The tail snapped off my jade dinosaur pendant when it hit the floor of the middle school bathroom. Still gonna wear it, I thought. It’s my connection to Jurassic Park.
I was twelve-turning- thirteen, and Jurassic Park was the first PG-13 movie I was allowed to see. I bought the brontosaurus pendant (yes, I know, they’re not a thing anymore, but in 1993 they were) the weekend Mom took my brother and I to see the film, and I wore it until I’d dropped it so many times it was nothing but a shapeless green rock on a string.
Jurassic Park made me want to be a scientist—specifically, a geneticist. At an age when, statistically, young women start to disappear from science and math, I stayed after school every afternoon in the eighth grade to talk about chemistry with my science teacher. I drew DNA in the corners of my notebooks. I wore nothing but brown explorer boots on my feet for three years and tied button-down shirts around my waist, just like Laura Dern’s character, Dr. Ellie Sattler. I was not renowned for my fashion sense, but that was OK. I had passion.
As a freshman in high school, my interest morphed to film, and I did a report on a book called The Making of Jurassic Park: An Adventure 65 Million Years in the Making by Don Shay and Jody Duncan. My teacher, who had told us to write about a book that excited us and kindly indulged my ravings about the brilliance of Stan Winston, wrote in the corner of the title page, “You should see if there’s any way for you to integrate your writing talent with your love of movies!” Five years later, I went to film school. Five years after that, I moved to New York. Two and a half years after that, I realized I didn’t have the stomach for the industry. I was constantly hit on by men who could make or break my career. I was followed around set all day by a producer who would not stop asking me to dinner, and when I kept refusing, showed up at my editing suite, a tiny room with no windows, “to check on my work.” I heard horror stories about who not to work with. I dropped off paperwork at Harvey Weinstein’s office and wondered if I could ever get a position there (thank God I never actually applied). When the recession hit, I
took my layoff as a sign and went back to Tampa.
And in 2015, as I watched Zara, the British nanny in Jurassic World, brutally consumed by the joint efforts of two pteranodons and a mosasaurus (sounds like the setup to a joke) I thought, “Oh, great. This again.”
Because punishing women onscreen for exhibiting undesirable character traits—in Zara’s case, being controlling towards men (we hear her tell someone on her phone, “No he can’t have a bachelor party,”) is unimaginative filmmaking. It’s a repetition of familiar tropes in place of a true, soul-singeing creative spark. It is the difference between the mind-blowing originality of Jurassic Park and its franchise offspring, culminating in Jurassic World. I’d had high hopes for more inspiration from the Jurassic franchise, but like so much of what’s in cinemas now, it was regurgitated brilliance, dressed up with more, better special effects, the disconnect covered up by a disturbing reliance on misogyny to drive the plot.
I know, I know. No one likes a feminist to come along and un-fun everything. But Jurassic Park was as much mine as it was any geek guy’s; Jurassic World, on the other hand, was a not-so- subtle reminder to stay in my lane, or die a horrible death. Metaphorically. Probably. Stay in your lane, anyway, or be in fear for your life while running in your stupid heels through blood-soaked mud with the deaths of a lot of employees on your hands.
In Jurassic Park, there are two main female characters: Laura Dern’s Dr. Sattler, and Ariana Richards’ Lex Murphy. Dr. Sattler is one thing above all others: she’s a scientist. She wears… you know… scientist clothes. Comfy top. Not-Daisy- Duke shorts. Boots with wool socks. Like, ready for action, woman who does stuff clothes. And it’s not just her attire that marks her as a whole person, and not an object to be consumed by male audience members. She asks a lot of questions and gives her partner, Sam Neill’s Dr. Alan Grant, crap. She stops the caravan and investigates a giant pile of triceratops poo. Later, the dudes are all injured or old, so she does a significant engineering thing (no thanks to Samuel L. Jackson’s severed arm), braving unknown raptor whereabouts to do so. Basically, she’s a whole person, who’s in a life-or- death situation, who uses her brains and badassery to help people survive. She’s someone worth emulating.
Lex is a child, so she’s less of a badass; still, if you notice, her major contribution to the survival effort is that she knows UNIX. The girl’s computer knowledge saves the day. She’s not attired in sexy clothes because that would be
weird, but she still, even as a child, is valuable in the plot for her personal qualities, not just her status as someone to be rescued or worried about. The two female leads, in short, are inspiring because they are people, not archetypes.
We look to early visual cues in films to tell us who people are and how we should feel about them. In Jurassic World, we first see female lead Bryce Dallas Howard’s Claire Dearing in an elevator (OH FOR GOD’S SAKE, IS THAT SERIOUSLY HER LAST NAME? Yeah… thanks, IMDB. I guess). She is revealed slowly as she descends into frame: high heels, bare legs, skirt, blouse, and finally made-up, perfect-haired head. We are literally checking her out, the way undisciplined adolescent boys do before they learn to do that when we’re not looking.
By the time we see her eyes, we know who Claire represents: a sexy, ambitious woman who is utterly useless in a crisis. In short, she’s an insecure man’s idea of a woman who needs to be taken down a peg. Think I’m exaggerating? In the second scene she’s in, Claire’s status as “uppity woman” is cemented when she commits the cardinal sin of womanhood: she is emotionally unavailable to children. Noooooo.
Zara exhibits this too, in spades, which is how we know we’re supposed to enjoy her death. It’s like the filmmakers are checking off “bad woman” boxes as they unfold the story, in order to justify putting the women in danger or, superfluously, half-drowning them before they’re eaten.
By comparison, when we first see Chris Pratt’s Owen Grady, we boom up from below as he holds his hand out, Jesus-like, deftly manipulating not one, not two, but four velociraptors. He’s got a sense of humor while Claire is named—by Owen—as uptight. Owen is the one with whom we are meant to identify: he even calls himself the “Alpha,” a term used in Men’s Rights circles to connote a real man, one who is in control of everyone else, particularly women. Ew. You don’t have to be an MRA to understand that Owen is someone who’s supposed to be worth looking up
Which, OK, is fine. Most films feature a leading man. But it’s the weirdness with which Claire and Zara are portrayed by contrast that feels ominous; the only lead-ish woman who survives the film unscathed is Judy Greer‘s mother character Karen, who only lives because she doesn’t go to the park. I say “ominous” because that’s what it feels like when women see coded messages like those Jurassic World relies on. We get the point, loud and clear, whether we consciously realize it or not.
By the time we’re midway through Act II, Claire is wearing less and less clothing while, mystifyingly, Owen wears more (he has a vest just lying around, but she has no access to hiking boots?!). Claire does some stuff, like driving a van with unrestrained children in the back. She yells at people over the phone, after Owen tells her what the plan is. Vincent D’Onofrio’s character is messily eaten for being a douche. The adorkable female employee fends off an advance from a male coworker (yes, even now, when lives are on the line, she’s being hit on). Claire lies on the
ground, Fay Wray-like, her breasts glistening above the collar of her tank top, her skirt ripped to show her thighs. Finally Chris Pratt uses a combination of whistling and guns—a metaphor for his total and utter alphaness—to save the day.
My point isn’t that director Colin Trevorrow and the six writers who worked on this film (always an indication of an unoriginal piece when there are that many cooks in the kitchen) sat in the writers’ room going, “How many sexist tropes can we replicate in one movie?” and then counted them out like the owl in the Tootsie Pop commercial (“Ah-one. Ah- two-HOO. Ah—screw it, how bout all of them?”). I’m saying it’s just lazy, to use male fears about women to fake emotional resonance. It’s the opposite of the originality that made Jurassic Park so revolutionary. It’s kind of a
travesty. More than that, though, it’s heartbreaking.
And yes, I’m using such a strong word. Because at thirteen, my life was changed when I saw a movie that had room for me. As a girl struggling to figure out who I was, it lit me up inside to see women worth emulating onscreen—not plot devices, not objects, but characters, women who did things and had volition. Jurassic Park made me dream about my life and who I could become, and that hope carried me through years of adolescent uncertainty. Jurassic World, on the other hand, reminds me of my place. There’s not one woman in the film for anyone to emulate; if anything, it’s a cautionary tale for what happens to little girls who overstep their bounds.
At a time when STEM fields continue to be almost totally bereft of women, the folks behind Jurassic World had a great opportunity to inspire a new generation of young women as well as men. After all, Claire has the potential to be as strong a lead as Owen. But the writers didn’t bother to tackle the relatively easy task of writing three-dimensional female characters (hint: they’re just like dudes, but with slightly different anatomy). Instead, they covered up their lack of originality by giving some male viewers the smug satisfaction of seeing the bitches punished, one way or another, without those viewers having to identify with the punisher (it wasn’t Owen, after all, it was just dinosaurs being dinosaurs!).
There’s one moment, early in World, that tells us what this film truly is. In the original Park, one of the most moving scenes is when Dr.s Grant, Sattler and Gerald Ferrero‘s “bloodsucking lawyer” Donald Gennaro see real, live dinosaurs for the first time. It’s a watershed moment in cinema, and one that still makes me tear up because of what it would mean for those characters to see those animals, live and in the flesh.
In Jurassic World, the same theme plays over the sweeping shot not of dinosaurs, but of the park that’s been built around them. It’s like an ode to consumerism. (The words to this song about both the park and the franchise go, to the theme music, “Here’s a thing we built/ With a zillion bucks/ Cause we know yooouu’ll, pay to seeeeee….”) What’s wonder-worthy in this story isn’t something new; it’s the staggering ability humanity has cultivated to make money off people’s desire for genuine emotional experience. It’s a monument to the way we attempt to commodify originality.
It’s also a microcosm of what happens when something wondrous is created, and then studios recreate it again and again until every dollar is wrung out of it. Instead of moving the culture forward, it keeps us stuck in the same old bloody mud.