Going on Instinct: Gendering Primatology in Film

March 10, 2008

By Kanner, Melinda

Abstract: The author explores the popular construction of primatology through an examination of the films Gorillas in the Mist (1988) and Instinct (1999). The primatologist’s gender governs the manner of presentation in the films, irrespective of scientific, historical, or biographical realities. These cinematic constructions are discussed in terms of the larger context of gender, science, and primatology. Key words: film, gender, Gorillas in the Mist, Instinct, primatology, science, women

Despite tremendous gains in numbers and professional recognition of female scientists over the past several decades, many details of the lives of real female scientists and, importantly, their representations in popular media have lagged behind. In part, the disjuncture between the actual practice of science and its media representation is neither greater nor more disturbing than similar gaps for any profession and its media analogue. The practices of law, medicine, law enforcement, and scholarship have been significantly transformed and re-figured in film and television. More significant than the existence of such gaps, in this article, I am concerned with the question of how cultural preoccupations and tensions are revealed in these creations of essentially new versions of professions.

Science and scientists have suffered considerably in the imagination of popular culture, commonly depicted, in benevolent versions, as absentminded and slightly lunatic, and, in more hostile iterations as mad, dangerous, and fundamentally evil. Laboratory science, biology, and, more recently, genetics have received somewhat widespread interest in films with scientists as central characters. The scientist, mad or otherwise, is a well-worn figure in many dramas and comedies, running through films as widely separate in theme and sensibility as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Young Frankenstein, from Altered States to Son of Flubber.

The world of female scientists is retrogressive in popular media, in this instance, mirroring the material conditions. A feature article in a recent issue of Discover magazine examines in brief stories fifty of the most important female scientists, outlining their careers and accomplishments in fields as diverse as space science and microbiology (Suitil). A follow-up story in that same issue reveals a slightly bleaker picture. Although nearly one-half of undergraduate degrees in the sciences are awarded to women, they represent a mere 22% of PhDs awarded. Women represent only 20% of the science professoriate, fill lower ranking positions, accept lower pay in the science and academic worlds, and regularly experience demonstrable discrimination in hiring, promotions, and awards (Orenstein 58, 60).

Representations of female scientists are more rare in films and in popular culture overall. For every stray film biography of Marie Curie, for example, there exist half a dozen films that instead depict science in terms of experimentation-usually sexual-on women, such as Species. In the world of popular publishing, for example, James Watson introduces to popular consciousness the largely ignored discoverer of the structure of the DNA molecule, Rosalind Franklin, and comments that she would not be totally uninteresting if she took off her glasses and did something with her hair (102). A recent biography (Maddox) brings Franklin’s story back into public consciousness, but again, the fact of her being a woman figures as larger and more significant to popular understanding than her practice of science.

Beyond the realities of the academy and the lab, the representations of women scientists in popular media, including films, television, magazines, and books, present visions perhaps even more limited than the actual conditions of work. Largely ignored, when they are depicted in popular media, women scientists are understood either as inadequate because they fail to mother (whether figuratively or literally) or they are valorized because, through a variety of routes and the persistence of the presumed instinctive basis of their behavior, their science has finally led them to some version of superior mothering. Women scientists are understood as defective in terms of their failure to understand and inhabit their femaleness first and, second, in terms of their failure to adequately mobilize their femininity in the service of maternity. Where they succeed or redeem themselves in popular culture, these characters have been able to redirect their intelligence, ambition, and dedication to science into more culturally sanctioned channels and return to their once-abandoned families or to create new fictive families through their work. Trivial examples and those media most likely to be discounted often hold the most vivid and important illustrations.

In Carriers (1998), a made-for-television movie produced by the Lifetime network, the leading edge of the Ebola epidemic is told through the parallel stories of two women. First, children of divorced parents visit their father in Africa and become the unwitting carriers of Ebola. Their desperate mother pursues them, retracing their steps, exposing herself to certain danger. The second woman is a career military officer and epidemiologist who pursues the virus with similar passion. As the story unfolds, the audience learns that she has lost a child and that her coping strategy has, in recent years, included immersing herself in her work and neglecting her still-living and now doubly bereft family. As the scientist’s quest for the virus crosses paths with the mother’s search for her children, her selfless and focused pursuit of answers and justice becomes humanized in her rescue of the endangered children and, finally, in her reunion with her own family.

Relatively neglected in film has been primatology, the field practice of behavioral and zoological science dedicated to nonhuman primates, including prosimians, monkeys, and great apes. Two films in recent decades, Gorillas in the Mist (1988) and Instinct (1999), explore the lives and work of field primatologists, one biographical and one wholly fictional.

Women, Primatology, and the Popular Mind

In recent decades, the study of nonhuman primates, formally known as primatology, has enjoyed as much popular attention as scientific acclaim. Due in part to its vivid and dramatic photography and sponsorship of numerous primatology expeditions, the pages of National Geographic and the National Geographic Society introduced the world to gorillas, chimpanzees, and orangutans. Linked tightly with colonial expansion and the scientific access that accompanies conquest, African and Asian apes have been formally studied for more than one hundred years. From the first two decades of the twentieth century, the study of nonhuman monkeys and great apes has mirrored and re-presented the human societies that produced scientific study. Fascination with the natural “Other” has paralleled the Western fascination with the cultural “Other.” Soon after its organization as a scholarly field of endeavor and an academic discipline, the field of primatology has been particularly endowed with numbers of active and productive female scientists, and it has been particularly afflicted with dangerous and limiting stereotypes of women prima-tologists as motivated by the primal drives of maternity rather than cerebral drives of science.

In her landmark cultural history of primatology Primate Visions, science historian Donna Haraway describes primatology as one of the fields of science marked as female. Haraway’s analysis rests on a feminist interrogation of the practice of primatology and the presentation of primatology alike. The relationship between primatology and women on the one hand and feminist critique and primatology on the other hand can be understood in terms of several central issues. First, prima-tology itself is and has been historically a highly gendered, sexualized set of scientific and discursive practices that seek to understand both some assumed precultural human condition and the social lives of the closest phylogenetic cousins of human beings. Such understanding is typically phrased in the language of the gendered division of labor and the demands of maternity, assumed all at once to be both natural and incompatible with the “produc-tive” effort of food-getting, defense, group leadership, or social dominance hierarchies.

Second, primatology in its early decades emphasized the importance of safari-like field expeditions and the capture of specimens, living or dead. Early primatologists were male, and the scientific and popular vision of primates heavily emphasized various versions of primate masculinity. Perhaps the most notorious popular culture example is found in the film King Kong (1933), the insatiable savage African giant beast captured and shipped as a spectacle, a wonder of the world, for display in New York City; Kong himself captures and holds a virginal blond woman hostage as the helpless white male structures of power witness their own unleashed racist fantasy. Here, masculinity figures distinctly in the search for and capture of Kong, the provocation of the audience to share the male gaze in spectatorship of the giant gorilla, and a shared fear of the African menace, embodied in Kong. A second vivid example of the investment of human culture-specific notions of masculinity in nonhuman primates can be seen in the model of Man the Hunter, popular in paleoan-thropology in the 1960s and predicated on field observations of the agonistic and territorial savanna baboon. A third issue, and the idea most central to this discussion, concerns the transformation of primatology in scientific and popular circles alike into a female rather than a male scientific domain and the characteristics that pri-matology and primatologists assumed in popular discourse. The relationship of women scientists and feminist scholars to primatology is complex and involves issues that range from epistemology to popularization of science. The specific focus here concerns the placement, beginning in the early 1960s, and largely at the impetus of the paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey, of female primatologists into the field.

Although the ranks of significant female primatologists include scientists such as Jeanne Altman, Sarah Hrdy, Linda Fedigan, and many others, I confine this discussion to the popularized versions of the careers of three primatologists: Jane Goodall, Birute Galdikas, and Dian Fossey, with particular emphasis on Dian Fossey’s remarkable public image in several venues of popular culture: National Geographic articles during her life and after her death, several biographies and biographical essays, and, most vividly, the fictionalized portrait of Fossey in the 1988 major motion picture Gorillas in the Mist.

The “trimates,” Goodall, Galdikas, and Fossey, as they became known, were sent to study African and Indonesian apes for specific reasons. Women, Leakey reasoned, would be understood by male apes as less threatening than male primatologists and they would, in turn, be less threatened and challenged by the dominance displays of male apes. Alex Shumatoff, in his book African Madness, describes the origins of the trimates in this way:

One of Leakey’s pet projects, after his own work with fossils, was to encourage research on man’s [sic] closest relatives, the great apes. . . . Leakey had a theory that the best person to go out and study apes was a single woman with no scientific training. Such a person would be unbiased about the behavior she wit-nessed; unattached, with no responsibilities, she would be willing to work for nothing. A woman would pose less of a threat to the local people. Women were tougher and more tenacious than men, Leakey believed, and more observant. (12-13)

They would have greater compassion, empathy, indeed, love for their subjects. Even after their acclaim was secure, their public image as married to “their animals” affected popular understanding of primates, primatolo gists, and, in particular, the possibilities for female primatologists. The preface to Walking with the Great Apes, written by the naturalist and author Sy Montgomery, illustrates the central issues. Written at considerable distance from the period of greatest publicity and productivity of Fossey, Galdikas, and Goodall, the issues are clear:

All were passionate about the apes. Before Dian’s murder, I saw all three women together at a symposium in New York. I was warmly amused at the way each one tried to outdo the others showing how her ape was the “most human” -trying to win the audience over to favor her animal. Orangutans, Birute said, seemed the most human because of the whites of their eyes. Dian insisted that gorillas were most humanlike because of their tight-knit family grouping. And Jane reminded us that chimps are the apes most closely related to man [sic], sharing 99 percent of our genetic material. I was reminded of kids who insist “my dad can beat up your dad,” or of grandmothers comparing their grandchildren. None of the women would ever think of disparaging the others’ work, but each is firmly convinced that the animals she loves are the best. For they do love them. It is a love as deep and passionate as the love one has for a child or a spouse or a lover; but it is a love unlike any other. The bonds between the women and the individual apes they studied are complex, subtle, and almost universally misunderstood. (Montgomery xviii-xix)

As Montgomery has expressed the situation, female primatologists are grandmothers, lovers or spouses, or mothers of their subjects of study, but they are never understood as scientists or primatologists. In a sense, set up by Leakey’s insistence that they enter the field free from the bias that he presumed scientific training would produce, Fossey, Galdikas, and Goodall would become the most visible female primatologists, indeed, women in science during their era, and their connections to their work would forever be understood in kinship and emotional rather than academic terms. It is assumed that their dedication stems from a basic drive, presumably always available to women: in this case, a redirected and somewhat restricted fa-milialism in a most modest interpretation and maternalism in the most extravagant.

The covers and pages of National Geographic represented the most widely circulated images of these primatolo-gists (for example, Goodall; Fossey, “Making Friends”; Galdikas). Commonly shown holding an infant ape on their hips or wrapped around a threatened young ape, all three women were understood as secondary or surrogate mothers to irresistible or orphaned young. Often, in the cases of Galdikas and Goodall, both of whom had infant children of their own, the human children in the field with their mothers were shown playing with the ape infants, producing a deeply evocative family tableau. In many respects, Fossey’s own lack of children makes her story and its public presentation more compelling and more tightly wound around narratives of displaced maternity.

Most popular, and highly dramatic, representations of female primatolo-gists describe them as devoted maternal figures-warriors selflessly dedicated to the protection and rescue of nonhuman primates. Montgomery’s discussion, for example, subtitles chapters on Jane Goodall, Birute Galdikas, and Dian Fossey, respectively, as “the crusader,”"the diplomat,” and “the sorceress.” These images are often repeated through cover and feature stories in National Geographic magazine, numerous documentary films, and a variety of popular press articles published over forty odd years since the 1960s. Crucially, of male pri-matologists, their roles and statuses as fathers, grandfathers, or romantic lovers of their subjects are never introduced. Likewise, their lifetime dedication to primatology is never authorized by their “love” of primates but rather by their dedication to their science and to the growth of knowledge.

Typically photographed and filmed by invisible but omnipresent photographers and filmmakers (nearly always male and frequently the male partner or spouse of the female pri-matologist, as in the cases of Goodall and Galdikas, at least during their initial appearances on the scene), female primatologists are seen as isolated dedicated professionals surrounded by their adopted nonhuman primate families.

Although female (and male) prima-tologists have, since the 1930s, with some interruption, conducted long-term, productive fieldwork, it was not until the work of Jane Goodall in the early 1960s at the Gombe Stream in Tanzania that the general public became aware of the work of primatol-ogy and what would become a standard of gendering primatology as women’s work.

Primatology in Popular Film

Primatologists have been the subject of two major motion pictures in recent years: the 1988 release of a film adaptation of the Dian Fossey story, Gorillas in the Mist, starring Sigour-ney Weaver as Dian Fossey; second, the less popular and financially less- successful fiction film released in 1999, Instinct, starring Sir Anthony Hopkins. These films, in ways more dramatic and poignant than any other popular sources, reveal conventions about primatology and gender on the one hand and about gender in general on the other.

Some understanding of the overall context of these films and the star image brought by the principal actors is important in understanding mass receptions. Audiences bring to a film, magazine, or television program a number of images and expectations formed over long-term experiences from an array of media sources. In the cases of Gorillas in the Mist and Instinct, star image and previous performances of these actors can be understood to figure into the presentation and interpretation of the characters in these films.

For her part, Sigourney Weaver comes to the role of the fictionalized Dian Fossey with many credits and public images. Before Gorillas, Weaver had recently become best known perhaps for her continuing role as Ripley, the sole survivor of her intergalactic military group in a trilogy of Alien films. In the narrative most inflected through maternity (Alien), Ripley discovers another survivor, a young girl, whom she protects and cares for in the face of alien invasion, and, in the climax of the film, fights the gargantuan and ferocious alien, who, the audience discovers, is fueled by a maternal drive of her own in a battle to protect her eggs.

Sir Anthony Hopkins comes to Instinct with a long history of film credits and public recognition, most significant of which is his role as Dr. Hannibal Lecter in the popular and successful Silence of the Lambs (1991) and its prequel Hannibal (2001). The character of Lecter is a variation on the mad scientist theme, here a psychopathic psychiatrist whose mania involves homicide and cannibalism. As a pri-matologist, Hopkins is called on to play the fictional Dr. Ethan Powell, yet another mad scientist driven to homicide in a paternal protection of his gorillas from local poachers in the service of a corrupt military and government. Powell as a fictional character, Hopkins’s portrayal of this character, and the image of a protective, indeed, maniacal male primatologist complicate the public picture of primatolo-gists and maternity. In every sense, the audience is meant to understand Powell’s dedication to his work as something more than devotion to science. Visually, the narrative links Powell’s human family, including an alienated and now-adult daughter and divorced wife, his early abandonment of these humans, and his intensifying involvement with gorillas. The same group of primates-mountain gorillas-are threatened by the forces of local cultures and postcolonial corruption, and ultimately adopted and protected by both the real (and fictionally represented) Fossey and the fictional Powell.

An examination of these two films reveals some of the generally inconspicuous, perhaps taken-for-granted, assumptions about female and male primatologists, but the process of such an examination reveals potentially more about shared conventions about mothers and fathers in popular culture. In many respects, the stories are parallel or identical in terms of structure, framing, and narrative. Both scientists-one real and highly fictionalized, the other entirely fictional-willingly leave their ordinary lives to provide a family structure for the endangered gorillas they study. Both are punished in the extreme for their zealot protection of their ape families.

In both films, the primatologists are seen in the painstaking and tedious process of habituating the animals to the presence of human beings. In the filmic Fossey case, her habituation period involved mimicry, patience, and interacting with infants when provided a safe opportunity. In the fictional Powell’s case, his first order of business was to reveal his submissiveness to higher ranking males. In other words, the female primatologist assumes the expected human female social role even where no understanding or assumptions of human social behavior exist. Likewise, Powell is required to express submissiveness through downcast eyes, hesitation, and a general containment of his physicality and social masculinity.

Powell has left his human family, as Fossey has relinquished the possibility of forming a human family in breaking her relationship with her fiance. Fos-sey creates a new family among the gorillas, adopting a dog, seen bathing, making a household, and caring for young gorillas. Powell, on the other hand, lives with few of the comforts of his former life, in object or in replacement structure, and subjects himself to training as a young male gorilla. Both regard their primate families as primary and central but from very different positions. Fossey in real life is the “sorceress” (Montgomery) but in the film she is maternal-aggressive but more like Ripley in Alien-an enraged mother pumped on maternal adrenaline. She rescues the orphaned baby and finds it later removed from her. The state, in this instance, stands for the male exercise of custody prerogative.

Powell abandons his human family and makes no attempts to re- create a substitute family. Instead, he begins to assume the role of silverback in training, assuming an increasingly admiring view of “the old silverback” and an increasingly protective role. The orphaned baby in his scenario is lost to him in a violent struggle. His is failed paternity, mirroring his own human failure, but not failed maternity.

One device in these films allows the viewer to experience and understand the very different ways in which men and women can be primatologists, at least in the world of popular culture. This device concerns the use of photography and cameras in both films, acting on the literal level of spectator-ship and control of images and on the figurative level as a manifestation of the male gaze. Indeed, in all public and popular encounters with the real-life Fossey, or Galdikas or Goodall in the early years of their careers, the primatologists are revealed to the viewer through photographs more than text, and those photographs are both taken by male photographers and typically represent the primatologist in a maternal position, carrying or bathing an ape infant. Powell is protective, like Fossey, but carries certain crucial elements of male privilege, most notably his academic credentials, the power of spectatorship through taking pictures, and his likely social ascent through the dominance ranks into the position of silverback male if his training succeeds. Powell has come unraveled, lost his mind, and has been convicted of the homicides of military poachers. Valiant in his defense of his family, Powell himself is captured, caged, and renders himself mute. Under psychiatric examination by a young resident, Powell represents a challenge to science. He finally finds refuge in escape to the jungle where he was unable to protect his ape family.

Fossey confronts poachers time and again and, ultimately, is murdered. The film underscores her heroism but soft-pedals the warrior she is generally seen as being. Her connection to the gorillas is maternal, not militial. Shumatoff quotes Kelly Stewart, a graduate student who worked with Fossey. Speaking of the way Fossey’s life ended, Stewart is quoted as saying:

Her alternative-to leave and die somewhere an invalid-was never something she would have considered. She always fantasized about a final confrontation. She viewed herself as a warrior fighting this enemy who was out to get her. It was a perfect ending. She got what she wanted. It was exactly how she would have ended the script. (qtd. in Shu-matoff 29)

Indeed, Montgomery identifies Fos-sey as “the warrior,” and her public image has occupied a spectrum that ranges from mad scientist to hero. In nearly every discussion, however, her ferocity and willingness to use violence in her mission are emphasized. The widely known, immensely popular film version of Fossey’s extraordinary life and career tells a different story. Here, Fossey is represented as primarily a mother, and, in the end, a passive victim who is killed in her sleep, next to a picture of her beloved gorillas.


This discussion has been guided by two major questions: First, the question as to whether and to what extent popular culture representations of primatology and primatologists appear to be gendered in significant and discernable ways; second, I have attempted to demonstrate that the forms of gendering of primatology and primatologists in popular culture are directed largely by the primary and enduring images of women as mothers first and then as scientists. Even when male primatologists are the subject of popular culture representations, their approach to their subjects can be understood more as paternalism than maternalism, demonstrating the imposition of human social gender expectations onto the field.

Finally, we must ask whether this matters in any material way. It does matter. First, these images must be understood in the context of a growing and intensifying women-as-partof nature narrative in science and popular culture. Second, the nature of the primatology available to and done by women relegates apes to the world of children and women to the roles of surrogate mothers, thus eliminating the possibility for an analysis of the forces and traces of colonialism and patriarchy in the narratives of history, science, and popular culture.

[Primatology] has been particularly afflicted with dangerous and limiting stereotypes of women primatologists as motivated by the primal drives of maternity rather than cerebral drives of science.

Powell abandons his human family and makes no attempts to re- create a substitute family. Instead, he begins to assume the role of silverback in training.


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MELINDA KANNER, an anthropologist, studies the expression, experience, and construction of identity in popular media. In addition to her work on gender and sexuality, she has published research on the history of anthropology as well as mass-mediated culture. She is currently completing a book on tourism, popular culture, and Savannah, Georgia.

Copyright Heldref Publications Winter 2008

(c) 2008 Journal of Popular Film & Television. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.

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