Some of Jurassic Park’s most iconic lines — "Life finds a way” aside — are basically Beyoncé lyrics.
Just take Dr. Ellie Sattler’s (Laura Dern) response to Dr. Ian Malcolm’s (Jeff Goldblum) musings on the chaotic cycle of life.
Malcolm: “God creates dinosaurs. God destroys dinosaurs. God creates man. Man destroys god. Man creates dinosaurs.”
Ellie: “Dinosaurs eat man... Woman inherits the Earth.”
Her put down of Jurassic Park creator John Hammond’s (Richard Attenborough) feeble assertion that he should be the one heading back into the park to switch on the power after everything goes haywire, on account of him having a penis, belongs in the shade hall of fame.
Hammond: It ought to be me really going.
Hammond: Well, I’m a… And you’re, um, a…
Ellie: Look… We can discuss sexism in survival situations when I get back.
Who run the world? Girls.
It’s been 25 years since the 1993 Steven Spielberg classic hit theaters, and it’s amazing how well it holds up. Sure, the T-Rex feels a little clunkier than she used to, and Jeff Goldblum’s black leather lewk is definitely dated, but overall, it’s a movie that’s as thrilling and fun to watch as the day it was released. But the most surprising thing about the film is how modern it feels in its treatment of women characters when compared to its rebooted franchise, Jurassic World. If anything, we have regressed.
It’s an interesting and somewhat puzzling shift for a franchise that, from the start, seemed to care deeply about its women: Every single dinosaur in the park is a badass lady ready be large and in charge. The idea that they’ve all been genetically engineered to be female in order to prevent reproduction in the wild is a central tenet of Jurassic Park. Jurassic World and its sequel Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (in theaters June 22), which promotes incredibly perceptive and intelligent raptor Blue to the level of leading lady, continue this theme. The fact that this dinosaur is probably the most interesting female character in the reboot is part of the problem, however. This is a society that really should have no need for men.
This idea was only reinforced by the kind of human women we saw on screen in Jurassic Park. There was Lex (Ariana Richards), a vegetarian teenage hacker, who ultimately saves everyone’s lives by managing to reboot the park’s computer system after it was sabotaged by
Newman Nedry (Wayne Knight). A young woman with an interest in STEM is something we’re only beginning to see again on screen, with Black Panther’s Shuri (Letitia Wright) leading the way.
And then we had Ellie Sattler, a paleobotanist unafraid and undeterred to shove her arm into a pile of dinosaur shit in order to help heal a sick triceratops. That scene, which comes roughly 40 minutes into Jurassic Park, has always stuck with me, partly because, well, ew, but also because of how truly uneventful it all is. No one is particularly impressed or surprised that Ellie decides to deep dive into dinosaur feces. There’s no snotty remark about her gender, or astonishment that she’s not gagging at the prospect. It’s par for the course: She’s just doing her damn job.
Now compare that to a scene in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, the most recent installment in the rebooted franchise, which shows Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) attempting to draw blood from a comatose T-Rex while Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), her on-again, off-again love interest, looks on. Turns out a dinosaur’s skin is tough to break through, so in order to properly access a weak spot, Claire has to straddle the drugged-out creature. And get this: T-Rexes are slimy; and they stink. But unlike Ellie’s foray into the abject, Claire’s is framed as an assault on her delicate sensibilities. She’s scrunching up her face, repelled by the gunk. In other the words, the joke’s on her: How could such a lovely woman be put in such a disgusting situation? Are you laughing yet?
It’s difficult to reconcile Ellie Sattler with Claire Dearing. When we first meet Claire back in 2015’s Jurassic World, she’s the sleek, buttoned-up executive in charge of the now up and running Jurassic World theme park. It’s a big job, and we’re led to believe she does it well, even if we never actually see her do much of anything. Instead, her commitment to her work is telegraphed to the audience via a series of subtextual cues: she wears stilettos at all times; her red hair is straight and shiny, blown out into a severe bob; she’s not maternal, handing off her visiting nephews to her assistant to babysit. And any woman who goes to work in a cream-colored suit must have the confidence of a seasoned general charging into battle. But again, these are all assumptions, based off of stereotypes we’ve constructed around what a serious business woman looks like. Once Claire is thrown out of her comfort zone and into real, trying situations that involve running away from scary dinosaurs, she’s shown to be pretty inept, and keen to rely on Owen to save her with his strong man arms.
Fallen Kingdom tries to rehabilitate Claire a little bit, mostly by trading in her heels — the subject of an online firestorm — for sturdy boots reminiscent of Ellie Sattler’s hiking gear. And yet, there’s no masking the fact that there’s just not much for her to do in a movie that revolves around action sequences that largely exclude women who are not dinosaurs. Still, the introduction of young Maisie Lockwood (Isabella Sermon), the grandchild of John Hammond’s long-lost business partner, is a welcome addition. Without spoiling too much, she holds the key to a pretty major discovery that will likely shape sequels to come — and she’s smart, curious, and very knowledgeable about the Cretaceous period.
But rather than celebrate Claire’s achievements, Jurassic World and Fallen Kingdom always seem to be undermining her. When she’s shown to be handling things on her own, she’s shrewish, and when she can’t, she’s a damsel in distress. She never transcends beyond tropes that position her in relation to the men she shares the screen with.
That’s partly why Ellie takes on multitudes that Claire’s character cannot. Just take Ellie’s repeated expression of her desire to have children. On the surface, giving into maternal pressures might dampen her feminist cred, while Claire, concerned with her career, rejects them. But actually, Claire’s choices are repeatedly portrayed as the wrong ones, character flaws to be rectified by the right man — presumably Owen — while Ellie’s are just that: her choices. The image of her as a standalone, fleshed-out character is aided by the fact that her romantic status remains relatively ambiguous throughout the film, despite some heavy flirting from Malcolm, which sparks some jealousy from Grant. She’s not here to play love interest, she’s here to be a scientist.
As Molly Fitzpatrick points out in her 2015 essay comparing the two characters, "you can make a good movie — a very good movie, even! — that pairs an uptight lady with a macho dude.” (She points to 1984’s Romancing the Stone and 1961’s The African Queen as positive examples). “But for this formula to work, it requires three-dimensional, fully drawn characters, who mutually learn from one another — and who aren’t shamed for their failure to adhere to traditional gender roles.”
But it takes two to tango, which is why the men that these women are partnered with onscreen matter. The original Jurassic Park stands out among action films largely because its protagonists weren’t regular action heroes. They were scientists — cool ones, sure, but not the kind of people you would expect to be running around a jungle fighting off massive and dangerous creatures. And what’s more, they didn’t so much solve the problem with violence as they deduced a creative solution and implemented it. Jeff Goldblum may have reached peak internet icon status in 2018, but can you imagine him holding up an action franchise a la Bruce Willis? Sam Neill has a kind of rugged appeal, but he’s not Rambo. He’s not macho — if anything, he’s a nerd who’s just so excited to be around his long-lost monsters. And he and Ellie were equal and professional partners above anything else.
Now, fast-forward to Jurassic World, and our hero looks very different. Like, 100 lbs of muscle different. Owen Grady is a former Marine turned dinosaur trainer who, as we see in the beginning of Fallen Kingdom, enjoys building himself log cabins and living out of his car. He is the kind of hero who needs a love interest in order to shine — to redeem him as a hulky man with a heart of gold. Every shot of him is meant to emphasize how good he looks in his very fitted pants. We’re supposed to admire his muscular arms, his ability to ride motorcycles alongside raptors, his rough stubble — not his intellect.
Clearly, though, that strikes a chord with the audience. Until recently (when it was dethroned by Avengers: Infinity War) Jurassic World was the fourth highest-grossing film of all time, worldwide. Box Office Mojo estimates its domestic take around $652,270,625. (Jurassic Park, on the other hand, hovers around $357 million, although adjusted for inflation, that figure looks more like $789.6)
So, what do those figures mean? Have audience tastes changed? Are we becoming complacent in our acceptance of what makes an action movie? Or was Jurassic Park an anomaly, a rare example of what was possible for women in blockbusters rather than the new norm? My gut points towards that last one. And yet, as Hollywood continues to reckon with its treatment of women in the industry (both onscreen and off), it’s all the more frustrating to watch movies like Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom be churned out, and consumed.
I am a big fan of Blue, the raptor raised by Owen in Jurassic World who turns out to be a crucial element of Fallen Kingdom. Her eyeliner (what did you think those blue rings around her eyes were?) is on point, and she’s clearly smart AF. She gets things done. But I don’t want to be rooting for her over Claire, a human being. If anything, I want the next installment (oh yes, there will be one) to have Claire storm in and save the day riding Blue and wielding her stilettos as a lethal weapon. If Jurassic Park taught us anything, it's that two fierce ladies are better than one.