KING KONG : Simianization and the Dangerous Perpetuation of Black Masculine Stereotypes Through Media
DISCLAIMER: This review looks a little different than my previous reviews. I wanted to take a more critical look at this film and media as a whole. I hope y’all enjoy!
CW: racial stereotypes, racial violence
This is the first time I’ve ever seen King Kong in its entirety. From what I remember, the story is about a group of filmmakers who travel to Skull Island in an attempt to make a movie about a giant gorilla. Somehow, the beast gets loose and wreaks havoc in NYC carrying a screaming white woman along the way. At its core, that is the story of King Kong. However, it is told within a deeply troubling racist, colonialist and capitalist framework that redefines the entire story. While Kong is renowned for its technological and musical achievements, the film has disturbing and harmful subliminal messaging.
This film is considered revolutionary for a few reasons. First, the soundtrack is historically significant. This is the first original score composed for a feature-length talkie. Max Steiner took inspiration from operas and mixed diegetic and non-diegetic sound. This score is the reason for Steiner’s nickname “the father of film music”. This film is also known for its incredible technological feats. The makers of Kong used methods such as stop-motion animation, rear projections, miniatures, and matte painting.
Although so much of Kong felt modern upon its release, its coded depictions harken back hundreds of years. The first recorded minstrel show happened in 1441 in Portugal. The practice of caricaturing Black features and performing in blackface for a white audience is an undeniable part of American theatre history. Many of these performers, such as Thomas D. Rice, relied on the stereotype that Black people are apelike. This harmful and false equivalency was and still is used to justify scientific racism and the dehumanization of Black people. The more this stereotype made it into the media we consumed, the more it began to negatively impact real life.
In 1915, D.W. Griffith releases his film The Birth of a Nation which was ranked #44 on the AFI Top 100 1998 list. Thankfully, it was removed altogether from the list on the 10th Anniversary edition in 2007. This film portrays African-Americans (played by white actors in blackface) as unintelligent, violent, and sexually aggressive toward white women. They can only be stopped by a mob of white men who call themselves the Ku Klux Klan. In 1933, Marion C. Cooper releases King Kong featuring a Black-coded simian beast who is violent and sexually aggressive toward a white woman. Kong can only be stopped by a mob of white men who call themselves Hollywood filmmakers. Both white male mobs will stop at nothing, even letting their men die, in the name of protecting the virtue of white women.
The native tribe depicted in this film is portrayed as the community from which Ann needs to be protected (according to Dunham). In order to get this across, the film chose elements from different native cultures that would read as “savage” to a white audience. Not only was the native chief”s skin purposefully darkened, but his character covets Ann for her white skin and blonde hair, making him a threat to white masculinity. Upon seeing Ann for the first time, he offers six native women in exchange for her, the “golden woman”. These characters serve as a kind of wish fulfilment for the white writers who have internalized that everyone finds them as superior as they do.
There is also a clear example of white womanhood being valued above women of color when the group of filmmakers first come across the Skull Islanders. They perform a ceremony in which a native girl is offered to Kong as a way to keep the peace on the island. The filmmakers (specifically Denham) do not take issue with this and instead attempt to profit off of it by secretly filming the ceremony. However, as soon as Ann is kidnapped and put in place of the native girl, suddenly the filmmakers do absolutely everything in their power, even let twelve of their men die, to get her back. Once again, the film offers a very clear example of the unique and privileged identity of white womanhood without acknowledging it themselves.
While on the subject of improper representations of people of color, let’s talk about Charlie. Charlie is supposed to be a Chinese-American immigrant who works as a cook on the boat. His character speaks in broken English, but not in the way a person learning English would. His broken English is for the benefit of the white audiences to understand that he is an outsider. He also jumps at the chance to help save Ann even when they’ve only had one conversation and he has no reason to do so. He risks his life for this white woman because his character values white womanhood over his own life.
Fay Wray plays the character of Ann. She screams a lot in this film, which gets tiring. The film begins and ends with the basic sentiment, “it was beauty killed the beast.” A giant ape, which mirrors the racist and dehumanizing depictions of Black men throughout history, is killed by a white woman. While there’s a layer of misogyny in accusing Ann of killing Kong, it’s a clear deflection away from Denham’s relentless acts of colonialism. Denham is the one who decides to invade Skull Island, rescue Ann, get dozens of filmmakers and Skull Island natives killed, and then kidnap and exploit Kong for white audiences and profit. Essentially, it is colonialism and capitalism that “killed the beast”. That being said, Ann does play a part in the villainization of Kong and is not blameless in his death.
As mentioned before, Ann screams a lot. She gets kidnapped by natives from Skull Island and offered as a sacrifice to Kong. In allegorical terms, she serves as the damsel in distress. Throughout the entire film, she is saved by her beauty and her whiteness. She is plucked off the street by Dunham to be in his movie, she is referred to as “golden” by the native chief, and she is given so much value that upon hearing she’d been kidnapped, the entire film crew risks their lives to save her. People die not only as a result of trying to save her, but as repercussions for having saved her. It begs the question: why is her life given so much value? The answer lies in her screams for help.
There are countless examples throughout history (in media and real life) when the words of white women have been lethal. The Birth of a Nation positions Black men as sexually violent and white women as the virtuous victims in need of rescuing. The same sentiment is echoed in King Kong. The most potent example comes from the real-life tragedy of Emmett Till. He was fourteen years old when a white woman falsely accused him of sexual harassment and an angry white mob brutally lynched him. This case, which happened 22 years after the release of King Kong in the midst of the Jim Crow era, is a primary example of how dangerously easy white femininity can be weaponized against Black men. This is just one example of how the media affects the ways in which we think about racial and gender dynamics.
It’s easy to recognize these themes in the media we consume today. The image of Black men as violent persists in television, film, magazines, and cartoons. Take a look at the 2008 issue of Vogue magazine featuring LeBron James and Gisele Bündchen, shot by Annie Liebovitz.
LeBron’s stance, facial expressions, and grip on Gisele are a direct reference to promotional materials for King Kong. This hypermasculinization and dehumanization affects black women as well. In 2014, a Belgian newspaper released doctored images of President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama in which they were presented as apes. In 2019, Australian cartoonist Mark Knight came under fire for his cartoon depiction of Serena Williams.
In response to accusations of racism and sexism, Knight said about his artwork, “I drew her as an African-American woman. She’s powerfully built. She wears these outrageous costumes when she plays tennis. She’s interesting to draw. I drew her as she is, as an African-American woman.” When we allow the continuation of such portrayals, we are allowing the further dehumanization of Black men and women. We place more value on the safety and comfort of white women and demonize, vilify, and dehumanize Blackness.
This film was revolutionary for the film industry in many ways. A successful monster movie had never before been made on this level. Max Steiner’s score along with the film’s technological advancements will forever be a major part of film history. At the same time, the film perpetuates negative stereotypes by overvaluing the safety of white women and coding Kong as Black. 1933’s King Kong has had an enormous amount of influence on monster movies, special effects, and musical scores as well as racial stereotypes, racial coding, and vilification of Blackness in the media. We learn a lot from the media and the more we dehumanize certain groups of people, the more violence occurs in real life. It’s okay to enjoy media that happens to be problematic as long as we are conscious and critical of its message.