King Kong: RKO pictures, 1933
I have recently finished reading Black and British: A Forgotten History by David Olusoga, an excellent book, which accompanied a BBC TV series of the same name. I can't praise this book enough, and I'm not going to say everything that is to be said about it here. Instead, I'm going to talk about something that came out of my reading of this and another book: The Anatomical Venus by Joanna Ebenstein. It concerns a recurring image of paranoia, racism and sexism that ends up as the much-remade RKO film, King Kong.
Before I start, let me warn you that this blog contains images and text that some people may find distressing and/or offensive.
It begins with a painting: The Nightmare by Anglo-Swiss artist Henry Fuseli.
The Nightmare: Henry Fuseli, 1781
There are several versions of this painting, but it basically depicts a beautiful young woman, asleep or swooning, with an ape-like incubus perched on top of her. This hideous creature is the Night Mare of folklore. The Tate Britain has this to say about it:
This painting created a sensation when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1782. What is the subject of this painting? We may never be sure; Fuseli wanted his picture to intrigue us. The leering imp may embody the physical effects of a nightmare, or be an emblem of sexual desire. Is this picture an allegory, an illustration of a literary source, or something more personal?
Fuseli had opened a whole box of Gothic nightmares about madness, dreams, terror and sexuality, that was to go on unfolding during the 19th ceuntury. The painting went on to be copied and lampooned many times.
It appears again as a waxwork exhibit in Emil Hammer's Munich Panopticon.
The Nightmare: Emil Hammer
According to Joanna Ebenstein, "These exhibitions (panopticons) fall somewhere between aristocratic cabinets of curiosity and modern museums, displaying for a popular audience anatomical and pathological waxworks, human specimens, death masks of celebrities and murderers, ethnographic busts depicting the "races of man", and assorted curiosities, including...monkey skeletons. Panopticons also presented live acts, such as singers, dancers, ventriloquists, hunger artists (who "starved" for an audience's entertainment), living "freaks" and "ethnic rarities." They claimed to be educational, but came with a hefty slice of voyeurism, titillation and morbid fascination. The woman's body is objectified in a way that is quite disgusting. As are the bodies of the "freaks" and "ethnic rarities." (God help the person who was all three!)
This was the age when not only individuals but whole communities were exhibited in large-scale fairs and exhibitions. For example, Frank Fillis's "Savage South Africa" show of 1899-1900 or the Senegalese Village at the Franco-British Exhibition of 1908. Anthropology and the psuedo-science of Social Darwinism had led to people being exhibited under the topic of "natural history," both in Europe and North America. In two of the most horrible examples, a young man called Ota Benga was kept in a cage with monkeys in the Bronx Zoo, and an unknown African man who was stuffed and mounted in a museum in Spain.
The horrible new "scientific" strain of racism that made these atrocities possible claimed that races of people could be classified and placed on an evolutionary scale. (Just as other living creatures had been classified in the way you might remember from biology class). Unsurprisingly, since it was invented by people of white European descent (or so they thought - who knows what was in their family tree that might have proved them wrong?!) Europeans were at the top and Africans were at the bottom. There were even suggestions that some races were the "missing link" between mankind and apes.
The psuedo-science of Social Darwinism
In a article for the Guardian, Pamela Newkirk reports that a New York Times editorial said:
“Ota Benga, according to our information, is a normal specimen of his race or tribe, with a brain as much developed as are those of its other members. Whether they are held to be illustrations of arrested development, and really closer to the anthropoid apes than the other African savages, or whether they are viewed as the degenerate descendants of ordinary negroes, they are of equal interest to the student of ethnology, and can be studied with profit.”
The editorial said it was absurd to imagine Benga’s suffering or humiliation. “Pygmies,” it continued, “are very low in the human scale, and the suggestion that Benga should be in a school instead of a cage ignores the high probability that school would be a place of torture to him … The idea that men are all much alike except as they have had or lacked opportunities for getting an education of books is now far out of date.”
This gives the symbolism of The Nightmare a sinister new twist. (As if it wasn't sinister enough already!) Added to Gothic fears about "what lies beneath" and a disturbing strain of sexist voyeurism is an equally disturbing layer of toxic racism. Who is that ape meant to be? We know that behind the turn-of-the-century belief in degenerate races was a fear that the people of Europe might degenerate into savages and imbeciles themselves. (We only have to read Dorian Gray or Jeckyll & Hyde to understand that). But how much harder is it to take a look at the monster lurking inside you, and how much easier to project the image of the monster onto the Other? One of the worst racist fears - which persisted long into the 20th century - was that of racial mixing, particularly that of African men with white European women. (This harks back to a very old racist stereotype about Africans being highly sexed). Not only was there a belief that a mixed-race child inherited the worst characteristics of both parents (why not the best?!?) but a hierarchy of races was necessary for the control of empire.
By the late C19th, Britain, the USA and Germany were all imperial powers, as were France and Belgium. The "Scramble for Africa" means that that thousands of black Africans were under the rule of primarily white nations. In this situation, the subjects vastly outnumbered the rulers. It is inevitable that the oppressors would fear what might happen if the oppressed rose up.
Political cartoon, showing USA, Britain & Germany being carried by Africans
Of course, the Imperial powers also feared one another. As the world descends into the Great War, the ravening apes get bigger and more monstrous.
Bolshevism brings war, unemployment and famine.
Association for conquering Bolshevism - 1918
This German propaganda poster depicts Communism as the terrifying Other.
This American poster depicts Imperial Germany as the monster. The swooning woman of The Nightmare is now carried on the arm of the ape, who is both angry and violent. A giant ape and swooning woman similar to this appears on the guidebook cover to a German museum of the type discussed above.
Which brings us to King Kong.
King Kong poster: RKO, 1933
We've arrived at the 1930s, and the ape is now enormous. Much bigger than the woman, who is still blonde, scantily-dressed and swooning. Blogs have been written about the racial stereotyping inherent in the "tribe" who worship Kong and sacrifice women to him, seemingly seeing a white woman as "superior" to one of their own. But what about Kong himself? Who is he? Like Ota Benga, he is taken from his homeland by strangers and exhibited in a show. The way Kong is forced to re-enact his home life on stage recalls the "African village" exhibitions of the 1900s. Some of the earlier "villagers" were in fact professional performers; others like Ota Benga were deeply unhappy. (Benga was eventually rescued from the zoo and educated by a church minister, but later committed suicide). The film shows some sympathy for Kong, but he is still a dumb animal. At his best, he is childlike; at his worst, violent and destructive. This sounds all too like the imperialist Social Darwinist view of people of African descent. It's a worrying thought, especially considering how many times King Kong has been remade.
To be honest, I don't know what King Kong means. Any more than I know what The Nightmare means. I'm just following a trail of images. I do know that, as I write, the nightmare of xenophobia looms large once again. I thought it was worth pointing out.
David Olusoga, Black and British: A Forgotten History (London: Pan Macmillan, 2016)
Joanna Ebenstein, The Anatomical Venus (London: Thames & Hudson, 2016)