Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now epitomize female stereotypes. Both pieces lack progressive and unconventional women as they are meant for male audiences. They propagate the objectification and domination of women. However, Apocalypse Now- which is more recent – perpetuates these stereotypes even more than the novella.
How women are depicted in Heart of Darkness
Conrad wrote Heart of Darkness at a time when women were regarded as the inferior sex. Their role was mostly domestic and they were not considered as persons who had authority or power. These sentiments are echoed in the novel; most females are unnamed and the few who are named rarely said much in the narrative.
Indeed females are not redeemed at all in this piece of work because most are voiceless and powerless to their circumstances. For instance, readers are introduced to two unnamed knitters. One of them speaks with so much naivete; she imagines that the African wilderness is a comfortable environment. Marlow wonders whether the women are really of the world, and it can therefore be asserted that this role depicts women as disengaged from their surrounding. Even the older knitter seems to be more concerned about the knitting rather than with the visitors. After the two knitters, readers are then introduced to Marlow’s aunt. Marlow thinks that his aunt is out of touch and believes that she will never comprehend how things in the Congo really operate.
However, as one reads the novella in its entirety, one soon realizes that this was a bias that the main character of the story possessed. Marlow’s aunt had connections and if it was not for her help, Marlow may never have gained employment. When one critically looks at his aunt’s role in the story, one realizes that this was one of the more powerful women in the story. However, her power is linked to her connections and interactions with men (Conrad, 1.20).
Therefore, Conrad is trying to tell readers that women can only be powerful if they derive that power from men. As the main character Marlow interacts with his aunt, he asserts that there is a wall between women and men’s worlds and this wall must never be taken down (Conrad, 1.28). Another woman in the novel is Kurtz mistress. She is described as superb and savage. She is voiceless and her only power emanates from her sexual attributes.
In fact, Marlow understands why Kurtz fell for her. She is a force to reckon with as asserted by Marlow (Conrad, 3.13).
However, one realizes that she is voiceless in the novel. Her strength emanates from her physical beauty and not her intellectual or social abilities. Also, because she plays such a minor role in the story, she lacks agency and is reduced to nothing more than a creature to be seen but never to be heard.
When readers are introduced to the Intended, they can also read the same messages that emanated from the other women. Marlow sees that she is so out of it. He cannot tell her the truth about Kurtz because she is too weak and fragile to take it all in (Conrad, 2.
29). She needs to be protected from these harsh realities because she had created an unrealistic expectation of Kurtz. Therefore, this character is feeble and lacks the stamina needed to survive in the harsh world.
Interactions between men and women in the novel are viewed as detrimental. This is seen from Kurtz death after he breaks the wall between men and women. He fails to keep a firm grip on the bond between brothers and this is what leads to his demise.
On the other hand, Marlow separates the world of men and women and therefore manages to stay ahead of the game. He lies to the Intended about Kurtz and thus propagates the bond between males. Marlow firmly believed that in order to make it, he needed to keep away from women.
They lived in a beautiful world and if a man incorporated them into his world then he faced the risk of loosing control of his world as well. Therefore homosocial bonds between men are vital to the survival of men in the story. This relative lack of female agency and voice in the story illustrates that ‘Heart of Darkness’ was written at a time when English society was immensely patriarchal and the female roles in the novel were definitely intended on capturing these constructs.
The role of women in Apocalypse Now
Apocalypse Now was directed and produced decades after heart of darkness but its depiction of women is no less patriarchal than the novella was.
This film has very few female characters in it. Most of the women are also voiceless. However, another dimension has been added onto them; they appear to be objectified and sexualized in the production. One of the reasons why there are very few women in the movie is that war is the main subject matter. The US Army rarely allows women to get into combat so the very nature of this movie biases women in it.
Most of the roles they play in the movie are bound to be trivial because the director needed to depict real life scenarios in the Vietnam War. Nonetheless these facts do not excuse the need to give women stronger roles in the motion picture. The first women in the movie are playboy bunnies. They do not say anything of substance and are nothing more than sexual objects. In fact most of their utterances are sexual in nature.
They make flirtatious statements and do not assert anything powerful throughout the film. What is particularly disturbing is the manner in which they are perceived and treated by the male audience they are entertaining. Instead of treating these women like the precious beings that they are, most of these soldiers insult them. Some of them shout at the ladies and order them to take off their garments. Then as they continue with their routine, these men become even more aggressive and start chasing those women on stage.
The entertainers were immediately evacuated by army personnel and one gets the feeling that they would have been seriously hurt if they were not removed from that place. Therefore, as much as the soldiers are attracted to these women sexually, they still feel the need to undermine and demean them by exerting some form of verbal or physical violence upon them. These women come out as powerless and subject to male demands (Coppola, np). Other women who show up in the movie include some native women who are perceived as savages and actually end up getting killed. They are caught up in the crossfire between the Americans and the natives in the film and most of them are also wives who feel hurt by the fact that they have been left on their own after the devastations of the war.
Overall, the movie focuses on the need for male solidarity and the disillusionment of men when they participate in war. They become so engrained in the war that they loose their sense of humanity especially against the opposite sex.
Feminist representation in both pieces
Objectification and oversexualization of women is heavily prevalent in Apocalypse Now especially because the movie became quite graphic at some point (Coppola, np). Sexual objectification in feminist understanding is defined as the practice of treating and viewing other persons as instruments of sexual pleasure. In this regard, that person is treated as an object to be used and not as an entity with a personality and intellect. Objectification in this regard can be done at an individual level as was seen by the separate utterances of the soldiers in the film or it can occur on a societal level. This normally comes about when mass media sends these kinds of signals through various outlets. Feminists object to sexual objectification because they believe it perpetuates gender inequality.
Therefore, one can argue that the movie Apocalypse now continued to perpetuate these stereotypes by featuring the female strippers who were entertaining their male audience. This movie was reducing women’s roles in society to nothing more than sexual instruments. Furthermore, the women were powerless against their male assailants since they would have been attacked if it wasn’t for the professional who rescued them. They are submissive and only made flirtatious statements. Consequently, the main message being sent to audiences is that women’s worth can only be linked to their physical appearance. Indeed such messages can lead to severe repercussions in the future. They may lead to low self esteem among women who fail to fit this mould of what a beautiful woman is.
It hampers women’s self esteem and may actually causes body shame amongst them. Furthermore, sexual objectification of women prevents their growth because it harbors their pursuit of intellectual growth. Many women maybe socialized to think that in order to get ahead; they only need to use their physical appearance. Although Coppola did not intend on taking on such strong feminist concerns, he has somehow garnered attention from these individuals because his story actually goes against ideals propagated and valued by these feminists. Movie makers often have the daunting task of criticizing or propagating particular ideologies in society. Coppola intended on displaying the horrific aspects of the Vietnam War and not to create antifeminist propaganda but this was eventually the unintended product of the production. In Apocalypse Now, one immediately realizes that these minimal roles designated to women are a depiction of a patriarchal society.
Similarly the same thing can be said of Heart of Darkness which only portrayed women in a minor light. As one reads Conrad’s depiction of Marlow and Kurtz, one realizes that men are given a kind of demigod status. They are the ones who have the power to conquer lands and ‘civilize natives’. In other words, men appear to be superhuman because they control the economic and political aspects of their society. Conrad did not bother to develop some of his characters or make them appear independent of men in the same manner that the men were independent of women.
In fact, those women who appeared to be highlighted in a positive manner were only chosen on the basis of their physical appearance as was the case with Kurtz’s mistress. Even the manner in which Marlow talks about the ‘Intended’ depicts how weak and subservient women were. The author of the narrative should have at least developed Marlow’s aunt’s character as this would have created some balance in the novel.
In this regard, it can be asserted that the book propagated stereotypes prevalent within that society. It was not daring enough to challenge the status quo on gender roles even though it was bold enough to take on other unconventional issues such as Imperialism. There were only a narrow range of gender roles that this author could choose from. Women at that time in British society were only important in enhancing male roles.
Most of them were mothers and wives so they offered a romantic aspect to males in society. Men were the ones who called the shots and made things happen. Likewise, Heart of Darkness brings out these sentiments because the Intended and Kurtz’ mistress derived their strength from women. However feminists can resist such depictions because even in these traditional roles as wives and mothers, women can still be strong and brave.
They can move other people to behave in the same way. The native seductress appears to have a certain power within her. She can use this seductive power in order to achieve certain goals for herself. However, the author instead punishes these powers that she has by killing Kurtz at the end of the novella.
He is therefore saying that women have no choice but to accept their traditional roles or else they will cause nothing more than negative consequences. Conrad could have depicted such a character and this may have propagated feminist ideals.
While the heart of darkness and Apocalypse now were unconventional in terms of their subject matter and in terms of the status quo, the two pieces did not succeed in challenging traditional female roles. None of the pieces questioned societal gender stereotypes. In fact, Apocalypse now perpetuated gender inequality while Heart of Darkness continued to reinforce male patriarchy. The producer and author respectively failed to identity opportunities in which they could grant their female characters some kind of leverage. Women were weak and voiceless in both tales and yet this is not necessarily an accurate depiction of gender roles in those societies.
American society in 2001 was still confronted by the same challenge that writers in colonial times were confronted with; challenging gender roles.
Coppola, Francis. Apocalypse Now Redux. You Tube Video, 2010. Web.
6 May, 2011 Conrad, Lauren. Heart of Darkness. London: Blackwood’s magazine, 1902.