“Planet of the Apes” and How Racism, Sexism Hurts Science Fiction

Honestly, as a brown Muslim who takes his science fiction seriously, I wish I could like the “Planet of the Apes” films. I really do. I’m always a sucker for mind-boggling time travel paradoxes, and “Planet of the Apes,” especially Tim Burton’s remake, gives sci-fi aficionados plenty to discuss/debate in that regard. However, as I recently revisited the films after several years, I am disheartened by what I found.

I vividly remember watching the 1968 classic “Planet of the Apes,” starring Hollywood legend Charlton Heston, when I was a kid. I also remember being frightened by the apes. They were strange and scary-looking “monkey people” as far as my childhood brain was concerned. Interestingly, I recall feeling an odd sense of satisfaction when Heston, the White male protagonist, shouted the infamous line: “Take your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!” I cheered for Heston because I hated the apes. They were animals.

Hairy. Ugly. Dark.

Throughout the film, I was waiting for Heston to find a machine gun and plow them all down like Rambo. That scene never came though; the movie just ended with Heston in front of a ruined Statue of Liberty and screaming in despair about something that my young self couldn’t understand. Many years later, when I was 17, Tim Burton’s remake in the summer of 2001 sparked my interest in the “Apes” franchise. I watched the original again and became an instant fan. I even enjoyed Burton’s remake (aside from some of my friends, not many people liked his version, but I’ll get to that later).

About a week ago, I was speaking with a friend about the bizarre ending to Burton’s “Planet of the Apes” and our discussion prompted me to revisit the movies yet again. This time around, at 26, it was upsetting to discover overt sexism and disturbing commentary on race in both films. Let’s begin with the original 1968 film: it is essentially space porn in its treatment of women. Out of the four American astronauts traveling thousands of years into the future in hopes to start a new civilization on another planet, only one is a woman. Without a single word of dialogue, she has about 3 or 4 seconds of screen time before being killed off by a lame air leak in her hibernation vessel. In other words, she doesn’t even survive the voyage! Furthermore, after the spaceship unexpectedly crash-lands in a river on an unknown planet (which we find out to be earth in the famous twist ending), the three male characters abandon ship without the woman’s body, completely denying her at least a proper burial.

As Heston gives some exposition about why he left earth, he reflects on the female character, Stewart, and how she was supposed to be “our new Eve.” Stewart is reduced to a reproduction machine and, were she to survive the expedition, her sole purpose would be to mate with one of the three males. Or, given the competitiveness of the male characters and the sexual frustration subtly expressed by Heston’s character later in the film, she would probably have to mate with all three men. I simply find it illogical for a small group of astronauts to embark on an enormous one-way journey and only bring one woman along to serve as their “Eve.” But the objectification of women and space porn fantasy doesn’t stop there.

When Heston and his two fellow astronauts stumble upon a tribe of humans living in the wild, a scantily-clad female native catches Heston’s eyes. Like the other humans on this future earth, she is mute and primitive. When Heston is paired to mate with her, he does not complain, nor does she. And why should Heston complain? He is a heterosexual space traveler in an unknown world and has a woman at his side – a woman who is only a body; she does not speak, challenge his actions, or resist his authority. Heston can do anything he wants with her. He even names her like a pet; never mind whether or not she had a name of her own or didn’t like to be called “Nova.” It is easy to argue that traveling into a distant future where a primitive and woman looks up to you as the superior male figure is nothing short of exotic, highly sexualized hetero-male fantasy. The only female character with speaking parts is Zira, the ape who, with the help of her fiancé Cornelius, defends Heston and human rights. However, she is consistently treated as an “other,” making it very easy, I would argue, for the audience to perceive her exclusively as an ape and not an empowered female.

The “otherness” of the apes and its correlation with people of color, specifically African-Americans, has been much discussed in other critiques of the film. As Gregory P. Kane of Black America Web comments:

The apes in the films have names, but they also have something else: A racial hierarchy. The blonde-haired orangutans are at the top, ruling the roost. Next in line are the chimpanzees, depicted in the films as having brown hair and light-skinned faces. At the bottom are the gorillas, who have black hair and – yes, you guessed right – black-skinned faces.

While one of the American astronauts is Black, he is quickly killed when the apes round up the humans in their first on-screen appearance. The humans on this future earth, by the way, are all White. As Kane remarks, “All those Black folks in New York today, and NOT ONE survived in the future? Oh, and there are no Latinos or Asians either. Every one of the future humans – the ones who survived – is White.”

One could make a counter-argument that the film condemns racism and actually blames “man” for essentially nuking humanity into extinction.  The argument would continue and point out that the experiences African-Americans have with racism in White supremacist heteropatriachy is exemplified in Heston’s character. That is, although Heston is a White man surrounded by an “other” majority, the role reversal is meant to allegorically teach White people how it feels to be enslaved and discriminated against.

I can see some aspects of this perspective, specifically the way the film regularly criticizes the destructive nature of “man,” but it does not excuse the stereotypical representations of apes that are meant to stand in for African-Americans and people of color. To be “human” in the film is to be “White,” and to be “Ape” is to be of color. Even if the message was about denouncing racism, the film’s ending – with Heston realizing that humanity (read: White people) blew up the world – sends an ominous and cynical warning: White people are going to destroy the world and make way for the genetically and technologically “inferior” races and civilizations to rule the planet.

Sadly, this racist theme is even more pronounced in Tim Burton’s 2001 remake. Like the original, the protagonist, played by Mark Wahlberg, represents the White man as a minority. In order for Wahlberg to return to earth, he has to fight an epic and violent battle against the apes, which only reinforces the White and “other” divide. What we see new in Burton’s film is the influx of Orientalism. The apes carry scimitars and wear pointed helmets, floral-patterned clothing and ornaments which all look like an odd fusion of Arabian, Ottoman, and South Asian art. Even when we are first introduced to an ape village, we see the apes playing sitars and smoking hookah. These images call for an important analysis on how representations of the non-human species in popular science fiction compares to the way people of color are depicted in mainstream media and perceived in society. Metaphilm alludes to this point in its commentary on Burton’s film, describing the attitude as: “Damn, look what’s happening to America! The White man is getting screwed. If we don’t do something, the Black man is going to take over our whole, f***ing planet!”

The author elaborates:

Burton’s “Planet of the Apes” fuels this exact kind of racial defensiveness. The connection between the domineering apes and the growing Black (and ethnic) culture in America is striking. Almost every human represented in the film is played by a White actor: an insignificant Black man ends up getting killed, and a submissive Asian woman is virtually invisible. If humanity is represented as being White in the film, then apeness is understood as being colored. The Black man and Asian woman represent minorities that have chosen to blend into Whiteness: cultural sell-outs. And, according to the film, they too will suffer under ape domination.

In addition to these Black and Asian “sell-outs,” there are also the ape “sell-outs,” notably the female ape, Ari (played by Helena Bonham Carter). She is a passionate human rights activist and actually a very well-developed character. I mentioned earlier that not many people liked Burton’s remake, mostly because they didn’t believe it felt like a Burton film. True, I believe the studio tried to transform the original into an action movie, but if there is one aspect of the film, aside from the aesthetic, that has Burton’s signature written all over it, it is the romantic and sexual tension between the female ape and the male human. One could argue that the romance here is tainted with White hetero (earth-) male space fantasy and exoticism.

Ari is an empowered female ape and perhaps the most three-dimensional character in the entire film. She is devoted to her activism for human rights and challenges anti-human sentiment and policies, including in her family. When Wahlberg arrives, she immediately falls in love with him – a complete stranger from another planet – and loses all sense of her own identity. Whenever Ari is around Wahlberg’s character, she is deeply fascinated by him, by how intelligent he is and how he comes from somewhere else, a more technologically advanced, superior civilization where the humans – the White man – rules and dominates. Furthermore, the inter-species Love is only one-way. Wahlberg never shows any interest in her or in the female human character who also swoons over him. The latter is scantily-clad like the original film’s “Nova” and is played by supermodel Estella Warren. She hardly has any dialogue because, quite obviously, she serves only as eye-candy. But Wahlberg doesn’t care about them. Throughout the movie, he just cares about getting the heck off the planet!

The inter-species romance can easily be read as an inter-racial relationship. This is a common trope we find in science fiction where non-human species are stand-ins for people of color. This becomes more clear when we pay attention to social status, power dynamics, how the characters are being depicted and racialized. Although Ari is played by a White woman, her ape character’s representation is consistent with the way women of color are often portrayed in mainstream media: exoticized, animalistic (and that is obvious here), oppressed by the men of her own race/species, and must be rescued by the White man (this isn’t the first time to appear in science fiction either, you can find it in James Cameron’s recent “Avatar” film). Perhaps the most insulting aspect of the film’s sexism is how Wahlberg gets to kiss both Ari and the female human at the end of the movie! And neither of the women have any objection to that! Why should they – he is the White Messiah figure, they should feel honored he bothered to show them some attention in the first place, right?!

In closing, it is discouraging for me to reject these films that I once enjoyed. I’ve always appreciated how science fiction could convey important social (see “1984”), political (see “V for Vendetta”), and even spiritual (see “Star Wars”) messages in fantastical or futuristic settings, but throughout the history of the genre, at least in Western literature, non-human species have been used as substitutes for people of color. Though the intention is not always to be racist, the perception of the “other” is always reinforced, just as “otherness” is stressed when people of color are portrayed. This makes it quite challenging for people of color like myself to enjoy science fiction classics like “Planet of the Apes.” Women, especially women of color, are relegated to the background, and whenever they are given significant roles, they are almost always hyper-sexualized and exoticized. I really believe they could have made a “Planet of the Apes” film without the racism and sexism. For instance, why couldn’t the protagonist be Brown or Black or Yellow? Or why couldn’t the protagonist be a woman? Why not a woman of color? Why always a White man?

For women and people of color, I only see one solution to this: we need to start promoting and writing our own science fiction stories.