April 7, 2015

Feminist Flicks: Jurassic Park

Warning: There be spoilers ahead!

I was recently watching the trailer for “Jurassic World”, the upcoming installment in the Jurassic Park franchise, and it got me thinking about representation of women in movies, and more explicitly the idea of so-called “feminist” movies. Why might this be you ask? Because I think that the original Jurassic Park, from all the way back in 1993, is a surprisingly good example of what I, at least, would consider to be a feminist movie. For those of you who just coughed up their coffee or are staring in puzzlement at your screens, let’s step back for a second.

The issue of female representation, or lack thereof in movies is a perennial topic of discussion. One recent example was the news coverage in 2013 about introducing a feminist movie rating system in Sweden. This system was to be based on the now monolithic Bechdel Test, based on a 1985 Dykes to Watch Out For comic titled “The Rule”, by Allison Bechdel. In order to pass this test, a movie had to have three things:

1.      At least two named women…

2.      Who talk to each other…

3.      About something besides a man.

Partly because the test is so simple, it has gained a reasonable amount of traction, and there are regular articles listing movies that pass or fail the test. For example, all of the Star Wars movies, and all but one of the Harry Potter Movies fail, but surprisingly the Twilight movie, a movie which certainly doesn’t stand out as an exemplar of feminist values, passes. Not surprisingly then there is a lot of criticism of the test as setting the bar too low, and newer tests such as the Sexy Lamp test and the Mako Mori test have been suggested.

But, back to the matter at hand, is Jurassic Park a feminist film? There actually is considerable debate as to whether it passes the Bechdel test (hinging largely on how loosely one defines “talk to each other”); however I think that this is ultimately beside the point, because I think that in the ways that really matter, the movie stands out.

Before going any further, credit where credit is due, this is by no means my original idea. In fact, there have been many, many others who have written about this. So why am I cluttering up the internet by writing about it again? Because despite the fact that this is not a new idea, whenever I bring this up with my friends, they typically respond with something akin to incredulity.

At a deeper level, I think it is worthwhile to point to movies when they do something right. If it was possible to create a big budget blockbuster that had well rounded, compelling, female characters more than twenty years ago why does this still seem like something that the movie industry struggles with?

So now, without further ado, short list of some of the awesome things about Jurassic Park (you know, besides all the sweet early 90’s CGI).

1)      The “Woman inherits the earth” joke:

In case you can’t watch the link on Youtube, here is a transcript of what is said, as Dr. Malcolm, Dr. Grant, and Dr. Sattler (more on her later) sit in the jeep waiting for the t-rex to appear:

Dr. Ian Malcolm: God creates dinosaurs. God destroys dinosaurs. God creates man. Man destroys God. Man creates dinosaurs.

Dr. Ellie Sattler: Dinosaurs eat man. Woman inherits the earth.

Aside from being a funny joke in its own right, what I like about this scene is how Sattler calls Malcolm on his language in a way that immediately makes it clear how ridiculous it is, and judging by his (and Grant’s) reaction, they know Sattler is right. However, this exchange is nothing compared to the next one.

2)      The “sexism in survival situations” scene:

This is a scene which didn’t really register with my 7 year old self, but now that it has been pointed out to me it really stands out. It occurs in the later part of the movie, after the dinosaurs are loose, and it becomes necessary to send someone out of the emergency bunker to re-start the system. Sattler volunteers to go, but Hammond tries to stop her, saying:

John Hammond: It ought to be me really going.

Dr. Ellie Sattler: Why?

John Hammond: Well, I’m a… And you’re, um, a…

Dr. Ellie Sattler: Look… We can discuss sexism in survival situations when I get back.

On the face of it this interaction is already worth noting, but one blogger clearly explains what is going on in this scene between Hammond and Sattler:

…Hammond is not a bad guy in this movie… he is not saying these sexist things to hurt or put down Ellie, he does it out of genuine concern for her. But it is still sexist… he still thinks of Ellie as a fragile young thing that needs protecting. This is the kind of sexism that young girls need to learn how to face…”

I could go on about how telling this interaction is, but I think that the above quote clearly explains what is so great about it. Not to mention, there are still so many other reasons this movie is awesome!

3)      Strong female characters.

Another reasons to like Jurassic Park as a feminist film is in the fact that it has two strong, female characters, neither of which is sexualized, who use their skills, knowledge, and bravery to save the day, and in very different ways. The first such character is Dr. Ellie Sattler, a scientist (specifically paleobotanist), who isn’t afraid to stick her arm elbow deep in triceratops droppings… or to face off with velociraptors. Sattler is the one who manages to save the day by re-starting the power, despite the previously mentioned protests from Hammond.

However, Sattler isn’t the only well-rounded female character: there is also Lex Murphy. Even though Lex is 12, she manages to save the day because of her computer know-how. On top of this, for much of the movie she acts as a protector for her younger brother, while also standing up for her choice to be a vegetarian.

4)      It inverts traditional gender roles

Another thing that I particularly enjoy about this movie is how it inverts certain traditional gender roles, particularly in its portrayal of Sattler and Grant. Sattler as a character spends much of the movie running around, doing all of the “action hero” type stuff: she faces off with the velociraptors, on multiple occasions, and saves the day. In contrast, Grant spends much of the movie looking after the kids, Lex and Tim. Maybe I’m reading too much into it at this point, but it was something that, watching the movie now, I can appreciate. It’s subtle, but there nonetheless.

5)      The theme of male control of female reproductive choices

I wanted to end this with what I think is one of the most interesting reads of this movie, through the lens of attempted male control over female reproductive choices. In case people had forgotten, all of the dinosaurs on the island are female, and through genetic manipulation, the scientists of the park, who are mostly (although not wholly) male make sure that no breeding takes place.

As one of the scientists explains: “Population control is one of our security precautions. There’s no unauthorized breeding in Jurassic Park.” However, despite this control “life finds a way” (to use the words of Malcolm, the mathematician). In the end, the female dinosaurs of the island rebel and manage to retake their agency from the scientists attempting to control them. Some have taken this analysis even further, making note of Grant’s struggle with his seatbelt in the helicopter on the initial ride to the island, in which he resorts to using two “female” ends. Certainly this was not something that I picked up on when I first watched the movie, and it may not even have been the actual intent of Spielberg, but I think it is still an interesting lens with which to view the movie.

So, to sum it up, I think there is actually a pretty strong case to consider Jurassic Park a “feminist” movie. I am cautiously optimistic to see what the new Jurassic World movie will bring: it still isn’t clear what Bryce Dallas Howard’s character of Claire Dearing will be like, but here’s hoping that she will be as awesome as Laura Dern’s Ellie Sattler was in 1993.

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