The sexual politics of King Kong.

Examining culture and the arts.
Dec. 14 2005 2:01 PM

Kong in Love

The sexual politics of Peter Jackson's King Kong.

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Click here to read David Edelstein's review of Peter Jackson's King Kong.

If you're Peter Jackson remaking King Kong(1933), the first question is how to make a more plausible ape. The second is how to offer up a more plausible sexual politics—an update to Cooper's archetype of a blond damsel in distress menaced by a powerful, chest-pounding simian. The good news is that Jackson has come up with an apparent solution: In his film, ape loves woman, and woman loves ape. Equality seems to be within grasp.

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The original Kong involved no emotional reciprocity. In it, Ann Darrow, played by Fay Wray, is terrified by the oversized monkey. Captured by the tribal natives of a remote island while making a film with the infamous Carl Denham, she has been offered up to Kong as a delectable sacrifice; instead, Kong, entranced by her beauty, takes a shine to her. The next hour is an apes-are-from-Mars, women-are-from-Venus scenario: He boldly protects her from a T-Rex, pterodactyls, snakes, and creepy-crawly things; she screams in horror. Unimpressed by his prowess, she abandons her powerful protector without a second glance when shipmate Jack Driscoll (her love interest) shows up to rescue her. In the original version, Kong is captured solely because he won't take no for an answer: He angrily pursues Ann, only to be overwhelmed by Denham and his crew and brought to New York. In the final sequence, Kong escapes from his binds in a Broadway theater, and chases a terrified Darrow down; she wails in fear on the Empire State Building while he is slowly picked off by planes. The viewer's sympathy for the ape is finally stirred as, in the face of Darrow's indifference, Kong continues to lavish his last attentions on her. His attention is moving precisely because its object is so indifferent.

Curiously enough, this is not how the film is remembered by many people who see it. In this week's New Yorker, for instance, David Denby suggests that the original and its 1976 remake "were about an ape who wanted a blonde he couldn't have, and the woman who came to like the big dope." Plenty of critical wisdom agrees. "Not only is [Fay Wray's] experience terrifying and transcendental (sublime as Burke would have it), but it also is not lost on her," declares one essayist, who herself seems smitten with the original Kong. "When Kong dies, Fay Wray knows that no other lover in her life will be equal to him." Honey, it ain't so; the suspicion that no lover will "equal" Kong is all ours. Intriguingly enough, it is a form of mass misreading that appears to be a textbook case of (no pun intended) projection: By the film's end, we feel sympathy for Kong, and we suspect that Ann Darrow must be aroused by his, er, performance, so we impute our feelings to her. We're egged on by the script, which is heavy on the nudge-nudge, wink-wink factor. She has "lived through an experience no other woman ever dreamed of," Denham leeringly tells a New York audience, shortly before Kong's paw reaches slowly into an apartment building and, yes, snatches Ann from a bedroom.

Driscoll's devotion may flag ...
Click image to expand.
Driscoll's devotion may flag ...

King Kong's subtextual smuttiness is what Jackson had to overcome; these days, the joke can't be on Darrow. No suggestive puns litter this screenplay. Nor does Kong come anywhere near her bedroom. Instead, Darrow, played by Naomi Watts, actually falls for Kong; she's been handled roughly in the past, and something about Kong's protection of her makes her feel that, at last, she's met a guy who can commit. Before meeting Kong, she appears to have fallen for Jack Driscoll, who in Jackson's version is a socially progressive playwright. But when Kong fights off several vicious dinosaurs to save her—valiantly swinging from vine to vine and being careful not to crush her in his gigantic palm—she knows she's encountered a creature whose devotion won't flag, as she can't help fearing Driscoll's will. The two engage in the most delicate of romances: She dances for him; he laughs; they watch the sunset together, and, later still, manage to squeeze in an ice-skating session (one of the film's most unexpectedly winning scenes). When the time comes to be saved, she's reluctant to leave him. And little wonder: Here's a muscle man who shares her idea of quality time—and has an aura of nobility, to boot.

Jackson's not exactly reinventing movie romance—or traditional gender roles—here, since the updated relationship is still thoroughly conventional, and in turning Ann's fear of Kong into love, Jackson seems to reinforce the very stereotypes on which the original film was built. Kong, after all, wins Ann's heart with his displays of strength and his stoic devotion, so that while Beauty may kill the beast, machismo smites beauty. From this perspective, King Kong is a film that implicitly suggests that traditional manliness (strength and courage) is the essential fabric of romance and that women value protection above all. Jack Driscoll's cerebral devotion pales in comparison to Kong's, even though he bravely tracks her down in the lair of the beast. When Driscoll shows up to save Darrow, she couldn't be less impressed; this liberal-minded wordsmith can't protect her the way Kong can from the fanged monstrosities prowling through the tropical night. The retrograde message that some men may discern is: Speak softly—if at all—and carry a big stick.

But the bond with Kong is forever
Click image to expand.
But the bond with Kong is forever

Except, of course, that Ann herself goes to great lengths to protect Kong, defending him from his would-be captors as few 1930s heroines would've dreamed of doing. And indeed the real triumph of Jackson's updating of the story—one that transcends the schematic reading I've offered above—is its portrait of Kong as a sentient (if alien) being with a distinct identity, a being who deserves (let's say it) our respect and affection as well as our pity. He is able to do something as seemingly human as see the sky and label it beautiful. Jackson's Kong—expressively modeled by Andy Serkis and bolstered with digital effects—seems like a real primate, not just because he scurries fast on all fours but because he feels and thinks in ways that seem remarkably close to our own. Somehow, it's plausible that Ann Darrow would fall for him. In the new Kong, the beast is beautiful, too.

Meghan O'Rourke is Slate's culture critic and an advisory editor. She was previously an editor at The New Yorker. The Long Goodbye, a memoir about her mother's death, is now out in paperback.