Donkey Kong…amusing game of an ape gone mad or the symbol of the white man’s fear of African American sexual prowess?
Sure it seems like a simple game of an ape throwing barrels at a carpenter (this game occured before Mario became a plumber), but looking deeper at Donkey Kong we find that the video game is an enditement of black men on the level of Birth of a Nation.
Consider this: the plot of the game is that an ape goes mad and steals Mario’s girldfriend Pauline. Now in this seemingly simple plot, we see some major racial symbolism. Apes are traditionally representative of black men, who were treated like animals for so much of their lives. So what we really have here is a black man kidnapping a white woman. Why does he kidnap her? We have no reason; Donkey Kong himself is an unreasoning beast. One can only assume that his attraction to Pauline is in fact some perverted sexual desire and the DK plans on raping the poor girl once he has dispensed with Mario. Naturally, Mario seeks to save his woman. Mario himself is a racial stereotype, a short greasy Italian carpenter. Is it any coincidence that Mario’s ethnicity originates in Italy, home of the ancient Roman empire, or that he himself shares the same professions as Jesus Christ? In fact, as the player controls Mario, we find that the jumpman has the ability to revive himself from the dead, thus completing the analogy. What we have is a holy figure, a Christ figure, pursuing a symbol of black sexual aggression.
In the first level of Donkey Kong, the title ape does not use any sort of jungle weaponry to face Mario. Rather, they face off in some sort of factory, with DK hurling barrels at Mario as he seeks to reach the top of the level. This stage suggests that the black man has become dangerous living within white society; that he can use white folks’ own tools as weapons against the status quo. While Doney kong throws tools at Mario, the carpenter has his own weapons to rely upon. The hammers hanging in the level make obvious tools of attack, and yet Mario, following the pacifistic ways of Christ, uses them as tools. Rather than attack his kidnapper, he smashes the oncoming barrels with the sledges. The first level of the video reinforces the old and very racist stereotypes that the white man is smarter than the inherently violent and foolhardy black man.
Level two continues the factory setting, but adds some twists to it. Now Mario must contend with multiple fireballs as well as some sort of unidentifiable spring things. The weapons that DK uses are still man-made, but they are more mysterious than the simple barrel, suggesting a transition to a more animalistic form of attack. Additionally, in this level Mario gains extra points by recovering Pauline’s purse and parasol. Obviously, DK does not care for Pauline’s monetary possessions, which reinforces the suggestion of his intended rape. During these first two stages, Mario simply has to get near Pauline for the level to end; DK presumably seizes her and runs away, suggesting that the black male is not only lustful but also cowardly.
By stage three, Mario must face numerous fiery ghosts. They appear out of nowhere and serve Donkey Kong’s bidding, suggesting a possible voodoo magic at work. Worse still, Mario cannot usually jump over the ghosts, and must rely on the hammers to defeat them. Blessed with his holy might, Mario has no problem dispensing these evil spirits, marking the first time that the carpenter strikes out at his sentient enemies. Once again, Pauline’s parasol and purse appear; apparently Mario gave them back to her but DK threw them away again. Perhaps he sees them as symbols of wealth, something that a black man in America can never have. Also once again, DK is portrayed as a stupid beast, and simply stands around dancing as Mario removes the floor from beneath him, sending him crashing to his doom. Even at the end of the game, the cycle begins anew, with the three levels constantly repeating themselves with increased difficulty. Obviously, the black man is not capable of redemption and must continuously undergo punishment for him baser instincts. This portrayal of African Americans is stunningly racist. By the year 1981, you think America and Japan would have evolved beyond such archaic views and stereotypes.
But all is not lost. When we move on to Donkey Kong Jr., we find a villainous Mario. This game marks the first and only time when the Christ-like Mario is used as a villain. He has Donkey Kong caged, which is obviously symbolic to a return to slavery for the ape. Additionally, you play DK’s son. Of note is the fact that we have never been introduced to a Mrs. Donkey Kong, which once again reinforces the racist notion that African Americans have no family values. In Donkey Kong Jr., Junior faces off against Mario in the jungle, meaning that Mario’s rage has become so great that he is parading his conquest through his native lands. This obviously speaks to the notion of revenge making monsters of us all. Despite the jungle setting, Mario uses robotic crocodiles and other seemingly artificial creatures, symbolizing the white man’s domestication of the wild. In the third stage, the battle spills over into a factory. The factory, which seems to be in the middle of the jungle, is in shambles, with electric sparks everywhere. Obviously, we are being asked to believe that an African cannot build a working factory, and their own sheer stupidity is turned against them by Mario.
Ultimately, Mario is defeated in a manner very similar to DK’s initial defeat. Unlike Mario, Junior does not mind using violence against his foes, and kills all manner of beast, bird, and robotic crocodile with fruit. Obviously, the black man does not share the same reverance for life that the white carpenter does. Ultimately, DK is freed and Mario is defeated, but the fact remains that the entire trouble never would have started had the ape been able to keep his libido under control. While Donkey Kong Jr. does serve as an enditement on slavery, the game still suggests that apes, or rather blacks, should be in a lesser role than whites in American society, nay, in the entire world. These games serve as an argument for the “separate but equal” clause that plagued America following the emancipation of black slaves. The games are unapologetically racist. Worse yet, they are seen as classics, reproduced in modern video games like Animal Crossing and Mario versus Donkey Kong and fully ingrained in our society. Is that really what we want children to learn when they pick up a controller?