Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

June 10, 2021

King Kong’s Embodiment of the Male Power Fantasy

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This year, Godzilla vs Kong came to theaters, a modern spin on the previously released film featuring the two characters in 1962. While the fight between  Godzilla and King Kong certainly sounded fascinating, hearing of this film’s release led me to think about how frequently King Kong appears in the popular media. Somehow, a giant gorilla-like monster destroying buildings or fighting other creatures has entertained audiences since 1933, when the first of 12 King Kong films was released (not to mention, the animated series and other media that has emerged since then). This led me to wonder: what is it that makes King Kong so popular?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that King Kong lacks appeal. If that were true, his stories wouldn’t have retained their popularity for the many years they did. Besides, I know many people who enjoy watching the King Kong films or have some level of interest in the character. I went to see the King Kong Broadway musical on a school trip back in 2019, and was very impressed by the animatronics. Besides, given that Godzilla vs Kong recently passed $400 million in global box office sales, it’s clear that audiences are still eager to spend hours of their time watching this huge gorilla cause an immense amount of fictional property damage. 

Specifically, I want to know what makes King Kong so popular that we have seen his story in multiple variations for over 80 years.

Though I certainly haven’t seen every piece of King Kong content, I’m curious about how much each film (or other piece of media) can actually deviate from the rest of the franchise. Despite changes to the storyline and characters in each film, a large amount of run time is consistently dedicated to showing King Kong wrecking various installments of infrastructure and fighting other powerful and large beings — or at least lashing out in aggression. Essentially, the story of a giant gorilla wreaking havoc has been repeatedly sold to audiences with some adjustments to each variation.  

Admittedly, I have to concede that most of Kong’s audience simply wants to see a compelling action film. I can understand that. But perhaps for others, there’s a deeper, more subconscious draw towards this timeless, destructive monster. After some reflection, I think that part of King Kong’s appeal is that he exists as a projection of the heteronormative male power fantasy. 

Aside from the obvious (which is, of course, that he is a gorilla and not a man), King Kong is the epitome of toxic masculinity. He possesses raw, untamed aggression which he freely unleashes upon anything that angers him. Taller, stronger and more forceful than any man, King Kong’s power is nearly limitless.

The heteronormativity comes in with the frequent inclusion of a human woman in King Kong’s narrative. From Ann Darrow in 1933 to Dr. Ilene Andrews in Godzilla vs Kong, Kong often relies on a woman to show compassion to him despite his monstrous ways, in turn revealing his more tender side to this woman. Also, this woman (being a human) is much smaller (read, more fragile) than Kong, often either portrayed as helpless, or at least unimposing (depending on the time period of the film), compared to the monster.

King Kong’s embodiment of the male power fantasy allows viewers to live vicariously through him as he releases his aggression on the world. He is able to express the anger and belligerence that humans often feel without the expectation of being human. As such, he is not limited by human morality, emotion, or even an understanding that causing widespread destruction is an issue — all of which would be expected of real humans. Lacking both the constraints of a human body and the ethicality of humanity, King Kong consistently appeals to audiences because, simply put, he gets to unleash the aggression that many subscribers to the male power fantasy want to express.

Aditi Hukerikar is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at adh247@cornell.edu.