Wednesday, June 8, 2016

King Kong and Ann Darrow

Given that I'm a gal who enjoys big monster movies, you'd think King Kong would be right up my alley. It's got a giant ape and dinosaurs at the same time, and who doesn't like to see an ape swatting airplanes out of the sky?

But King Kong has always pissed me off. Even when I was a little girl, I hated the story, though I couldn't have explained why. It wasn't just that they killed the ape, though I was and continue to be a softy when it comes to animals. I think it was what the story does with its leading lady. At a subconscious level, I was offended, even when my age was still being counted in single digits.

The story's pretty old (first released as a movie with Fay Wray in 1933), so I don't think I'm spoiling it for you to say that the basic plot outline involves a film director, a young woman, and a giant ape. The ape ends up dying in a fall from a skyscraper after being abducted from his home and displayed in New York City, and with the very last line of the movie, the blame for the entire tragedy is handed to the young woman: "Oh no, it wasn't the airplanes. It was Beauty killed the Beast."
Even six-year-old Samantha was going, "What? Um, did you watch the same movie I did? Because I'm thinking Ann didn't actually do a darn thing. How is this her fault?"

In most versions of King Kong, Ann Darrow is tricked into going to Skull Island. The unscrupulous director who hires her as an actor doesn't fully fill her in on what she's letting herself in for, but instead takes advantage of her youth, naiveté, and her poverty, and smooth-talks her into serving his own purposes. It's interesting that the love interest isn't the manipulative director, but the lead actor, who was also bamboozled into going on this ill-fated voyage. I guess even Hollywood knew they couldn't sell that character as having fallen in love, so they brought in another guy.

The movie was made in 1933, but the 30's also brought us Nora Charles in the Thin Man series, so the year isn't fully an excuse.

I don't know why a giant ape would want young women. You'd think he'd rather have food, or at least another giant ape. But the tribe of people on this island have a tradition of sacrificing a young woman to Kong periodically, and our hapless Ann Darrow is kidnapped, tied to posts, and serves as this year's offering. Given that Kong is never portrayed as able to communicate, I don't know how we're supposed to have arrived at this arrangement, but women as bargaining chips in the games of men is hardly a new thing. Offering your daughters as war prizes or peace offerings goes way back.
Their first encounter is hardly the stuff of romance. Ann screams her head off and tries to get away while the stop-motion Kong makes terrifying faces at her and roars a lot.

Ann's next few scenes are pretty much about her being menaced by one monster and saved by the one who snatched her. I get why the T-Rex and the pterodactyl want her, after all, she's a sizable meal with no armor or spikes to have to chew through. The mythology tells us that Kong is supposed to be smitten and that's why he keep fighting to save her, but it views more like simple possession to me. "Hey that's mine!" There's a part where he removes parts of her dress and examines the cloth, like "what the heck is this stuff?" There's no reason really, other than to make sure we get a nice full view of Ann's trim figure.

In the 1933 Kong, there's no emotional connection between Ann and Kong like there is in later versions. She only looks on him with terror, even when he's saving her from even scarier monsters. No Stockholm Syndrome here. In other tellings, there are these moments when Ann reaches out and touches him gently or tries to make him laugh, because even though her life is in danger, she feels for her captor.

But that ending line really gets me.

This idea that it is somehow a woman's job to tame a man rankles me, even when the man is portrayed as an actual beast--and that's part of what that ending line implies. That toxic idea is part of the whole maelstrom of destructive ideas that create rape culture and necessitate feminism. Men are people, women are people. Why should it be my job to "be a good influence" on half the people of the world just because I was born female? Why shouldn't they be responsible for themselves? If men thought about that "boys will be boys" attitude a little longer, they might be insulted, too. Do we, as a culture, really think our men are little better than animals, unable to control their baser urges?

So, poor Ann Darrow: got duped into taking a journey to a dangerous place because some manipulative jerk took advantage of her poverty and desperation, only to end up kidnapped by a giant ape who kills people and other monsters to try and keep her, and then to be blamed for the creature's death because she's beautiful. Gah! What shot did she ever have?

The movie ends without giving much of a hint of what becomes of Ann after Kong is dead. I'd like to think that she learned to take some agency in her own life instead of blowing wherever the wind takes her. More likely, she married her leading man and cried when he left her. Or worse yet, she was sent to an asylum for her nervous condition and fell apart when they take her on a field trip to a zoo and she saw a gorilla.


  1. I think people are catching on to the "boys will be boys" saying and realizing it's a demanding thing to say about males. I have seen people talk about it a little.

    I've actually never seen any version of Kong. Never felt the need because I know how the story goes. I didn't know about the last line, but it doesn't make sense to me either.

    1. I'm an old movie buff . . .which is probably why I saw this, but it's always gotten under my skin.

  2. The early KING KONG wasn't all that empathetic but the later one was wonderful. You really had to love the monster. "'Twas beauty that killed the beast..."

    @Kathleen01930 Blog

    1. Even the new one still rankled me at a deep level. Though I agree that there was more of a relationship presented in the newest version of Kong.

  3. Gosh, I'm glad I wasn't the only one disliking the King Kong story...

  4. I have never seen this film. I think I'll stick with Pride & Prejudice!

    1. I'm a fan of P&P, too. In many iterations. I just watched Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (the book was better, big surprise) and LOVED the Bollywood rendition: Bride and Prejudice.

  5. I didn't ever see the movie, Samantha, but I certainly enjoyed your review and your insightful remarks.

  6. Of course, it's always the woman's fault. I think this is the same mentality people have when a man has an affair. The woman "lured him" away, like men don't have minds of their own. So that woman just lured that big creature to his death, as women tend to do (in society's mind, anyway)!