The Anti-Damsel Blogathon is here. Once I read about this topic, there was AB-SO-FREAKIN’-LUTELY no way I would skip this event! Our co-hosts are Jo aka Monstergirl of The Last Drive-In and Fritzi of Movies Silently. Don’t forget to visit Monstergirl and Fritzi’s blogs, for full event details. While you’re there, be sure to bookmark both their blogs, Fritzi is the rockstar of silent cinema, and Monstergirl rocks the suspense/horror category.
You may ask, what is an anti-damsel? In my view, she is not only a super warrior Grace Jones-type. Anti-damsels are diverse, like Grace Kelly in Rear Window or Jennifer Grey in Dirty Dancing, “Nobody puts Baby in the corner!”
They don’t even have to be human!
So pull up a chair and get ready for some super cinematic girl woman-she-chimp power!
If you know anything about me, you know:
- Anything HUAC–related is in my bailiwick
- I love monkey suit movies
- I am a card-carrying feminist
So as you can imagine, I am pretty gosh darn enthusiastic about covering Kim Hunter’s performance as Dr. Zira in Planet of the Apes. How often are we getting all three topics in one film, right?
Kim Hunter is likely best recognized for her performance as Stella Kowalski in the movie version of A Streetcar Named Desire, (for which she gained an Academy Award and a Golden Globe). I believe her most important role is Dr. Zira in Planet of the Apes. I know some may think this is an odd choice but stick with me. Streetcar director Elia Kazan identified Hunter, among many others, a Communist and the HUAC blacklisted her. Like many other great artists of her time, Kim Hunter’s career suffered from the vicious witch hunt. But Hunter took the high road, “Everybody did what they had to do in that crazy, evil period” (Neve, 67).
It was Arthur P. Jacobs, who suggested Hunter play Dr. Zira. However, Hunter was apprehensive, knowing she was on the blacklist. Jacobs was instrumental in removing her name from the blacklist. I would imagine playing the role like Dr. Zira empowered Hunter to some extent, the character allowed the actor the opportunity to confront a small minded government.
Here is the short version: Planet of the Apes is a sci-fi classic. It centers around an astronaut, Taylor (Charlton Heston), lost in time, and his struggle to survive on an ape-ruled planet. Like many great science fiction works, this film is socially progressive. Using its strangeness, Planet of the Apes comments on earthbound social issues including racism, science vs. religion, law and government, and animal rights.
While Taylor is the film’s focus, Dr. Zira is the hero. She is its substance, intellect, and bravery. Dr. Zira conveys the film’s social messages. She is the rationality in the “madhouse”:
The character, Dr. Zira, is significant particularly when compared with other female science fiction characters (pre-1970s). While there were a few exclusions, women were largely cast as a victim, a babe or a homemaker.
At this point, I want to say I have no issue with women in these roles, feminism includes respecting the choices of all women. My issue is with science fiction films that cast women in these roles without giving them a 3-dimensional character.
Dr. Zira breaks the mold she is far from a victim, despite her persecution! She might be a babe by Chimpanzee standards, but it is clear she is a lot more than a decorative object! She is not content to stay home and let the men handle business!
At the risk of throwing the film’s other women under the bus, let’s compare Dr. Zira to the other significant female characters.
Lt. Stewart dies in stasis during the journey.
TAYLOR. Did I tell you about Stewart? There was a lovely girl. The most precious cargo we brought along. If human life could survive here, she was to be the new Eve.
Then there is Nova (the gorgeous Linda Harrison), but Nova has no use other than as a possible mate for Taylor, and she is mute. In fact, both Lt. Stewart and Nova are voiceless women who are in the film solely to procreate.
Dr. Zira is the only female who speaks! Her words are the source of her power. Her male co-workers look up to her and follow her orders:
GALEN. You promised to speak to Dr. Zaius about me.
ZIRA. I did. But you know how he looks down his nose at chimpanzees.
GALEN. But the quota system’s been abolished! You made it. Why can’t I?
Later in the film:
JULIUS. He’s vicious, Doctor. Besides, it’s against the rules.
ZIRA. Do as I say.
While she is not physically aggressive, her voice is extremely powerful, she influences other’s actions. Compare her to Cornelius her husband an archeologist (Roddy McDowall). Cornelius discovers artifacts from an earlier society but fearing the simian government, he does not broadcast his findings.
ZIRA. But what about your theory? The existence of someone like Taylor might prove it.
CORNELIUS. Zira, are you trying to get my head cut off?
ZIRA. Don’t be foolish. If it’s true, they’ll have to accept it.
CORNELIUS. Because if he is a missing link, it means the Sacred Scrolls aren’t worth their parchment.
ZIRA. Well, maybe they’re not.
CORNELIUS. No, thank you. I won’t get into that battle.
ZIRA. Oh, Cornelius, show some strength!
Cornelius finds the courage to pursue his study, through Dr. Zira’s words and influence. She is unafraid to speak the truth, even when to express it goes against her society’s laws and religion, later in the film she and Cornelius attend a tribunal to determine Taylor’s fate. In the tribunal, she does not sit quietly, both she and Cornelius staunchly defend scientific fact.
PRESIDENT. Your archeological theories have no bearing on the disposition of this creature.
ZAIUS. Let them talk, Mr. President. Let them talk.
ZIRA. Sirs: our theories have a bearing on his identity.
PRESIDENT. How so?
ZIRA. Let us assume, as common sense dictates, that the prisoner’s story is false. But if he does not come from another planet, then surely he sprang from our own. Yes, sprang. As an animal psychologist, I have found no physiological defect to explain why humans are mute.
After conviction, Dr. Zira does not back down! She enlists her nephew Lucius (Lou Wagner), rescues Taylor from the laboratory, along with Cornelius they escape. But they do not run away, they return to Cornelius’s archeological dig site, to find evidence that apes may have evolved from a lower (human) species.
To a greater extent than any other character, Dr. Zira is committed to uncovering scientific truths. She is sympathetic but defends herself with reason. She is a pacifist, but she does not back down from physical violence. She faces conflict head on, best exemplified when Dr. Zaius and the Gorillas arrive at the excavation site. She shouts for Cornelius, but not for help, she was just letting Cornelius know they arrived. She does not run away from the men, but toward them.
Her simian (non-human) status, allowed filmmakers to take risks with Dr. Zira. Significant in her society, she is the only female in charge. She is the only female who communicates. She is smart, and her feminine powers make her the hero.
From her inability to keep quiet to her scandalous interspecies kiss with Taylor, Dr. Zira is a pioneer for women in science fiction. And unlike the Black Widow from The Avengers, it did not involve massive amounts of internet lobbying for toy manufacturers to make a Dr. Zira action figure.
Neve, Brian. “Morality, Politics, and Self-Interest: Framing the Hollywood Blacklist.” Film and Ethics: What Would You Have Done? Ed. Jacqui Miller. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013. Print
Planet of the Apes. Perf. Kim Hunter. 1968. DVD.
Russo, Joe, and Larry Landsman. Planet of the Apes Revisited: The Behind-The-Scenes Story of the Classic Science Fiction Saga. New York: Thomas Dunne /St. Martin’s Griffin, 2001. Print.