The much-anticipated Jurassic World was guaranteed to take a huge bite out of the box office, but the film didn’t deliver when it came to feminist portrayals. Sure, people want to see awesome dinosaurs and they want to see Chris Pratt — that and the nostalgia factor are why most people are seeing this movie anyway — but those things certainly shouldn’t have to detract from the role that the women of the movie play. This is especially true since the film’s protagonist is a woman. Although Claire may be the main character, less than one third of Jurassic World‘s credited cast who actually have character names are women, with only 4 female characters named. Let’s take a closer look at the limited ladies of Jurassic World:
The Four Females
The most disappointing part about the women in this movie for me is that they are all great actresses, but are restricted from showing the full breadth of their abilities.
Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) — As the film’s protagonist, you would expect some depth from Claire, right? Sorry, you don’t get any. Even though Howard has delivered incredible performances in The Help and 50/50, she can’t save this character’s rigid and clichéd storyline. The first Jurassic World trailer was the scene in which Claire goes to convince Chris Pratt’s dinosaur expert Owen to take a look at her lab’s newest creation. It basically follows the formula of classic TV sitcoms that involve a woman being too up-tight for her own good who just needs a fun-loving guy to loosen her up. In fact, the trailer was called out for this “70’s era sexism” by Buffy creator Joss Whedon. Claire’s evolution from rigid, solitary businesswoman to a more human and loving character doesn’t save her either. Her character goes from being an icy bitch to a submissive wife, jumping from one outdated stereotype of women to another. What’s probably the worst of all is that she is never actually right about anything, but Owen is basically infallible! You’d think that if Claire spent all of her precious baby-making time focusing on work, that she would actually know how to run this park, but no. In every scenario when she and Owen have a difference of opinion, Owen winds up being correct. Claire is shown to come out of her shell as the story progresses, but only by following Owen’s orders and cowering behind him. On top of that, Owen gets all the jokes. Granted, Chris Pratt is a talented comedian, but Howard has proven that she can deliver jokes amazingly as well — you’d think the writers would throw her at least one little laugh.
Karen Mitchell (Judy Greer) — Speaking of missed opportunities for humor, Hollywood’s constant-costar Judy Greer plays Claire’s sobby sister Karen in the movie. The character of Karen can easily be boiled down to two words: concerned mom. Even before she sends her sons off to Jurassic World, Karen is worried and teary (although it turns out that she should be). Karen’s other two scenes in the film are a worried phone call she makes to Claire wondering how her kids are doing and then pressuring her into starting a family of her own, and then welcoming her kids back into her tear-stained arms when they finally reunite. It’s totally believable for a mom to be worried when sending her kids away to a dinosaur-filled island, so it’s not like Karen is behaving strangely, but she is probably the second most visible female character in the film, meaning she has to be focused on despite her lack of any character depth beyond weepy mom (another tired female stereotype). It really sucks that the writers didn’t give Karen more scenes or even just a few more lines in the film so that the audience could experience the awesome comedic ability that we’ve seen from Greer in Arrested Development, Archer, and so much more.
Vivian (Lauren Lapkus) — As with Greer, Lapkus was tragically underutilized as the data-spewing control room operator Vivian. Most fans might be familiar with Lapkus from her role on Orange Is the New Black, and she’s also a regular on various comedy podcasts, including her own, where she performs hilarious characters. However, you won’t get any laughs from Vivian, except for one in her final scene and the best turn of the whole movie. Throughout World, Vivian is basically the unfunny female counterpart to Jake Johnson’s punchline-machine control room operator Lowery. It does make some sense that the writers would give more jokes to Johnson, who will be more recognized as a comedian by viewers thanks to New Girl, but Lapkus is a comedic powerhouse ready to be unleashed in a mainstream role, and giving her no jokes whatsoever is a severe oversight. As I mentioned before, Vivian does have one of the best moments of the movie when she rejects Lowery, who thinks he’s about to score a kiss for staying on the dangerous island, by saying she has a boyfriend. The scene hilariously turns the whole action movie cliché of a woman rewarding a heroic man for putting himself into harm’s way on its head. In the end, though, it is still focused on a man, and Lowery blames her for not mentioning that she has a boyfriend before that moment.
Zara Young (Katie McGrath) — When I was thinking back on the movie, I actually thought there were 3 main females. I had totally forgotten about Claire’s snobby, glued-to-her-phone assistant Zara, and she wasn’t very hard to forget. Zara’s main scene is being mutilated by a Pterodactyl and then eaten by a Mosasaurus; before then, she plays a one-note assistant who we really don’t know anything about, aside from the fact that she’s British and kind of bitchy. If she was given just a little more development she could’ve been amazing, akin to Emily Blunt’s character in The Devil Wears Prada, but we barely see any of her at all until we are watching her be killed.
The Primary Female Struggle Is Work/Family Balance
So what do we take away from the women of Jurassic World? Well, the only things that we ever hear any of them talk about are their jobs or their families. I would contest that none of the female characters in Jurassic World ever go deeper than just being a simple and arcane allegory for how women should prioritize their time between work and family. Claire’s primary evolution, and what seems to be the moral of the film, is her choice to focus less on being an icy businesswoman and open herself to falling in love and having a family. We see that Vivian makes a very clear separation between her work and home life, Zara is brutally punished for only having a work life, and Karen is portrayed as a good mom, but perhaps still not successful at work as we see her taking orders from a higher-up while calling to check up on her kids. Basically, the movie boils down the female struggle to a simple dichotomy, with professional ambition at one end and family life at the other, never to intersect. Not only is this a gross oversimplification of female life, but the movie doesn’t even validate both life paths. The moral we get demonizes single working women, and basically says “get a man or your life is empty.”
So, Let’s Talk Bechdel Test
When talking about feminism in cinema, a good jumping off point is the Bechdel test. The Bechdel test is a set of three qualifiers to determine how females are characterized in a work. To pass the test, a film must:
- have at least two women characters;
- who talk to each other;
- about something other than a man.
I would argue that Jurassic World fails the Bechdel test, although it’s a bit of a gray area. The only woman in the movie who speaks to another female character is Claire, who has conversations with Karen, Vivian, and Zara. When talking to Karen and Zara, Claire speaks exclusively about her nephews. To be honest, I don’t fully recall what Claire and Vivian spoke to each other about, but I do know that they probably only said a few sentences to each other, and it was purely business related. Technically, the movie may pass the Bechdel test for a few dry, robotic sentences between Claire and Vivian about how best to take down a super-dino, but I really don’t think what the two women did in that control room even really qualifies as talking. Claire is basically barking out questions and waiting for a response, not even from Vivian specifically, as Lowery is actually almost always to the to respond. Another murky area on this topic arises when considering the sex of the dinosaurs in the movie.
Do Dinosaurs Count?
Not all of the female characters in Jurassic World are flops, just the human ones. The Velociraptor squadron let by Owen and the powerful killing machine Indominus Rex are all female, a point that the movie makes very clear. Some observers have argued that making the badass dinosaurs female actually makes the film feminist. To those people I say: HELL NO! First of all, if you have to stretch so far to argue that the representation of a whole different species is what makes the misrepresentation of human women permissible, you really don’t have a good argument going. Even if the female dinosaurs were displayed as strong, smart, independent, and totally feminist in every way, the viewer couldn’t just ignore the bland and clichéd treatment of the human women! Secondly, we actually learn from the original Jurassic Park movies and novels that all of the dinosaurs are female in order to keep them from reproducing. So, making these dinosaurs female wasn’t really a choice for the Jurassic World writers; it was just canon.
Finally, it’s not like the dinosaurs we see are even fleshed out enough to be strong feminist representations. Sure, we learn a lot about Owen’s raptor pack, and they are incredibly strong and intelligent, but even they are relegated to following the orders of a man. In a way, the raptors represent the fervently loyal, subdued ideology that Owen molds Claire into by the end of the film — capable and savvy, but only taking action when ordered by Owen. The Indominus Rex isn’t much better. No, she doesn’t follow orders, and yes she is probably the most intelligent and strong character in the movie, but is portrayed as irrational and unwise. It’s also worth pointing out that her name is two masculine words, nominally stripping her of her femininity. These might be nitpicky points, but trying to analyze a giant lizard that we only see when she’s mauling and devouring stuff in terms of gender does not give you a lot to work with, which is another reason the dinosaurs shouldn’t be viewed in the same regard as human women in this film.
Disgracing Dr. Sattler’s Legacy
Another major reason that the lack of feminism in Jurassic World is so disappointing is that the original Jurassic Park movie was so ahead of its time in regards to female representation. Laura Dern’s character of paleobotanist Ellie Sattler broke down gender stereotypes left and right. She was a successful academic who was enthusiastic about life, courageous, loving, and not concerned with superficiality. Interestingly, Claire and Ellie deal with a similar situation during their films, as well: how to segue their work-oriented lives into starting a family. While Claire is resistant to this and must be wooed into a relationship by Owen, Ellie retains her agency throughout her story; it’s her idea to have kids and she is trying to convince her boyfriend to go along with it. The other major female character in Jurassic Park is Lex. While fearful of dinosaurs, Lex is a confident young woman who is incredibly intelligent, which she displays in her ability as a computer hacker. In a film primarily focused on showing dinosaurs tear stuff apart, Jurassic Park showed us that audiences can enjoy a thrilling action movie that include strong, complex women, something it must have forgotten to remind its successor about. Overall, though, both movies were incredibly successful and entertaining, which raises the question…
Should Feminism Even Matter In Action Movies?
In the end, what does this discussion even accomplish? Despite portraying women as simply cold work robots or a hyper-loyal man-pleasers, Jurassic World was a a visually stunning, adrenaline-pumping thrill ride that excellently built on the original trilogy. And when audiences are going to see an action film, isn’t that all they really want — guns, danger, chase scenes, near-death escapes, blood, suspense, etc.? People know what they’re getting when they buy a ticket for an action movie, and an enlightened take on feminism is not something viewer would expect. So, why would an action movie even try to include a complex female character when viewers will gobble it up as long as it’s got enough explosions?
My response to that question would be: Well, why the hell wouldn’t they!? The characters and their traits in a movie will have no effect on the amount of blood, guts, and fighting you can include. An action movie can easily feature a strong, independent, smart female role just as it can feature a strong, independent, smart male role, which it so often will. Recently, another action remake has gotten attention for its surprisingly feminist reimagining, without skimping on the action. “Mad Max: Fury Road” proved something that, except for backwards men’s rights activists, fans are starving for more positive female representation in action movies. It’s something that’s been shown before in blockbusters (“The Avengers” and “Kill Bill”), cult hits (“Serenity” and “Dredd”), YA adaptations (“Divergent” and “The Hunger Games”), and various other action subgenres, but some movie-makers apparently still aren’t getting the hint.
Action films have a long history of playing on the heroic male/damsel in distress structure, so it’s become something of a default for the genre. But the world has come a long way since the first action movies were made. Some things have stayed the same — we still want to see fight scenes — but women can’t be treated like an object to be rescued anymore.
What that world not only needs, but craves, is more Ellie Sattlers and less Claire Dearings. Please?