Gender roles in "King Kong" (1933). Ann Darrow as an example for independent women or the traditional image of womanhood??

Seminar Paper, 2015

11 Pages


Table of Contents


Historical Context

Men and Women during the Great Depression

Hollywood during the Great Depression

Hollywood and Gender in General- The Woman´s film

The Role of Race in Expedition Films

The Gender Roles in King Kong




The film King Kong is one of the most famous films of Pre Code Hollywood. His success was referred to the variety of topics and narratives that the film includes, combined with an excellent use of sound and special effects. This text lays the focus on the aspect of gender roles in the film. It will be shown that especially the figure of Ann Darrow embodies different stereotypes and that she can be seen as example for an independent woman but also as model for a more traditional image of womanhood. First of all the various contexts shall be presented (Historical context, men and women during the Great Depression and Hollywood during the Great Depression). After that follows a short analysis of two other important aspects, the Woman´s film and the Aspect of Race in Expedition films. Both of them are strongly interwoven with the question about gender roles in King Kong. Finally the main characters in King Kong are going to be analyzed in view of the gender roles they embody and also how they change.

Historical Context

The Pre-Code era in the American motion picture history covers mainly the years between 1930 and 1934. During this time the American society suffered from the Great Depression with its first and also worst impact in those years. This economic catastrophe was the centrally American trauma of the 20th century. In addition to the heavy economic downswing the crisis shattered fundamental values and beliefs within the US society. The Great Depression questioned American ideals and values like individualism, upward mobility, material progress and frontier opportunities fell apart (Doherty 1999: 15).

In early 1933 when President Roosevelt took office the depression was four years old. The former president Hoover had hesitated to intervene too strongly in the economy which resulted in a disastrous economic situation at the beginning of the 1930s. A whole country hit the road to find jobs wherever they would be available. In this context Roosevelt introduced his solution in form of a New Deal. The New Deal set all banks onto a 1 week holiday and created massive temporary job programs in combination with relief payments to improve the situation of the American people. It targeted also on a more permanent restructuring of the economy and invested more into the social welfare. Under the aspect of gender roles the New Deal wanted to reestablish the men in the families as providers and breadwinners. As a result most of the actions of the Roosevelt administration focused on the male unemployment. For women more domestic roles were promoted. The goal was the return to more traditionalistic values and images to support a new patriotic self-image inside the American society (Doherty 1999: 15; Walsh 1984: 50).

Men and Women during the Great Depression

For many rural men and women the depression already began before the stock market crash. The rural south had experienced hard times since the Civil War. For money they had to head for the towns and cities. But also the cities suffered from the Depression and offered no better working conditions. The 1920s had been a time of optimism, the 1930s began with desperation and fear. Basic assumptions and values of the American Society tottered. The flapper girl, as a former symbol of an independent, strong minded and vigorous women looked now selfish, careless and superficial. The working girl chic had been replaced and the heroine of the 1930s in America was strong yet safely maternal and unthreatening to men (Deutsch 1994: 82).

In the 1920 people had worried about how to keep the family together when facing with the increasing independence of women at that time. During the Depression many families worried about how to keep men in the family, as it became clear that women still depended on the income of their men. The divorce rate dropped in the 1930s but this was more because people could not afford an official divorce rather that they stood together. Desertion spread all along the American society. Men left their families to look for work. They suffered from the destruction of the social image as breadwinners and faced a heavy identity crisis. With the men unable to fulfill their roles as providers, women were increasingly left to run the family with little money and opportunities. The main focus was still the unemployment of the men. Married working women were seen as stealing jobs from men. Women during the Great Depression found themselves in a dualistic and contrary role. They should be both, competent and submissive, independent enough to survive but unthreatening to men. What society demanded was contradictory and complex. Men on the other side suffered from the total destruction of the image as providers and breadwinners. In trying to reestablish themselves many left their families to look for work in the bigger cities (Deutsch 1994: 92).

Hollywood during the Great Depression

Hollywood during the Great Depression was shaped by several aspects. The economic crisis hit the motion picture industry at the time when two media revolutions occurred, namely the commercial radio broadcasting and the synchronized sound cinema. Nevertheless the introduction of the Sound film should be the main reason for the Golden Age of Hollywood from 1930 to 1934. During the Depression era the motion picture studios were able to attract 60 million Americans per week into the cinemas. Hollywood mirrored and reformulated former established and because of the crisis questioned American values and beliefs in different ways. The movies called into question sexual propriety, social decorum and the institutions of law and order. Aside from the introduction of the sound film Hollywood was able to deal very openly with various topics and problems in their films. This was possible due to the lack of censorship. Until the Production Code and the Hays Office were established in 1934 Pre-Code Hollywood was characterized by an uncertainty with a new technology, dealing with an audience whose beliefs and values were shattered and independent from any strict supervision (Doherty 1999: 18).

One of important topics was Escapism. Various films and movies, especially expeditionary movies, provided an opportunity to the public to escape from the cares and problems of the real outside world. The more lighthearted and fantastical the film was, the better was the relief. The Pre Code era was also characterized by a sudden turn to social realism in form of gangsters, sex and whatever form of shock would lure the audience into the movie theaters. The new technique of sound helped in attaining sensational effects in form of gunfire, sirens, shattering glass etc. Also the dialog that could shock the audience only with words was introduced. In addition music was used as a vehicle e.g. for sexual display (Sklar 1975: 176).

Another aspect was the sense of fear in the American society because of the Great Depression that found its expression in the genre of the horror movies. Horror had been a part of movies since its beginning. Especially Universal Studios became the specialist with Frankenstein and Dracula. But also RKO´s King Kong gave the audience the fear of destroying the American Society in combination with the pleasure to see someone doing it. Social disorder was a main topic of various films in the 1930s as well. Nevertheless the anarchic battle of the individual against the disorder of the society left still room for laugh and for comedy. The Depression and the sound film brought vulgarity, lechery and the upsetting of values back to the movies, like in the films of the Marx Brothers. All those topics and aspects formed in combination with the new technique of sound film the basis for the success of Pre-Code Hollywood in a time shaped by heavy economic and social crisis. The Moviegoers on the other side were a large and active group, aside the depression, so that the most of the Studios were able to turn the Depression era into a profitable decade. Hollywood at that time became a major ideological force. Movies could reinforce the Status quo or proclaim social change. They allowed the moviegoer to form his own picture and opinion. Therefore the Motion picture industry was an important factor for gender roles and images at that time (Cripps 1997: 150; Sklar 1975: 175).

Hollywood and Gender in General- The Woman´s film

Hollywood and it´s films were a mirror of the Zeitgeist of the American society at that time. In this way the movie industry dealt also with gender aspects and developments that were influenced by the Great Depression as presented before. The most famous Man and Woman shot of the time brought sex and violence together. James Cagney shoving a grapefruit in Mae Clarke´s face at the breakfast table (Lasalle 2002: 130; Sklar 1975: 177).

The Pre-Code Era was a great age for American women in the cinema. Movies dealt with changing mores regarding Sex, Romance and Marriage. It was more freethinking and daring until the censorship of 1934. The Freedom of Pre-Code Hollywood is evident in its willingness to endorse the open minded attitudes towards sex and gender. One aspect was the woman´s film. This kind of film is built around a female. It dealt with various pictures and narratives like fallen woman films, romantic drama, Cinderella Romances, Gold digger and working girl stories. The establishment of the Code did not kill this genre. With the establishment of the Code in 1934 fewer women´s film were produced, also because Screwball Comedies rose in popularity (Balio 1995: 247).

The Woman´s film includes some specific elements. Male oriented films often dramatized a fear of intimacy and an obsession for individuation and masculine bonding. Women´s film conveys the primacy of emotionality and human attachment. They often express a dread of separation from loved ones whether they are female kin or friend. It is usually shot indoors and they rely heavily on an emotive and verbal structure. Unlike masculine dramas that are often shot outdoors and whose hallmarks consist of sparse dialogue, repressed feelings and plenty of action. A good example is the male hero in Western (Walsh 1984: 23).

Heroines in Women Films differ heavily from female protagonists in male oriented movies, who serve primarily for desire and or fear for male protagonists. In a Woman Film the heroine is at the center of the narrative. Dealing with the visual style interior sets are predominant whether they consist of homes or workplaces. The heroine is often metaphorically linked to nature, usually portrayed in familial and community settings, often located in the middle class. A Women´s Film can include different types of heroines, the sacrificial mother, a wholesome girl, a career woman or the threatened wife. Nevertheless the film does not stand alone as a type of female oriented popular culture. It is part of the historical stretching from the sentimental and gothic novels in the 19th century to the radio soap opera in the 20th and was a response to the sexual bifurcation of culture and consciousness in industrial America. In the last chapter of this text the various aspects of the woman´s film will be connected to RKO´s King Kong in order to analyze if King Kong could be defined as a Woman´s Film (Walsh 1984: 27).


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Gender roles in "King Kong" (1933). Ann Darrow as an example for independent women or the traditional image of womanhood??
University of Cologne
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Gender, Gender Roles, King Kong
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B.A. Fabian Lukas (Author), 2015, Gender roles in "King Kong" (1933). Ann Darrow as an example for independent women or the traditional image of womanhood??, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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