Are Apes Sexist? Yes, According to Hollywood

At the Miami Book Fair in 2013, I had the pleasure of reading together with a former film director whose words about Hollywood standards for a gender-equal screenplay stunned me with disappointment.  Apparently, all it takes for Hollywood to consider itself egalitarian when it comes to gender roles is a screenplay that has at least two female roles — and they must be speaking roles.  “(In other words, they can’t just be stand-ins in a crowd.)  I am paraphrasing, and maybe misquoting due to memory failure (a thing that happens to those of us who suffer from prolonged insomnia), but I do remember clearly the film director saying, “That’s a mighty low standard, folks.”

It is quite the low standards, but Dawn of The Planet of The Apes, the latest installment in the prequals to the 1970’s original cult movie, manages to break even those.  Aside from the fact that the movie has dialog that would make me cringe if I’d heard it from human characters let alone apes, (“Humans destroyed themselves…I thought apes were different, but we are so much like them.” and other similar “on-the-nose” clinchers) and that for at least half the movie, we are tortured with scenes that seem produced out of some Hollywood-Mart shelf stocked with cliches (wife sick and dying, oh so sad…babies are so cute, sunshine on the sea so wonderful), there is also only one woman speaking role, where the actress is, of course, a healer.

Although I confess that I’d rather see a female lead play a healer than I would playing some concocted Schwartzennagerized caricature of male kick-ass power enclosed in a luscious shell of tits and ass (such as we have endured for decades now since Angelina Jolie made the cut as Lara Croft), I really have to ask Hollywood, really? I mean, how hard would it have been to include just one more, one more female role? The kid who reads comic books could have just as easily been cast as a girl. We know how you love casting women in passive roles. That kid did nothing except smile at the baby chimpanzee and share comics with the orangutan.

It’s hard to imagine that this omission of female leads was casual. With all the gatekeepers in Hollywood, all the hoops a movie has to jump through as it goes from concept, to screenplay, to development, to production, it’s hard to imagine that no one at any of those stages piped up and said, “Hey, where are the women in this movie?” Deliberately, women were omitted from this particular post-apocalyptic view of the world.

The movie doesn’t even have leading female ape roles.  All the apes talk except for the women, who only make groaning sounds and put their arms gently around their male partners.  When war begins, the male apes go, literally “ape-shit” with machine guns, semi-automatics and other killer gadgets, but the female apes remain submissively behind, with the young.  They make clucking noise when their leader, Ceasar, approaches his partner, but other than that, they are non-entities.

Out of curiosity I looked up gender roles in chimpanzees, just to see if this blatant regression to 1950’s thinking may have been based on scientific observations, but although some studies do show slight patterns of gender distinction, “research has shown that, although male dominance of groups is common, females of many species are fiercely competitive, resourceful and independent, sexually assertive and promiscuous and, in some cases, more prone than males to wanderlust at puberty” (The New York Times)

So, ok, it’s a bed movie, and it’s sexist, to boot. Who ever thought that ape-drama would be interesting to humans? Who ever thought this was a good idea?  Apparently someone did, because the movie got made, sexism and all, and it’s still getting good reviews from viewers.  I mean, seriously? Isn’t anyone paying attention?

Published by laura

I'm the author of two short story collections, a story cycle, and a collection of short memoirs. I am an educator, literary translator, journal editor, and writing coach.

7 thoughts on “Are Apes Sexist? Yes, According to Hollywood

  1. I don’t understand why this movie needed any female characters at all; never mind if they were strong or weak. After the society was decimated, women’s rights went on the back burner. Hey, society just got decimated. Gender equality was maybe less important than survival for the whole group just then. The story was about two distrustful groups, fearful of the “other”, who had to negotiate what sort of relationship they should have. There was division within and between these groups, and this movie explored those warring (pun intended) ideas. There was a neat symmetry between those who would strive for peace between the two groups, and those who only care about their own. As far as the dialogue? It made sense to me that the apes hadn’t become quite as eloquent or fluent or however you want to put it so that the way they spoke didn’t seem stilted. The ideas got through just fine.

    Maybe think of it this way – If you watched the Avengers, did you have any issues with the lack of people of color/ non-Americans represented in the Avengers movie? Not counting Loki or Thor… who are played by gorgeous white guys… all the heroes were either American or Russian. I only thought of this WAAAY after watching it. Why? Because the movie is awesome, and Joss Whedon is both brilliant and hilarious. Anyone who thought the Avengers was sexist because of Loki’s “mewling quim” line really misunderstood the context, and are too uptight for their own good.

    If we can let the Avengers slide (and let’s absolutely do that!) for only having white American guys (and one kick-ass Russian) save the world then why not let the Dawn of the Planet of the Apes slide because they didn’t bother to check the “has enough strong/relevant female” characters box?

    1. Also, I would like to add that I love Breakfast at Tiffany’s an Cat On a Hot Tin roof despite the problematic depictions of race in both movies. I enjoyed reading “Kim” by Kipling even though I find the politics of it highly offensive. Kipling was funny. Just because a work of art is not PC, does not detract from its other merits.

    2. Hey, thanks for commenting on this post. I have a problem with Hollywood representation all around, however, I particularly notice gender roles. Women are not a minority. We are over half the population, so sometimes it can get very confusing to mix minority arguments with women rights. I don’t want to get into that conversation, but Hollywood is notoriously sexist. Also, the Avengers do have one African American character, if you will remember. “Has enough relevant female characters” is not a box to check: it’s a deliberate omission, as is the usual omission of minority in any popular movie. I invite you to reconsider your tastes. (And I did watch the Avengers, and enjoyed it to a degree, but not particularly happy with the way females are either the usual trophy wives or female versions of Arnold Swartzenagger. There is a female entity that should be and IS perfectly acceptable, but it never seems to find its way into popular story telling, least of all in movies).

      1. So, to explain about the gender roles, if Hollywood were really representative of our population, in a movie where ten actors had roles, 6 of them would have to be women, 3 of them African American, 2 of them Latino, 1 of them “other.” When does that happen? Minorities often get represented well before women do, so that’s why I don’t like to mix an argument with the two. See Obama as first African American President, and also the fact that African Americans have explicit voting rights, but women still don’t.

  2. In that case, it is not a parody. It is, and likely will continue to be, recent history. SO, brilliant? you know I don’t think so, and neither do you.. Perhaps we need to invent a new mode of asshole puerile fiction that accounts for this, and that we can take advantage of. Why not. It isn’t as if anyone is watching.

  3. I understand your point of view, Laura. Let me hasten to add here that this is one of the worst movies of the last five years, and it is perhaps better that female actors did not have to go down with this particular ship. Nor, if you actually look at the script (as written) would you find ANY place for a female ape OR female human with a significant role. I know, you will tell me that the problem is the writing all along, but the premise, the actual BASE of the film precludes a significant female role. Think of this as a bad WWII movie with apes as the Japanese and humans as the Americans on some accursed Pacific Island. Or vice versa. There might be a nurse, or a hooker, but there will not be a significant female. THAT is pop culture Hollywood. Welcome to the New World, my love.

    1. A female role, a significant one, not a she-warrior ridiculous one, could have easily been written in. It’s post-apocalyptic San Francisco: there are women in the army now. What about the dude fidgeting with the radio: could that not have been a woman doing that? What about female ape telling Koba, “You always take things too far, and you snore, and you fart, and you’re a dead beat father, and you’re not even pretty. Take that gun and go play with your boys. I ain’t waiting around for you to come back any more.” The fact that none of the many writers, actors, producers and financieers of this flick saw the need to have an intelligent female role to supplement the minor part of the doctor/healer is just as telling of our current mindset as is the idea that the film would make it because apes are handling guns. Perhaps the whole thing is supposed to be a parody of exactly what we are: apes going apeshit with guns and pretending that 50% of the world’s population doesn’t exist, and the other 49% is inferior to us and can be caged and subdued. In which case, it’s brilliant.

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