Dawn of the planet of the …bonobos?

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Despite glowing reviews, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes makes for disappointing viewing. Alpha male apes say things like: “apes don’t kill apes”; and the plot is a simplified Prisoners’ Dilemma. Cooperation would benefit both sides, but in the absence of trust, apes and humans attempt to destroy each other before being destroyed in turn. It also resembles 50s Hollywood sexism at its worst.

Almost all the active characters are male – both ape and human. And the one human woman in the main cast does typical female stuff. She provides medical assistance, seeks to befriend the hero’s son, and sits passively in a car in the middle of the forest while her partner fearlessly tries to save San Francisco.  The only female ape, who’s more than an extra, distinguished from the male apes by what looks like a necklace around her head (although it could be ingrown thorns), has just given birth. Like the female human, she is pictured with children – in this case her just born chimp off-spring. Both female underlings take orders from the male heroes (ape and human), and are there to provide romantic interest to two alpha males.

Walking out of the movie, I thought what would the film have been like if the chimps had been bonobos instead?

Of course the title refers to apes, but apes tend to mean chimps, and though the film does include a few other primates, such as orangutans and gorillas, they all seem modelled on chimps: combative, hierarchical and patriarchal.

Dawn … is saturated by acts of chimp submission. Subordinates grovel and pant while puffed-up dominant chimps stand over them, enacting an ostentatious display of rank.

What else would we expect? These are primates after all. And chimps are regularly deployed to represent our essential species self as competitive, hostile towards outsiders, aggressive and male dominated.

What about bonobos?

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Turning to bonobos

Bonobos have historically received little attention. Although they are as near to us genetically as chimps, they were only identified as a separate species in the late 1920s. And because of the kinds of primates bonobos are, human primates’ interest in them has proved ambivalent.

Bonobos are not a society ruled by alpha males. Although male bonobos are larger than females, they don’t dominate them, nor do the males have higher status. Females control the food supply; male bonobos stay tied to their mother, and according to Frans de Waal, it is the mother’s relationship with other female bonobos that shapes male status.

In his book, Bonobo: The forgotten ape, Frans de Waal describes the bonobo as a “female-centered, egalitarian primate species”. Bonobos, he writes, are far less aggressive and violent than chimps, as conflict and other tensions are often resolved through sex. Indeed, erotic activities, often brief and casually performed, form a mainstay of bonobo life. Taking place between apes with both the same and different genitals, in a variety of configurations, bonobo sex seems to be a primary means of managing tension and getting pleasure.

Ape movie sex

By contrast, Dawn of the planet of the apes gives sex a rather limited function – a tacit means of sustaining nuclear heterosexual families. In the film, the chimp leader returns on several occasions to check on his spouse and baby; among the humans, sex builds loyalties and cements family life – at least among the only couple in the film to be shown having a romantic relationship. Beyond that sex has little purpose; it certainly doesn’t resolve disputes.

Tensions, threat and betrayal among chimps, among humans, and between them takes place through violence. Apes wrestle, and both apes and humans shoot and cause havoc in ways reminiscent of Westerns, war movies, and current news footage.

But what would the film have been like if the humans had encountered bonobos rather than chimps in the forests north of San Francisco? Probably the bonobos would have fled, given their enacted shyness towards human primates. But if the movie’s narrative depended on contact, we could imagine a story of inter-species communication, with a great deal of grooming, and strong female characters forming alliances both within their communities and with outsiders. Female solidarity among bonobos has an exogenous dimension as young female apes leave their birth families to join other communities, and seek to bond with female members there. It would also be a film with a great deal of sex.

Using sex to resolve conflict sounds a lot like a porn film. Erotic sensuality (as  opposed to sexual violence) isn’t usually seen as legitimately embedded within film narratives outside of romantic relationships or commercially transacted encounters. Beyond its particular, narrowly designated contexts, sex appears gratuitous – even pornographic – in its insistence that a story which seems to be about tension and conflict and work and (in this case) apes should necessarily also be about consensual, productive (but non-reproductive) sex.

A movie where apes masturbate and engage in same-sex genital rubbing seems a film of a rather different genre from what we have come to expect of planet of the apes. But can we rethink the legitimate place of cinematic sex in a film such as Dawn … that seeks to depict how primates act in times of crisis? And can we rethink what constitutes sex to include a whole host of bodily contact?

Dawn of the planet of the apes attempts to be allegorical, reading apes and humans as two communities seeking survival. And in this respect it appears progressive in its depiction of equally legitimate ways of living; side-by-side cultures that could collaborate but fear to do so. Some attempts are made to forge cross-species alliances and trust, but their ultimate weakness in the face of chimp and human power-plays brings on mutual destruction.

As allegory, Dawn … offers a depressing picture of social life. Some may feel it is dramatic and entertaining, in contrast to a film about matriarchal apes forming alliances with stranger outsiders, and resolving tension and competition with diverse forms of sex. But how cinematically stimulating are endless battles, explosions, falls from great heights, and charges on horseback in a context where male conflict leaves little room for character development and other forms of resolution and social struggle?

Planet of the apes has generated several films to date; there is still room for planet of the bonobos.

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