A Look Through Film History: Kong Heroines, Then and Now

Warner Bros and Legendary deliver one of the first blockbuster films of the season with Godzilla vs Kong. On the surface, the movie packs an epic punch, delivering on the promise of monstrous battles that rage across sea, land, and even into Hollow Earth. While the movie may fulfill many of our expectations, it also rewrites the outdated damsel-in-distress heroines with strong and brilliant actors who unabashedly kick ass.


The Beast Through History: Kong

King Kong is an iconic figure in movie history. Kong first appeared in a comic book in 1933, but he’s been popularized as the amazing, larger-than-life, gorilla-kaiju monster that first appeared in the 1933 King Kong classic, where he was introduced as the “8th Wonder of the World.” He is the King of Skull Island, worshipped as a god by the islanders but also susceptible to the beauty of a woman.

Fay Wray donned a blond wig to take on the role of Ann Durrow in the 1933 King Kong classic, where the islanders sacrificed her to their monstrous god. Kong carries her off into the jungle, wards off the advances of the film crew, and then rescues her from a Tyrannosaurus Rex and a cave serpent. Even when Kong is captured and shipped off to New York, his instinct is still to protect Ann.

That “Beauty and the Beast” fairy tale (where the Beast is drawn to his Beauty) remained consistent through the 1976 King Kong film, with Dawn (Jessica Lange) starring as the femme fatale castaway in what one critic called “an absurdist love story.” Kong is gentle in this version, with scenes where he washes her in the flow of a waterfall and blows her dry. He still rescues her from a giant snake, and he still pursues her across New York City, falling to his death from the World Trade Center.

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Linda Hamilton takes on the role of Dr. Amy Franklin in King Kong Lives (1986), which resurrects Kong to give him a mate. “If my character had been Kong’s victim, I wouldn’t have taken the role,” Hamilton said in a People interview. “I’m tired of playing the victim.” Kong is still held captive, but he escapes with his pregnant mate, just long enough for him to be attacked, shot, and killed just after his son is born.

In Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake, Kong once again carries Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) off to his lair, fighting off the Vastatosaurus Rex (V-Rex) and bat-like Terapusmordax creatures along the way. Once again, the crew capture Kong and take him to New York City. This time, though, when Kong escapes, he climbs up the Empire State Building and uses sign language to tell Ann that she is “beautiful.” Famously, Carl Denham (Jack Black) says, “It wasn’t the airplanes. It was Beauty killed the Beast.”

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The Modern Beauty: Dr. Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall)

Dr. Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall) is the latest heroine in Kong legend. She’s a Monarch linguist called the “Kong Whisperer,” and she pairs up with a deaf-orphaned girl named Jia (Kaylee Hottle) to speak for Kong. Jia’s parents were killed by the Skull Crawlers on Skull Island. It is a tragic story, but it also earned her the protection and trust of both Ilene and Kong.

In the opening scene of Godzilla vs Kong, the “A girl waits for me…” lyrics set the stage for his complicated relationship with Ilene and Jia. Here, the goal is to save humankind from extinction, but Kong’s motivation is ultimately more about finding a home and a sense of place in Hollow Earth. 

Compared with past Kong heroines, Ilene is a strong professional woman. Of course, she wants to save the world, but she’s equally concerned with doing what is right by protecting Kong, freeing him from chains, restarting his faltering heart, and ensuring his future. She is not a damsel in distress who needs to be saved from the prehistoric monsters. Instead, she is the catalyst for understanding and advocacy, with her young co-star Jia by her side.

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Dr. Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall) is a new Kong heroine for 2021, with a message of quiet strength, understanding, and acceptance. It’s the message we need so desperately right now, as we dig our way back to a feeling of something like normalcy in this post-pandemic world.


We’ve focused on the King Kong movies in this article, but we’d love to hear your thoughts on Godzilla and King Kong movies. Let us know in the comments below!

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