The Male Protagonist’s Girlfriend in The Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Rise of the Planet of the Apes has been the box-office surprise of the summer, taking in $54 million its opening weekend and staying strong in cinemas thanks to overwhelmingly positive reviews. The film has been in theaters for about a month now and is overdue for a culture chew.

I enjoyed Rise of the Planet of the Apes. The special effects are mind-blowing: the audience’s perspective is almost constantly in motion as viewers swing and run and climb along with the apes through scene after moving scene. Andy Serkis’s performance as Caesar is spectacularly rendered via motionscan technology. The success of motionscan in films like Avatar and Rise of the Apes and videogames like L.A. Noir has exciting implications for future films and videogames – but I digress.

Here’s where things get chewy:

Rise of the Apes does not even come close to passing the Bechdel Test. Unless we count the one lady chimp who – SPOILER – dies in the opening of the film (you know, to move the male chimp’s story arch forward), there is only one female character in the entire film: The Male Protagonist’s Girlfriend.

Freida Pinto’s Caroline is a particularly egregious example of The Male Protagonist’s Girlfriend, as her character contributes almost nothing to the plot. You could pull Caroline out of the film entirely and barely have to rescript a thing. Her purpose in the film seems primarily to affirm James Franco’s character’s heterosexuality and to function as eye candy for the audience. She could have been so much more.

On the plus side, at least she’s not another white person. Her presence in the film brought the number of actors of color all the way up to…two!

Attention Hollywood: It is 2011. Can we please get some women onscreen? And maybe some people of color? Can we have more than one lady per film? Can those ladies play characters more nuanced than The Girlfriend? Thanks.

All this is not to say that we must fling poo at Rise of the Apes. As I stated above, I truly enjoyed the film. I just want people who see it to recognize the substantial disparity between the number of male characters and the number of female characters. Being cognizant of these disparities is the first step toward a more egalitarian representation of minorities in mainstream cinema.

Interesting side note: One of my favorite characters in Rise of the Apes is a huge male orangutan named Maurice:

He is played by:

Karin Konoval. Pretty wild, right?

You can read an interview with Konoval about her experience playing Maurice here.

Have you seen Rise of the Planet of the Apes? What are your thoughts?

3 thoughts on “The Male Protagonist’s Girlfriend in The Rise of the Planet of the Apes

  1. It’s crazy to look back at all of the movies I used to watch all the time and realize how many of them DON’T pass the Bechdel Test. A hefty majority of the movies I own don’t pass it, and many of the movies that DO only barely pass. And it seems like it would be such an easy test to pass… :(

    • RIGHT? Learning about the Bechdel Test exploded my brain. In a good way. Well, in a frustrating but incredibly useful way.

      I think that the great thing about the Bechdel Test is exactly what you said: “it seems like it would be such an easy test to pass.” Then, when faced with the huge number of films that don’t pass, there’s no way to deny the systemic sexism of mainstream cinema. Suddenly it seems so obvious.

  2. It’s easy to point out that there are not many women or actors of “color” in this film, or the lackluster roles they played in it….but you are missing the point of this movie. It is not about the humans in the film, it is about Caesar. You could have cast Columbus Short and Morgan Freeman in the Franco/Lithgow roles and all people would be talking about is Caesar. It’s his journey that we follow; the humans are merely there to show how the world views him and his kind. Freida Pinto’s character is just there to two things: 1) to hint that creating smarter apes is not gonna go well…. and 2) to separate Will from Caesar, to show that Will does not need Caesar as much as the apes do. She has such a small role because it just is not that greatly needed. Caroline could have been removed entirely but having her there for just those brief moments deepens the emotional hurricane that Caesar faces in this movie. At least Caroline is shown to be an educated woman and not just a cute girl who works at the zoo. True cinema today still is skewed on its portrayal and inclusion of gender/race/sexuality, but this movie shows that not every film needs to have everything represented to make a great film.

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