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

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by Sam Adams
July 16, 2014 2:39 PM
28 Comments
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Jason Clarke and Keri Russell in "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes"
Jason Clarke and Keri Russell in "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes"


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.)

"Dawn of the Planet of the Apes'" Maurice, a male orangutan played by actress Karin Konoval
"Dawn of the Planet of the Apes'" Maurice, a male orangutan 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.

28 Comments

  • j | August 5, 2014 10:30 AMReply

    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 | July 28, 2014 9:50 PMReply

    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 | July 26, 2014 6:53 PMReply

    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 | July 25, 2014 6:32 PMReply

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

  • Paul Newland | July 20, 2014 5:23 PMReply

    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 | July 20, 2014 2:13 PMReply

    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 | July 16, 2014 11:05 PMReply

    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 | July 16, 2014 8:47 PMReply

    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 | July 16, 2014 8:31 PMReply

    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.

  • ThinkTomBeforeYouAct | July 26, 2014 6:57 PM

    @Tom

    You poor, misinformed fool,

    It is with great interest that I must inform you that both your logic and your reasoning are flawed, and that you are obviously misinformed about the topic in hand. To be honest, you represent the small part of every community which lack the ability to think and comprehend things like humans do. In fact, your mental capabilities would closely resemble that of a lump of turd. I had second thoughts writing this, as I am not sure if you have the skills associated with reading. I kindly ask you, on behalf of everyone else, to kill yourself, thereby removing yourself from the gene pool to prevent people like you from being born.
    You have my permission to writhe in your own idiocy.

    Sincerely,
    Your intellectual superior

  • Tom Swift | July 19, 2014 8:18 AM

    I don't think anyone has ever called films like Saving Private Ryan or The Hunt for Red October which are about almost exclusively male experiences, sexist. Or Die Hard, for that matter, or the Bourne Films, or the more recent Bonds (some of the older ones are fairly criticized, they so often treated their female characters like disposable cotton candy and just WERE sexist.) Or North Dallas Forty, or The Longest Yard - or On Any Given Sunday, where Oliver Stone did give us the interesting twist of Cameron Diaz as a female franchise owner in the NFL; all films "about men", or maybe 'the male experience' in our culture. (And I'm not sure what films about women you're referencing. Steel Magnolias? No, men didn't call that sexist, they just didn't see it.) Nor do I think that anyone has written an article like this that examines the roles of women in those films while actually using the reactionary language you attribute to it ("Grrr - that sexist Jason Bourne!") I wouldn't. Though I'd always argue for better female characters in them because that tends to make the films better. I thought Judy Dench, for example, was very cool and perfectly credible as M in the last few Bonds. Meanwhile, men have almost limitless possibilities in film for fantasy heroics, rollicking good fun and, if we're being a bit humble, a ridiculous body count, without being called sexist. It almost never happens. So that's a straw man. Which is why it is contemptuous and unschooled to question, in reference to a science fiction film featuring a dawning world of apes, why "films about men" MUST "be labeled sexist toward women" (a label the author does not employ), and then say "that's not equality, that's farce." It's contemptuous because it's false and because it's not actually an argument, it's a pout.

    But mostly it's contemptuous because Rod Serling in his script for the original picture forty five years ago, Franklin Schaffner in his attentive direction (and he did Patton and Papillon for god's sake, in which, are there any women?), and especially Kim Hunter in her startling performance gave us in Dr. Zira one of the most serious and dynamic characters in science fiction, male or female. I think I might even dare to say in the MEDIUM. She's just that cool, that radical, that believable and that necessary in the changing cultural landscape of the late sixties and early seventies. And it was that character, Dr. Zira, that made the scientific credibility of Ellen Ripley possible eight years later, and the moral strength of Sarah Connor eight years after that, and the heroic leadership qualities of both.

    See, Planet of the Apes has a legacy.

    So you should say outright that you REALLY prefer the worlds of Jane Fonda in Barbarella and Fay Wray in King Kong (and all her sisters screaming through the decades), to Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio in the Abyss or Zoe Saldana, Michelle Rodriguez and Sigourney Weaver in Avatar, because that's basically what we had in the genre before Planet of the Apes and that's the remedial universe toward which this last movie is pointlessly, carelessly stumbling. And while I wouldn't say it's gotten all the way there yet, it is a big bad step in the wrong direction.

    And for anyone who says this gender deficit hasn't hurt the box office, get back to me when we hit Avatar numbers. I'm guessing DOPOA comes up something in the neighborhood of a billion dollars short. That's an impressive caravan of armored cars driving back to the studio with nothing in them.

    Speaking of Avatar, by the way, were the Na'vi also used to 'paint a larger picture of the HUMAN experience'? Or did they offer an alternative to it? Or wasn't it perhaps, best of all, a believable combination of both? Isn't that why we're interested in stories where we examine the possible ethics of other species and cultures when they mix with our own - be they elves, apes, hobbits or aliens?

    Think it over.

    Then you can explain to everyone just what exactly an 'intensive purpose' is.

    (Oh come on, I couldn't help myself - it's an internet argument for god's sake. But really - think it over.)

    Tom

  • Joe | July 17, 2014 2:32 PM

    Also, what is this contempt of which you speak? You speak of me as if you know me. There is nothing contemptuous about my position at all. If anything you're the one sounding a bit snide. The film's primary themes were those of failed diplomacy and letting oneself be governed by fear and hate rather than be understanding and compassion. That's what the film's about. These are themes that transcend both genders. My problem with people like you is that you see only sex organs and not big pictures. Your desire for strictly statistical equality is so short-sighted that you allow yourself to be blinded to perfectly thought-provoking themes and ideas that both genders can appreciate EQUALLY.

  • Joe H | July 17, 2014 2:23 PM

    Yes, the film was largely about male characters, thus about men. Please stop using goofy technicalities. The fact that Caesar and co. are apes doesn't imply they are human-like. For all intensive purposes, the film utilizes the evolved apes to paint a larger picture of the HUMAN experience. Thus, you need not make your technical distinctions. The behavior of both the humans and the apes are synonymous. Furthermore, the REASON the main human character had to be male was to draw similarities with James Franco's character in the previous film. It's a brotherly relationship and it made sense to continue that theme into the second film with a new character. What you're doing is letting your narrow-minded ideology affect your understanding of storytelling that makes logical sense. Also, what governing capacity did you comprehend female apes enjoying in very small post-apocalyptic societies? It's not like there's much room for extensive layered government with multiple opportunities for representation and leadership. These are basically small villages just trying to survive and rebuild. And I think the characters in the film are far more concerned about surviving than they are about political correctness, wouldn't you agree? Also, are you a female supremacist? Because you give off that impression. I have a feeling people like you won't be truly satisfied until evolved societies are portrayed as matriarchies. Nothing I have said is vaguely misogynistic in any conceivable way so perhaps you should learn to argue with a little more respect for opposing non-offensive viewpoints. Stop pretending like you're omniscient. Have you ever considered that maybe you don't have all the answers?

  • Tom Swift | July 17, 2014 4:16 AM

    Female empowerment? Gender roles? Are you remedial? We have lived in societies of men and women for a quarter million years and only in the last hundred - hundred, genius: hundred years - have half our population with half our creativity, half our intelligence, half our heart, and half our power and perspective even had, in one very small corner of our political planet, a remote chance at a voice in the workings of the world. That, thankfully, can't be undone, while this film pretends, absurdly, that it can. Is it what happened in WWII? Negative. Or Afghanistan/Iraq? Do you hear yourself? I mean, really - do you? Hear? Your? Self? I'd like to see you revise what you've written and show that we actually have the capacity to learn something, not just from storytelling, or its failure, but from each other. This movie is called Rise of the Planet of the Apes, to a large degree therefore it is a movie about Apes, not about 'men' as you say - thus to be labeled sexist. "Why must films about men be labeled sexist toward women?" Good god. Films about MEN, you noodge? It's Planet of the APES! Do you honestly find nothing curious in a conception of apes (much less 'men' and 'women' of the 21st century), in which the female members of the societies have ZERO influence? No voice? No governing capacity? Here was an opportunity to explore what, at least in Bonobo societies, but to some degree in the other three great apes, is a very different model of social order - wasted. Forget which gender, they're an ALTERNATIVE, and that is what we are always looking for in art, and pop art too, yes - maybe ESPECIALLY in pop art! And then, we humans, even in ancient times, had Nefertiti, Cleopatra, Mary, Elizabeth, Joan, Catherine and more recently Mary Wollstonecraft, Abigail Adams and Dolly Madison (among many others), before we get the full throated contributions of our more contemporary peers from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Your perspective and the film's is an obscene step backward. Think of The Matrix, another post-apocalyptic, wastelandic, potentially mano-a-mano movie, in which, instead, Trinity, the Oracle and in later installments captains, pilots, fighters and lovers were all portrayed - as reflects our society as it is now - by shrewd, passionate and steadfast women who had male and female friends and colleagues. That's the kind of world, and perhaps an even more interesting one, that the filmmakers (and you), might have examined in The Planet of the Apes. Instead this was a huge step backward in speculative fiction. Huge. Literally one of the lamest and the worst. I left the theater feeling that it was a very sad day for Isaac Asimov, Octavia Butler, Stephen Spielberg, Arthur C. Clarke, Doris Lessing, the Wachowskis, Kurt Vonnegut, JRR Tolkien, Stanislaw Lem, Ray Bradbury and especially Rod Serling, for whose legacy of forty years ago you and this film show such contempt. You would do well to your own friends and family to revise your position. Pop culture matters in the way we talk to each other and the way we raise our sons and daughters and how they come to think of themselves. Do better.

    Sincerely,

    Tom

  • Matthew | July 16, 2014 8:24 PMReply

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

  • Frank Barone | July 16, 2014 4:28 PMReply

    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 | July 16, 2014 4:15 PMReply

    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.

  • You're a shitty person. | July 28, 2014 10:00 PM

    That's so shit. Women can be just as warmongering as men, they don't have to be some weird artificial plot device representing "hope". Women are PEOPLE too. And in films they should be characters first. You really think if all the characters had their gender switched, the movie would be completely ruined? Then you're sexist.

  • Joe | July 16, 2014 8:25 PM

    @Fartzilla that is a disgusting sentiment. Chalk it up to either plain misogyny or just bad taste, you are the reason angry feminists exist. Also, what kind of a name is "fartzilla?" Mature much?

  • fartzilla | July 16, 2014 5:15 PM

    Actually, women would ruin the planet quicker than anyone if they were left in charge.

  • Rob W | July 16, 2014 3:46 PMReply

    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.

  • fartzilla | July 16, 2014 5:13 PM

    Because it totally hurt of box office of the movie, right?

  • JabbaTheWhat | July 16, 2014 3:22 PMReply

    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.

  • YodatheYeti | July 16, 2014 4:58 PM

    So true! And those who think this movie is anything more than pure popcorn entertainment are fools. It's just a movie, and isn't trying to say anything or be anything more than two-hours of mindless entertainment. In fact, reviewing movies is stupid too. Movies are for watching and not for thinking about, right?

  • Sam Adams | July 16, 2014 3:35 PM

    Writing that comment = time well spent.

  • Fartzilla | July 16, 2014 3:03 PMReply

    Literally no-one gives a shit.

  • Fartzilla | July 16, 2014 5:14 PM

    1. So this shit is what's now called a "think piece?"
    2. Let me be more clear: no one gives a shit about the thesis of this article

  • Ignacio | July 16, 2014 3:37 PM

    That's false. The movie is quite succesful so far, critically and financially. Think pieces a plenty are on the way.

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