‘Jurassic Park’ is an Inherently Feminist Interpretation
It’s been 26 years since Jurassic Park, 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 look is definitely dated, but still just as easy on the eyes. Truth is that it’s a movie that’s as thrilling and fun to watch now as the day it was released. But the most surprising thing about the film is how modern it feels in its treatment of it’s female character, from Dr. Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) all the way to the dinosaurs – every single dinosaur in the park being a bad ass lady. In fact, 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.
Lurking away under the surface of this well-loved roller-coaster ride that is Jurassic Park, lies a recurrent phobia of something even more frightening than giant pre-historic predatory dinosaurs: feminism. The film is dense with references to the female body and, more specifically, controlled reproduction – blood to create ‘baby dinosaurs’, the eggs, the “pulling up of dinosaurs’ skirts.” This is best depicted in the scene where the three scientists are on a tour of the facility and they get to experience how the eggs are hatched.
They are all in awe of the process until they start learning the details of how it works. They are appalled and confused when it is revealed that there is “No illegal breeding in Jurassic Park.” because all of the dinosaurs are female. Malcolm jokingly asks “How do you know they’re all female? Does somebody walk into the enclosure and look under the dinosaur’s skirt?” Only to find out that the dinosaurs sexes are maintained by denying them the genetic code they need to become male.
So, reproduction is forced upon female animals in a lab, by men, to make money. Them they break free, resist, and make babies in their own way. The resulting story is not just a cautionary tale of what happens when scientists and corporate interests combine, but an exploration of the threat that feminism poses to the family unit when seen through the eyes of the patriarchy.
Largely, Steven Spielberg is not known for overtly feminist portrayals of women in film. His work primarily focuses on similar motifs, chiefly that of father/son relationships. Yet, in rewatching Jurassic Park, it struck me that not only is Dern’s Dr. Ellie Sattler a portrayal of a female scientist that is largely unseen in film, but she is, on numerous occasions, keenly aware of her gender and how this leads to her treatment.
A paleobotanist, Dr. Ellie Sattler is clearly respected in her field of her work. Unlike previous female scientists, Ellie is not merely present to fulfill the Male Gaze, or to act as a plot device driving the narrative forward. Too often in film and television, women scientists are there to either look attractive, or to simply proffer information to their male counterpart without little discussion. Here, Ellie is not only an expert in her field, she is respected by her colleagues.
Ellie is unafraid and undeterred to shove her arm into a pile of dinosaur droppings 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 this entire scene 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 job. This is largely due to the fact that the men, around her, are scientists and they view her as an equal, not on the basis of her sex but on the merit of her work.
This idea is further reinforced by the varying kinds of human women we see on screen in Jurassic Park. There was Lex (Ariana Richards), a vegetarian teenage hacker, who in the manages to save her brother from being raptor food. That scene is also iconic for all the layers of technology that was used to make it but that’s for another article.
Lex is good at what she does and she knows it, even though utterly terrified she 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 normalized on screen. There are examples of women in STEM in media all the way from Scully (Gillian Anderson) in the 1990’s to Shuri (Letitia Wright) in Black Panther they are just few and far between. Especially compared to the rate that white men are depicted in STEM.
That being said, 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.
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 traditionally 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.
While Ellie is Grant’s (Neil) partner, her narrative is not dependent on her involvement with him, and indeed, much of her narrative development takes place away from Grant. Returning to the compound while Grant is left to look after the children, arguably taking on the parental role, often reserved for women in these situations, Ellie is compelled to offer her help in order to reboot the system. She is aware of the dangers, but does so anyway. Her action, which she quickly undertakes with little debate, is decisive. She knows that her help is needed and despite her fears, she rapidly offers her services.
Both Muldoon (Bob Peck) and Arnold (Samuel L. Jackson) accept Ellie’s participation without question. Muldoon is an interesting character especially in the depiction of “Macho Men” supporting the women around them. He was Jurassic Park‘s game warden and shown as being proficient with weaponry and was a skilled hunter. He is a refreshing portray of a hyper masculine or a “Macho Man” because he views Ellie as an equal and not a liability.
It is only John Hammond (Richard Attenborough), far older than the rest, who questions her decision. It is interesting that it is Hammond who expresses his displeasure with her involvement in the mission, largely given the noticeable generation gap between the three men in the room. Perhaps this is Spielberg’s attempt at noting the necessary progression in the treatment of women. Ellie herself explicitly draws attention to Hammond’s objections, bluntly stating, “Look … We can discuss sexism in survival situations when I get back.”
Ellie is willing to get involved and does not require rescuing, unlike her partner Alan, who spends the majority of the film both fulfilling a paternal role, but also hoping to find safety. Ellie is already safe through her decision to stay with the triceratops, but she is prepared to risk this in order to guarantee the safety of others. Ultimately, it is Ellie that rescues Alan, Lex (Ariana Richards), and Tim (Joseph Mazzello) as it is through her resetting the breakers on the park and reactivating the parks security system that allows them to retreat from danger.
Most importantly, Ellie is not an overtly sexualized character nor is she there to serve as simple set decoration. Her clothes and styling are functional and appropriate to her job and she is allowed to be intelligent and brave without acting hysterical or panicked. The film affords her a fully developed, engaging, and interesting role. She’s also an unapologetic feminist.
While their Jeep is parked outside the T. Rex exhibit, Ian Malcolm (Goldblum)waxes poetic about the nature of this experiment: “God creates dinosaurs. God destroys dinosaurs. God creates man. Man destroys god. Man creates dinosaurs.” Sattler doesn’t miss a beat, “Dinosaurs eat man,” she continues. “Woman inherits the Earth.”
Jurassic Park is a movie that still holds up today. It’s not a perfect film there is a significant lack of people of color but for its faults, it’s a shining example of how to treat women in films. It allows it’s female characters to be layered and multidimensional, they aren’t used as sex symbols, and as dinosaurs they really wreck stuff up.The sequels play out similar themes of reproductive anxieties but less successfully and become increasingly more conventional.
By the time we reach the 2015 Jurassic World, the imprisoned dinosaurs have become more, not less frightening. Instead of Grant’s nuanced journey towards fatherhood we have the classic trope of a career woman who neglects the children and who needs to be taught a lesson. It’s disappointing that decades later, the franchise has become significantly more dictatorial about gender performance. But then, these films can all be enjoyed for nothing more than the Frankenstein-esque, gleefully monstrous, Hold-Onto-Your-Butts science fiction horror.