Dawn of the Planet of the Dudes: How ‘Apes’ Failed Evolution

Dawn of the Planet of the Dudes: How 'Apes' Failed Evolution


At Vulture, Kyle Buchanan details one way in which the post-apocalyptic world of "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" seems all too familiar: the movie’s near-total exclusion of female characters.


The movie takes place in the future after a simian superflu has wiped out most of mankind, and of the hundreds of human survivors we see left in San Francisco — plenty of whom have speaking roles — only one is a woman: Ellie, played by Keri Russell. She’s the one who tags along a few steps behind our male lead in all her scenes, and she’s off-screen for most of the movie, including the all-important final act. Ellie’s counterparts at the colony of apes don’t fare much better when it comes to representation: There, too, we meet countless male apes but only one female, Caesar’s love interest, Cornelia. This motion-capture character is played by the talented actress Judy Greer, who has a dancer’s background, studied simian movement for months, and yet has about 90 seconds of screen time in the final film. No one even calls Cornelia by name in the movie — if you wanted to know, you’d have to look it up later.

You can argue, as my colleague Scott Renshaw did, that "Dawn’s" almost exclusive focus on male characters is "a feature, not a bug" — it’s a movie about primal urges, especially violent ones, and the generational conflicts embodied in the parallel father-son relationships between Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee) on the human side, Caesar (Andy Serkis) and Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston) on the ape. And that’s fair enough: If you can argue that "Orange Is the New Black" doesn’t need more male characters because it’s a story about women, then you can make the same argument in reverse about "Dawn": Women are marginalized in both ape and human society because their preoccupation with violent conflict drowns out the archetypically female drive to empathize rather than attack. (It’s worth nothing that although ape society is entirely dominated by males, the moderate, pacifistic orangutan Maurice is actually played by actress Karin Konoval.)
This, you might say, is simply the natural order (re-) asserting itself: Male animals are physically stronger, females bear young, and their places in the apes’ nascent culture follow suit. But there are two problems with that line of argument. First, whatever social niceties have been stripped away by humanity’s threatened return to the Dark Ages, the human race has historically been strengthened by its ability to evolve beyond biological imperatives: Physically weak people who might die in a more strictly Darwinian environment make contributions in the realms of technology or advanced thought; women become active members of society rather than constraining their contributions to giving birth and rearing children. In featuring only a single prominent female human, a CDC doctor played by Keri Russell — one who, at a certain point, admiring tells Malcolm, "That was a brave thing you just did" — "Dawn" ignores the chance to draw a potentially fascinating distinction between human society and its ape counterpart.  Instead, the movie indulges the sentimental notion that the apes, being closer to their natural state, are inherently more pure than humans — a simian spin on the noble savage.

Second, as Dr. Susan Block points out at CounterPunch, the idea that all simian societies are dominated by males — that patriarchy is essentially "natural" — is simply false:

The movie does support human “family values," essentially turning Caesar, the alpha chimp, into a devoted husband and model dad. The reality is, as Dr. De Waal states, “Male chimps don’t really know who their offspring are and they don’t necessarily care.” Ditto for bonobos where ignorance of paternity, plus female solidarity and “mom power,” is one of the keys to keeping the peace.

Speaking of which, there is also a glaring lack of female apes in this movie. That helps make it even more dystopian. Certainly, there are no bonobo females who would soon set the guys straight on all the gratuitous murder and mayhem that ensues. Granted, a gang of bonobo gal pals might have ruined "Dawn’s" relentless march to war, but there are hardly any common chimp-type females either. The only identified female ape character is Caesar’s sweetly submissive “wife” Cornelia who, between giving birth to Caesar’s baby (a son, of course) and being sick, spends almost the entire film lying flat on her back, whimpering.

In other words, not only are "Dawn’s" humans less evolved than we are, so, despite their genetically enhanced higher-brain function, are its apes. 

Granted, "Dawn’s" climax leaves both sides headed toward all-out war — and no, that’s not a spoiler: We already know the apes win this one — so it would seem that letting bellicose types like Gary Oldman’s Dreyfus and Toby Kebbel’s Koba run things doesn’t work out too well in the end. But it would have made "Dawn" a better, more interesting movie if it had at least explored the possibility that exigent circumstances might have pushed either humans or apes to structure their societies along different lines, which would only have heightened the tragedy in their failure to do so.

At her blog, spoken-word performer Kaitlyn Pyley mourns the movie that could have been.

I’ve never understood why dystopian films have so much trouble imagining a landscape with women in it. Or why, with civilisation apparently dismantled and society being rebuilt, patriarchal structures have survived with ease. In the recent past, global wars have accidentally resulted in liberation for women, because with the dominant male class off killing each other, women have had to step into new roles. This is the kind of stuff that I find interesting about stories set in post-conflict societies: how new interpersonal dynamics emerge under unfamiliar circumstances.

It’s axiomatic for me that you review the movie you’ve seen and not one that might have been made, but when that movie has as much on its mind as "Dawn" does, it’s hard not to wish it had spared a thought for this. Perhaps the most distressing aspect of Reeves’ response when Buchanan asks about the movie’s gender breakdown: “It wasn’t a conscious decision. I don’t know." A movie this big, made over years and for hundreds of millions of dollars, is the product of thousands of conversations. That not one of them involved the addition, or even the omission, of significant female characters is as damning an indictment of contemporary Hollywood as you’ll find.

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Comments

j

to anyone hollering about this film being sexist because it doesn't have any female apes .You all need to get freaking life go spend your time doing things that are meaningful instead of attacking a fictional story .

Restless

Yea, just watched this film. The typical sexist garbage was so disappointing. Didn't have the charm of the originals at all either.

A Man

Wow Kyle, you sound like the dude who's always getting Friendzoned. Learn how to be a man, and not embody a feminist nazi man hater. Grow a pair, and stop acting like a total b*tch.

Anonymous

Here we ago always trying to tarnish a good picture by crying that their weren't enough woman, blacks etc.

Paul Newland

Yeah the only significant things that struck me about the movie was why the humans went back to a city to start wasting energy instead of going to farmland to grow both sustainable crops for food & bio-diesel and why the hell we had Princess Leia syndrome for both humans AND apes. When I saw the line stating that the women and young ones should stay behind while the male apes went to war I almost choked on my own bile. I mean seriously ludicrous. I'm currently watching Utopia and the Honourable Woman on British TV – fascinating dramas and they have as many women as men in various different roles. It really should not be that hard to do. The original movie in the sixties had an astronaut (albeit a deceased one, which was a shame) and an ape scientist. All we got in this one was one passive love interest apiece. That's the result of fifty years march towards gender equality in entertainment. Yikes.

Oli

I'm a feminist, which is annoying cos I vowed to hate every article Sam Adams ever writes. So instead, I'll just continue hating him.

Stu M

Great article but gee there's some moronic comments. I liked the film but agree that it would have been better, even on an entertainment level if it addressed some of these issues. People do care about this stuff and it is important. The fact that this well reasoned article is so offensive and threatening to some is all the proof you need.

Jo

The film's depictions of the ape vs human societies conclude on a symmetrical note when Caesar notes that the behaviors of the two societies weren't unlike each other. As such, in its development of its simian characters, the film is essentially depicting the human experience through apes. The film is an allegory for diplomatic failures. One thing about the human experience is that it pertains to all humans, not just those of specific genders. As such I don't understand what some women (or men for that matter) find lacking in a film with themes that pertain to both men and women alike. Also, why must we assume that the humans in the film are less evolved than we are? What evidence does the film give to support that theory? If they were as un-evolved as you assume, I wouldn't think that women would have been allowed to fight on the wall during the simian raid. They would have been corralled into shelter and "protected" by big strong men. I didn't see that in the film. But maybe you did. Somehow…

Jo

Why does every movie these days have to be about female empowerment or gender roles??? Those are noble themes but it pisses me off that films that don't address themes of that nature are labeled sexist. That's not equality that's reverse discrimination. Films about women aren't called sexist toward men. Why must films about men be labeled sexist toward women? That's not equality, that's a farce.

Matthew

What is the man-woman ratio at Indiewire? Can we please see a breakdown, with special detail given to senior positions?

Frank Barone

I am hardly an Everybody-loves-Raymond fan, but the series' streak of the monkey-related joke was quite telling; the point is that the rebooted POTA franchise is made for all those raymonds out there, not for debras…
the prominence of Zira in the original franchise is indicative of the gender shifts in the late 60s, as the original cycle was generally more attentive to the burning social issues of the day than the new one…

Ryan B

The fact is that the POTA franchise and mythos as always been about males destroying the planet. Human males and ape males. The role of women in the POTA nihilistic narrative is the futile struggle against that ultimate fate. More women means more hope. No one would buy a story about women ultimately destroying the planet nor would they buy a POTA story where women play a big role because that would be the same thing by default. In POTA, women represent hope in a narrative that is anti hope. More women in the films is a juxtaposition that undermines the nihilistic message of POTA.

Rob W

This is a well written article, with plenty of valid points. It's time that major studios realizes that gender equality is indeed an issue that needs to be considered and addressed when making films.

JabbaTheWhat

Putting this much thought into it is stupid. This article and the contributors to it are not busy enough if they think this hard about these movies.

Fartzilla

Literally no-one gives a shit.

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