing to believe that given that arrangement they would go totally feral. Given how these constraints would repress their population growth they would likely have been horribly inbred.

    Where is your criticism of sailors as being portrayed as ignorant, and prone to superstition? Where is the criticism of Irishmen being portrayed as being illiterate? What about the horribly stereotypical Chinese man in the hold of the ship?

    You’re falling prey to annoying white guilt. Get over it – you, personally, have done nothing for which you should feel guilty. Would you *really* have felt better if the savages were fair-skinned? Can you name a small ocean island that is inhabited by whitey? This film was replicating the 1933 original. The natives of the island were “savages” in the original. How else would you have had them depicted? At least Mr. Jackson didn’t make them look like any specific race in our real world.

    Let’s hear some mad props to Naomi Watts for her incredibly strong physical performance in the film. She’s come a long way since “Children of the Corn IV”! Let’s hear it for Andy Serkis who was not only hilarious as Lumpy, but also crazy good as the motion-capture model for Kong.

  11. zephoria

    Mark – i’m reflecting on what seems to be happening in the movie – everything is AOK in terms of loose gender representations in the wild but when we move to the scenes in society, extreme binaries come out. I don’t really have good references (although i remember reading something ages ago about gender performance in Japan around drag… about how bodies that are more androgynous must go to greater extremes in performance).

    Dori – thanks for the correction! I was definitely thinking native as opposed to the vacationers but it’s fascinating to hear that the term has a more meaningful structure within the context of those who live there. So, what is the label for people who are residents but not Hawaiians?

    Aaron – find analytic friends! They make movie-going much more fun!

    Jon – i definitely think he was taking it to a more extreme than was in the original… kinda caricatured because gender representations have changed quite a bit between the original and now.

    Lukas – that’s the problem.. it adds to the impotence of the islanders, the impression of complete weakness. They run away at the first sign of masculinity (either in Kong’s brute strength or in the crew’s technological machinery).

  12. Mark

    Thank danah for the response! I guess I’ll have to go see it now after your stimulating thoughts on gender representation in it.

  13. Dori

    Hi Danah–By the “native” vs. “vacationers” designation, it sounds like you mean to differentiate the people who live in Hawaii–people who come from extremely diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Native Hawaiian (and thus “native”) has a specific ethnic and cultural designation. I’m fourth-generation Japanese-American, for example, with no Hawaiian blood although my entire family for generations have lived in Hawaii. It’s as impossible to be a “former Hawaiian” as it is for me to be formerly Japanese, and the confusion arises from the way people bandy about terms like “Californian.” People who reside in Hawaii are usually known as “locals,” “kamaʻāina” (child of the land), or “Hawaii residents.” You’d have to have lived in Hawaii for a fairly long time to consider yourself local or kamaʻāina, but “Hawaii resident” is a fairly neutral term. It’s a complex lexicology because of the islands’ complex history, as a brief discussion in a Wikipedia entry of another fraught term shows. This discussion made me realize how sensitive I am to those nuances.

    And this statement from the comments above directed to Danah–“You’re falling prey to annoying white guilt. Get over it – you, personally, have done nothing for which you should feel guilty.”–is a testament to unreflective privilege.

    In any case, I’ve posted my take on the film here. I’ve enjoyed reading the discussion on your site, and thanks to all those who are sharing thoughts.

  14. maetl

    Your comments about gender are interesting, definitely cause for contemplation, but I’m still not quite sure why you find the portrayal of the savage islanders so offensive. I live in Wellington where the film was made, and where there is a very strong polynesian and island culture in local media, from my perspective there was nothing particularly racialized about the depiction of the skull islanders. If I wasn’t mistaken, the apparent racial identity of these islanders was rather indistinct, they even seemed to have caucasian as well as melanesian characteristics (the mystery of their real origin on the island keeps the audience guessing).

    As far as I’m concerned, films like Black Hawk Down contain far more significant (and atrocious) racial perspectives in the way that they portray actual existing cultures and people. The stereotype of the islanders in Kong is more of a dramatic device – a fantasy freakshow, illustrating a people driven to the limits of the human condition by starvation and the terror of their surroundings.

  15. Nelson

    Being a fan of Peter Jackson’s work, I was disappointed that he wasted his talents on remaking a film such as King Kong. We must remember that the success of the original film in 1933 was largely due to the fact that audiences were experiencing the magic of cinema rather than being engrossed in a compelling story. The plot, thin at best and littered with caricatures concerning race, is full of unbelievable holes in the logic of this fantastical world, and yet it was still successful as a film because the likes of it had not been seen before: a huge, larger than life creature interacting intimately with a human being on the big screen. It was spectacle that was responsible for the success of the original Kong, and similarly for the current remake. Internal logic or believability of the story played no role.

    Filmmakers should use their art to say something. Re-creating a spectacle around a wafer thin story and at the same time, propogating the same oudated stereotypes of race from the 1930’s is neither useful or responsible. Paying homage to the original film by using these stereotyped caricatures is not an adequate excuse.

    Here is a good article from NPR on the issue of race and King Kong:

  16. Nick Douglas

    What can we infer from Jackson’s inclusion of “Heart of Darkness”? I can’t tell what Hayes (Jimmy’s mentor) thinks of the book — a story that was criticized by Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe for its use of Africa as a stereotyped backdrop for white people’s psychological drama. That exact criticism could be made of “King Kong”, adapting Achebe’s words to the more postcolonial “stereotyped backdrop for colonizers’ psychological drama and power plays.”

    I think one hint that Jackson recognizes this criticism is the foolishness he gives to the NYC display of Kong. I feel he showed the rich audience and capitalists to be giddy fools afraid of the real power of the creature they chained for their entertainment. By making a mockery of Kong, Carl Denham has, as Jack Driscoll says, “destroyed the things he loves.”

    Another option for the island tribe — haven’t they been presented as technologically adept with their bridge and their rock-to-rock transportation? Their ritual didn’t seem too far off of true recorded rituals, and to immediately interpret it as a caricature may reveal a critic’s underlying disrespect for such a way of life.

  17. Cole

    Part of me feels Jackson’s depiction of the islanders was a little dubious. As I recall, the island lies somewhere near Polynesia, and yet the inhabitants’ skin tone is straight out of the heart of Africa.

    I think that more than anything, Jackson wanted the island to be as unsettling as possible. The islanders were scary-looking because the scene was scary, not because Jackson is trying to stereotype island dwellers. Perhaps this says something about what White America finds scary.

    Also, I felt that the heroic African-American character existed soley as a counterpoint to the islanders. As if to shield himself from inescapable criticism, Jackson seemed to throw him, the only weak character, in as an afterthought.

  18. DRomeo

    One day I realized that for the most part, we are all playing roles.

    One day, I was still, I was silent and KNEW that we are One. Time and distinction is illusion.

    Up until that moment all I did was pretend.

    I thought I was a six foot plus Black male born in America.

    Now I KNOW I am the Universe and was never born.

    So when someone sees me and clutches their purse, or crosses the street, instead of finding some way to appear less threatening, I keep walking. Instead of playing along, instead of entertaining hurt and anger, I think, that is my Brother and he is asleep. I think that is my Sister and she is asleep. And that is okay because there was a time when I slept.

    I enjoy the game gods play on weekends…

    I enjoy this blog too 😉


  19. Dori

    Nick Douglas’s and DRomeo’s comments above seem to suggest perhaps that many of us are in agreement here, or at least on some common ground (despite the inadequacies of expression or the differences in perspectives).

    By any act of representation–making a mockery of Kong, making a mockery of women, making a mockery of men, making a mockery of capitalists, making a mockery of islanders, or making a mockery of past film versions–a film-maker, artist, or critic risks “destroy[ing] the things he loves.” A “mockery” may be derisive, critical, or it may seek to be an imitative sketch, but these representations have a double-edged sword especially when people or imaginations become chained and immobilized to inaccurate representations without enough reference to context, specificity, tone, and attention to both resemblance and difference. I guess the discomfort and objections arise when one *feels* chained to depictions that don’t feel adequately nuanced or respectful. And in a sense, representations and interpretations are inescapably inaccurate and to some degree caricatures–which Jackson seems acutely awake to.

  20. jack

    hey everyone, was just wondering if anyone has anything interesting to add on the matter of racial and gender representations in the King Kong?
    im writing an assignment and have run out of clinical ideas, cheers

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