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CITY FILE | In praise of Zira, maybe

Nothing says Christmas like a gender-bending lady ape with chapped lips

By Tor Lukasik-Foss

So Hamilton Magazine asked me if I'd take a crack at writing the annual Year in Review piece for the Holiday issue, and as I was putting it together the same weird thought kept occurring: This city is a lot like an eight-year-old at Christmastime.

We make a lot of noise about the things we think we need or want, we get some but not all of what we ask for, and those things that we get are often less thrilling, or don't work quite as they promised. Subsequently we're stuck with a lot of complicated feelings that we don't quite know what to do with.

"Oh, thanks Santa, its the CBC affiliate I've be waiting years for. Oh, it's only a webbased limited service that kind of duplicates services we already have…um, well, that's okay. I like the box it's in. And I know there's a new stadium in that big box there in the corner; there's no way I could ever be disappointed by that…."

I mention all this, not because I have a point to make, but because it puts me in mind of one of my favourite and most ofttold holiday memories. Perhaps you will find a moment this season to gather the family around the hearth and read this tale aloud.

In 1974 the toy company Mego came out with a series of eight inch Planet of the Apes action figures. I was about seven or eight when 'planet of the apes' fever had hit our public school, so naturally obtaining one of these toys for Christmas became of supreme importance. (As I recall there was extra pressure on me, as I had obtained the vaunted reputation of 'best at drawing apes' amongst the artists in my class).

Because my brother was only a year older and gripped by a similar desire, we were able to double team my mother as well as Santa, and after a month of constant needling, felt assured our needs would be met. I had even gone the extra measure of saying I didn't care which figure I got — the wise yet curmudgeonly orangutan Dr. Zaius, the inquisitive and well mannered chimpanzee Cornelius, or the strong yet narrow-minded Soldier gorilla—I'd be happy with any of them.

The problem for my mother was she had no idea just how widespread the demand for action figures was, and by the time she went out to purchase the toy, they were all gone except for Zira, the lady ape, the ape for which no boy could find a use. Not wanting to heartbreak her children, my crafty mom purchased two Ziras, set about one night in her sewing nook, and did her best to perform a gender reassignment.

This meant removing the figure from its blister pack, taking Zira's floor length ape gown and re-fashioning it into a pair of flare bottom pants, carefully filing off the ape lipstick and ape finger polish, and then positioning the vest in a way to best diminish Zira's ape-boobs. She then re-packed the figure in a straw filled wine box, had a glass of wine herself and hoped for the best.

You can imagine the complex set of emotions Christmas morning as my brother and I simultaneously unwrapped our gifts. The questions came flooding silently and rapidly into our heads: 'who is this? What part of the movie was this ape in? Why are his hands and lips chapped? Why does he look strangely like Fred Astaire? Why does he seem to be wearing the same boots as that woman from the Mod Squad? Why does he sleep in a bed of straw?

As memory serves, my brother dealt with the disappointment better than me. One look at his action figure and, like a tyrannical film director at a casting call, you could sense his decision. "Nope, this won't do. I can't work with this." In less than an hour his toy had been 'disappeared', and he had moved on to other distractions.

I, on the other hand, couldn't get past it. I put my figure at one end of the bed and stared at him, as if I could somehow will him to explain his motives and origins to me. I tried to mediate if not friendship, at least a working alliance between him and some of my other toys. This did not go well; Aquaman proved quite intractable in his prejudice. At night I was gripped with strange dreams of the androgynous Fred Astaire ape dancing in slow motion amid the sandy dune structures of the Ape city, pausing only to apply some balm to his woefully parched lips and fingers. It was a deep ambivalence I felt: part attraction, part terror, part empathy. What I couldn't deny was just how thoroughly this toy had both alarmed and ignited every part of my brain.

It haunts me a little still. I know in the end I treated the doll harshly. Yet now, as an adult, I am unclear if this was the best or worst present I ever received. At the very least it a touching example of what mothers will do to serve their children. And it has forever altered my understanding of the Planet of the Apes Universe. The Fred Astaire ape is more real to me than any other character. I think what a shame he never got to dance in the original film. I may have totally stopped being on the side of the humans. Happy Holidays!



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