Notions of Race, Gender and Culture in Cooper’s and Jackson’s "King Kong"

Essay 2015 12 Pages

American Studies - Culture and Applied Geography




1. ‘Black Buck’ meets ‘White Goddess’ – Race and Sexuality in King Kong

2. Spotting the Victim – Gender in King Kong

3. Nature’s Revenge on Industry – Culture in King Kong

4. Conclusion


The quote featured in this paper’s title is taken from the corresponding proverb.


The academic consideration of movies and their significance regarding the creation and shaping of discourse is a relatively new, yet fruitful approach to socio-cultural studies (c.f. Erb 1998: 13f. a. Benshoff & Griffin 2004: 3). Like other cultural items, movies reflect the norms and realities of the environment they are produced in and, thus, feature statements about what their respective culture of origin considers to be ‘normal’ – on both overt and covert, or, conscious and unconscious levels (c.f. Vogler 1978: 109). The presentation of these notions in Hollywood films offers “keen insights into the ways that different groups of American people have been treated (and continue to be treated)” (Benshoff & Griffin 2004: 3). It is therefore important to note that the, albeit fictive, representations of people on screen are also capable of influencing their perception in real life (c.f. ibid.).

The analysis of genre movies appears to be especially suited for socio-cultural considerations, as these movies not only provide comparable narrative structures, but also feature recurring tropes (c.f. Stymeist 2009: 395f. a. Benshoff & Griffin 2004: 30f). Furthermore, the extent of their success and endurance mirrors their respective capability of representing and mediating discourse, as well as contextualizing it with regard to current social realities (c.f. ibid.). Taking these parameters into account, it can be argued that the horror genre is particularly promising in this respect, as it usually features a monster which counters social norms concerning notions such as race, class and gender (c.f. ibid.). In that, the monster embodies a society’s fears and is sometimes even regarded as a perversion threatening the status quo which, “in classic Hollywood horror films [...], is conventionally represented by middle-to-upper-class, white, heterosexual couples and patriarchal institutions” (Benshoff & Griffin 2004: 31).

Merian Cooper’s King Kong (1933, c.f. Internet Movie Database, IMDb) might arguably be the most striking example that comes to mind when evaluating the socio-cultural impact of horror movies, especially when focusing on the representation of race, gender and culture (c.f. Cowlishaw 2006: 1714, Stymeist 2009: 396f. a. Erb 1998: 13-15). As Erb points out, the movie’s eponymous giant ape is “one of the best-known characters ever produced by the Hollywood cinema, and a figure repeatedly activated in art and mass culture” (Erb 1998: 13), the most recent adaptation being directed by Peter Jackson (2005, c.f. IMDb). However, as King Kong nowadays usually occurs in a decontextualized manner, the problematic implications of the monster’s creation and original appearance are often shrouded in its trivial popularity (c.f. Erb 1998: 13 a. 20 a. Stymeist 2009: 404). Therefore, this paper’s primary objective is a comparative and historically contextualized reading of the two aforementioned movies, mainly focusing on the manner in which norms regarding race, gender and culture are delineated, due to their rather tangible presence in the narrative structure of King Kong, as mentioned above (c.f. Cowlishaw 2006: 1714, Stymeist 2009: 396f. a. Erb 1998: 13-15). This paper’s analysis also evaluates to what extent the respective representations of these discursive notions change over the course of time, that is, whether there are significant differences between the two movies taken into account. After a discussion of race and its linkage with sexuality as presented in both versions of King Kong, the analysis continues with the movies’ representations of gender, especially regarding womanhood, before considering the significance and connotations of culture as depicted in both films.

1. ‘Black Buck’ meets ‘White Goddess’ – Race and Sexuality in King Kong

Cooper’s King Kong, released in 1933, and Jackson’s recent adaptation, filmed roughly 70 years later, are most frequently ascribed to the horror and monster genre (c.f. Erb 1998: 22 a. 27, Stymeist 2009 a. Berenstein 1994: 315). This trivialization is, as Erb states, a problematic one: it not only neglects the roots of Kong’s character and the social implications of the manner in which he is presented, but also underestimates the original movie’s overall cultural significance (c.f. Erb 1998: 13, 20 a. 27). While this might be a rather frequent phenomenon when considering tropes of popular culture, “in the case of King Kong, one significant consequence is that the character’s historical origins in a moment of extreme racial strife largely vanish, leaving behind only a ‘cute animal’ figure” (ibid.: 20), as presented in the narrative’s current version (c.f. Cowlishaw 2006: 1714). Such sympathetic and emotional depictions of the ape, as in Jackson’s movie, are prone to erase these original notions, leaving behind a “completely domesticated, deracinated ape of mass culture” (Erb 1998: 206f.). However, they also enable the previously mentioned activation of Kong’s character under other circumstances and his resultant success in the first place, which is also due to the original’s many layers that allow for such varying interpretations (c.f. ibid.: 13, 27 a. 33). In that, as Erb and Berenstein argue, there is a lot more to the narrative structure of the original King Kong than its elements of horror and monster movies (c.f. ibid.: 27 a. Berenstein 1994: 315). The movie’s contemporary audience probably associated the film with the genres Cooper’s earlier works belong to, namely, “travel documentaries and jungle adventure films [...] that were arguably most salient at the time of [King Kong’s] release” (Erb 1998: 27).

The therefore likely juxtaposition of King Kong and Cooper’s previous movies puts the creation and perception of the ape in a racial perspective, recalling tropes of Othering and Primitivism (c.f. ibid.: 66 a. Benshoff & Griffin 2004: 56). Regarding the first term, Othering, it can generally be stated, that this psychological construction of a positive sense of self against a negative other functions via displacement – undesirable features of self-perception are assigned to another person or group (c.f. Benshoff & Griffin 2004: 56). The opposition of non-white and white serves as a striking example:

character traits common to all human groups – such as laziness, greed or criminality – are regularly denied as white traits and projected by dominant white culture onto racial or ethnic Others. In this way [...] whiteness represents itself as moral and good, while non-white groups are frequently characterized as immoral or inferior (ibid.).

In addition, the allegedly august status of whiteness is often connected to its supposedly controlled sexuality, against which its non-white equivalent is to appear wild and beastly (c.f. ibid.). Regarding the latter term, Primitivism, Erb points out that it is often considered to be “an uninformed decontextualization and mixing of African, Arabic, Oceanic and other cultural traditions [...] saying little about the actual lives and experiences of aboriginal people, [but] instead revealing more about the views of the Western artist or ethnographer” (Erb 1998: 66). While Othering plays an important role in horror and monster movies, as mentioned above, its combination with Primitivism is frequently featured in travel documentaries and jungle movies – and, thus, rather tangible in King Kong (c.f. ibid.: 15, 17, 27, 33 a. 66 a. Berenstein 1994: 314f.). When evaluating the movies’ racial aspects of representation, using notions of Othering, Primitivism, as well as sexuality and whiteness therefore seem fit approaches of reading the considered films.



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Title: Notions of Race, Gender and Culture in Cooper’s and Jackson’s "King Kong"