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(DISCLAIMER: This piece contains spoilers.)
Let’s cut to the chase: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes does not pass the Bechdel test.
Let’s cut to another chase: comedian and all-around exemplary human being Paul F. Tompkins took a stand for the Bechdel test as it pertains to apes and other animatronic flights of fancy:
HEY YOUNG MEN! I know it seems like women complain a lot about how they are represented in media, including fiction, and how it seems like they want entertainment tailored specifically to them, and how they seem to want ALL of pop culture to be politically correct or feminist-ized or whatever it is you think they want, but really, what’s happening is that women are tired of seeing garbage women characters in most of our entertainment. And they’re wondering, Would it really be so much trouble to make more realized female characters? You could still have all your CGI and action and science fiction and drama and swords and stuff, but the female characters could be a little more fleshed out and interesting. And the entertainment would still be good and would, in fact, be better.
Tompkins’ post (aptly penned “allyship” by Alanna Bennett at Bustle) evolved out of a Twitter debate (twebate?), which initially grew out of this:
This “jesus christ who f*cking cares” thing appears to have been a comedic bit of one @TheSamGrady, not the lurking of a real-live troll, but somewhat of a long Twitter-based con. But, that’s part of the problem. Responding to a legitimate issue of gender disparity in blockbuster movies with a throwaway “whatever-screw-this-jazz” joke is like pouring a pitcher of iodine on an open wound. It’s pretty aggressive, insensitive, and burns like hell.
So, let’s continue the conversation positively and proactively. Let’s Bechdel the bananas out of Dawn of Planet of the Apes.
What Is This Movie?
Dawn of Planet of the Apes picks up right where the epilogue end-credits of its precursor, Rise of Planet of the Apes, leaves off. A lab-created “simian virus” that caused enhanced intelligence in apes in the first movie has since wreaked havoc on the human race. The statistics are staggering: only 1 in 500 have survived the epidemic. Martial law reigns.
In San Francisco, we learn that Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) established a colony ten years ago whose only hope now is getting the power restored. They’ve got to get to the nearby dam to do so. Meanwhile, the apes live harmoniously in swinging distance of this dam (in Golden Gate Park?) under Caesar’s peaceful rule. They hunt, they speak, a big guy named Maurice teaches the little ones how to write and read—they’re doing very well.
This is an action movie about war. Okay, got it. It’s also a movie about home and family. Traditional and outdated gender roles aside, there theoretically should be something for everybody here: the pacifists, and also the folks who just want to see an ape ride a horse while firing rounds off a machine gun before getting blasted by a rocket launcher and commandeering a tank. (Sometimes, those people are the same person. Ahem.)
But, Does It Feature Women?
Does it have women? Ha! Ever heard of a woman named Keri “the Krusher” Russell?? (Made that nickname up. Sorry everyone.) Keri Russell is a multi-faceted badass on FX’s The Americans, so I was eagerly anticipating her “Apes” character, Ellie, to be drawn in a similar vein of complexity and contrasts.
On the surface, Ellie is a tough chick. She survived the virus epidemic, for starters, she worked as a scientist pre-outbreak, and she’s acquired enough medical training to expertly mend an ape’s bullet wound without even a blood transfusion.
However, there’s a big problem. Ellie maintains three roles: to act as a mirror of the female ape, to serve the male characters, and to function as an emotional counterweight. Put another way: she mothers, she nurtures, she worries. As a Russell fan, this limiting role is a tough pill to swallow.
An argument can be made that a movie can’t afford the time to develop a character as thoroughly as a series does, so it’s fruitless to yearn for such an empowered female character like Russell’s Elizabeth on “The Americans.” And, true, we don’t know a whole lot about the other human characters in “Apes” either, men included.
We do know a lot about the apes. What don’t we know about apes! Blue Eyes is a rebellious teen who learns a thing or two, and Ash is sensitive, and Koba is mistrustful, and Caesar is wise, and Mama Ape—
Um. Hm. Mama Ape gives birth, Mama Ape gets sick, Mama Ape wears a funky puka shell looking headband… Does Mama Ape have a name? I don’t recall hearing (or reading the subtitles of) a name for Mama, other than “Mother.” But on IMDb there’s a “Cornelia” credited to… Judy Greer?! The unendingly talented Judy Greer of Archer, Arrested Development, and The Descendants among many, many other awesome things? And she doesn’t even get to speak?
The apes here abide by the rules of patriarchal society—yes dear-ers and nurturers serve the breadwinners, or, in the apes’ case, bear-killers. But what are typical roles of female apes in the wild? It is not new news that female primates are just as capable of stereotypically “masculine” behavior as male primates.
Whereas primate studies in the 1960’s found male apes responsible for creating the hierarchies in their social systems, research done some twenty years later debunked that myth, concluding that female primates were just as likely to demonstrate aptitude for leadership. Female primates can be aggressive, territorial, and general forces-to-be-reckoned-with, too.
Why did primitive (primate-ive! oh my, we have fun) patriarchal gender roles rub off on Caesar, Cornelia, Koba and the rest of these apes? The subtext here is that when apes get smart, they learn to put women in their place.
But, Does It Pass The Bechdel Test?
Nope. Ellie and Cornelia the Mother Ape never speak to each other. Even when Ellie is administering medicine to the ailing Cornelia, they don’t speak to each other. Cornelia doesn’t even sign. They communicate entirely through Caesar.
Would It Have Been Easy To Pass The Test?
I admit it. I went into the movie theater floating high on an optimism cloud. Surely this movie about the tenuous survival of humanity and the clash of warring species can afford at least one conversation between two female characters! Human to human, ape to ape, human to ape—I’d take any of it.
The long and short of it is that the lack of involvement between women onscreen is incredibly unrealistic. Barring Cornelia’s underdeveloped role in the ape world, how is there only one human woman on that damn (sic) reconnaissance mission (who also happens to be the love interest of the lead guy), and how come her role is relegated to “look-out with kid”? And in a post-apocalyptic martial law state, and after ten years, there are absolutely zero women in any positions of authority? Really? Did Senator Dianne Feinstein not make it?
I did count two women armed with guns in the battle scenes. They are nameless and flash on screen for maybe ten seconds apiece. So women can shoot, but they can’t speak. And in the ape world, “females and young” are explicitly told not to fight.
There were many opportunities wasted, and it’s frustrating that considerations for realism and reliability were scrapped in the interests of more-apes-slamming-stuff screen time.
What Would’ve Been Gained?
I would have loved to see a scene between Ellie and Cornelia where these two gals could bond over this thing of, “Honestly, what the eff kind of dick-slinging contest is going on around here?” And perhaps such a scene ended up on the cutting room floor, which, if true, is a shame. Giving texture to both these characters would lend to a fuller, more intricate story as a whole.
What if these two reached a mutual understanding that they are survivalists in a doomed world that undervalues them? Or what if they found a deeper connection in their similarities as matriarchs?
It’s really very weird that Ellie and Cornelia do not communicate with each other while Ellie treats Cornelia’s illness. Beyond both being female, they are both mothers suffering ricocheting pangs of motherhood. Ellie is grieving the loss of her daughter while attempting to mother Malcolm’s son, and Cornelia develops an infection following her baby’s delivery. And they are both partners to powerful tribe leaders to boot. The epiphany of the movie is that apes aren't all good and humans aren't all bad—the two species share more in common than anyone expected. What better opportunity to play with this idea than showcasing a heartfelt connection of, “Hey girlfriend: I get you”?
On a broader level, it’s not just about the basest understanding of, “Does a woman speak to a woman?” It’s about what that question means—that a female character doesn’t need to assume an old-fashioned “female role” to be relevant, and that two women in conversation with each other is just as natural a tool of forwarding the plot as man-to-man or man-to-woman.