Clever Girl: A Feminist Interpretation of Jurassic Park

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There is no unauthorised breeding in Jurassic Park

Lurking away under the surface of the well-loved roller-coaster ride that is the brilliant Jurassic Park (1993) film, 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’. Reproduction is forced upon female animals in a lab, by men, to make money – and 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.

When you look at her, you can see she’s working things out

Jurassic Park opens with a scene of a male crew, armed with guns and helmets, watching carefully a crate containing some mysterious grunting creature as it is lifted from the jungle undergrowth. ‘Don’t let her get out,’ Robert Muldoon urges the men. The first thing the (female) raptor does is eat a man alive. This brief scene encapsulates the widespread fear of feminism – that feminist rage and liberation entail death to men; the implication is that females are man-eaters. This scene demonstrates why the patriarchy is so forceful in maintaining its hold over women’s lives and reproductive rights. Because although women may rightly be terrified of the patriarchy, the patriarchy is also scared of feminism. The scene ends with the close-up on Muldoon crying out, ‘Shoot her…shoot her….’

Muldoon admits to the guests how powerful these animals are. They have ‘extreme intelligence’ and test the fences for weaknesses ‘systematically.’ Muldoon enforces the domination of these females and pays the price. Despite recognising the capabilities of the raptors, he fatally underestimates their effective hunting in packs and thinks he can shoot the raptor who coquettishly appears in the vegetation towards the end of the film. As the second one emerges and devours him, the raptor that first caught the eye of Muldoon stares unmoved as a snake slithers past her face. This is Eve, she’s back, and she’s not sorry – she’s perfectly happy in the Garden of Good and Evil.

Beautiful but deadly

The greedy Dennis Nedry drives the action of Jurassic Park – he is selling Hammonds’ girls out to a rival. He meets a competitor in exchange for a bag of cash, a common criminal flogging ‘viable embryos’ on the black market. Nedry’s attitude towards women is made evident by the screensaver he has of a woman clad in a zebra print bikini against a zebra print background; women are animals and not much else.

In an elegant turn of poetic justice, it is the Dilophosaurus that get him. When the intrepid guests on the island are on the tour, these dainty Dilophosaurus are first to disappoint. Hammond is expecting them to be on display, like cheap girls in a window, but they aren’t obeying – instead they are invisible, somewhere in the parkland. The automated tour guide recites that these animals are ‘beautiful but deadly’ and survive by ‘spitting venom at its prey, causing blindness and paralysis’. When Nedry stumbles into their lair a Dilophosaurus makes delicate cooing noises, silhouetted on screen. She coyly plays with Nedry, hiding behind one side of a tree and then another. She suggests a typical screaming harpy, sexually attractive but who can’t help turning men off with her demands. Then: screeching, fanned patterned skin, black acid ejaculate, rattle-snake murmur, Nedry’s intestines in the mud.

Sexism in Survival Situations

We first meet Dr Ellie Sattler working on an archaeological dig. Dr Alan Grant recklessly terrifies an arrogant boy with a vivid tale of dinosaurs hunting their prey, and Sattler consequently steers him into a conversation about having children. This begins the development of both their characters – the journey they both go on in this film is the discovery of how to be ‘good’ parents. Sattler is no desperate woman yearning for a baby, but when Dr Grant describes children as ‘messy, noisy and expensive’ she lightly describes herself as ‘intrigued’ by the prospect.

Ian Malcolm objectifies Sattler upon first meeting her, ‘I refuse to believe that you, Dr Sattler, know nothing about the concept of attraction’ and she cannot help a deep blush. Sattler walks the fine line that women too often do; being subject to the male gaze, resisting it at times and responding to it at others. She flirts back with Malcolm in the car as he mansplains chaos theory to her but takes him by surprise by finishing off his own theory about God, Dinosaurs and Man with ‘…. Woman inherits the earth.’

Grant locates a sick triceratops and they both behave like they have been handed their firstborn; Sattler with tears in her eyes and Grant nurturing the large ill animal. Sattler proves herself to be a good, if conventional, mother figure, insisting on staying with the beast and is preoccupied with its diet – well-prepared to get elbow-deep in its shit. She also proactively decides to go after the grandchildren when it’s established that they are out in the park with raging dinos on the loose. Later, she senses ‘something’s wrong’ – a display of female intuition rather than obvious common sense – and goes to get the power back on when the men in the control panel are either dead, old or injured.  Hammond alludes to his patriarchal values but cannot give full voice to them in this scenario; ‘It ought to be me, really, going…. You’re a….and I’m a….’ but he’s clearly glad she takes up the gun and the radio.

Sattler is a complicated figure in a film about sexism in survival situations, just as she quips back to Hammond. She represents the tightrope walk women frequently face – capable, determined and vocal, but sometimes complicit in her own oppression. She acknowledges her failure to respect ‘the power of this place’ but eats the posh ice cream Hammond offers her as consolation.  When Grant at a crucial moment asks her if she’s sure the third raptor is contained she unfortunately replies that she’s sure, ‘unless they figure out how to open doors’ – which they have.

However, her relaxed smile at Dr Grant as they fly away with the children in a heteronormative vision at the end, is one of contentment. Dr Sattler is an everywoman who wants to have it all; a career, motherhood and a man. It is to the credit of the film that this seems feasible. The later films in the franchise are not so optimistic.

Come On, Girl, Come On

Lex’s tragedy is that she is the next generation and yet she too often epitomises an archaic view of young femininity. She is nervous, passive, and terrified of all the liberated monsters (ahem: feminists).  But like Sattler, she is full of her own contradictions, and again exemplifies the damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t struggles of being a young woman in a patriarchal yet legally enfranchised society. Sattler and Lex are also both the only ones that seem to scream with fear in the film. In contrast to her frightened little woman act she delights in modern technology, excited by the touch screen capabilities in the car. She even self-identifies as a ‘hacker’ – a subversive pursuit if ever there was one.  To her horror she winds up covered in dino-snot when she shyly attempts to feed a gigantic Brachiosaur, whispering ‘Come on Girl, come on…’ after which Timmy moans that ‘She’ll never try anything now. She’ll sit in her room, never come out, just playing on her computer.’ Even her baby brother wants something better for her than she does for herself.

As the tension ramps up she proves herself to be something of a good mother too; protecting Timmy, coming up with imaginative ways to trick the raptors, and sensibly turning off the lights when being hunted. She recognises the crucial IT system at the finale and knows how to use it, getting the security live again. Nedry’s zebra-clad poster girl flashes up on the computer screen – is this a last warning? Or a denunciation?  Either way, she doesn’t celebrate her own achievements. Instead of cheering her success at saving everyone with a hero’s glory, she merely turns to Grant and Sattler for affirmation, quietly stating, ‘Security systems enabled. You name it, we got it!’ Girlhood is a complicated business in Jurassic Park.

The Rape of the Natural World

Malcolm is clearly a ladies’ man, dressed in rock-star black, ostentatiously flirting with Sattler, and always on the lookout for ‘the future ex-Mrs Malcolm’. Yet he is the strongest opponent to Hammond’s vision and argues intensely against the existence of the park.

‘The lack of humility before Nature that’s being displayed here staggers me…What’s so great about discovery? It’s a violent, penetrative act that scars what it explores. What you call discovery, I call the rape of the natural world.’

Before the security fences come down, before the dinosaurs get loose, before guests are hunted – Malcolm recognises and names crucially not the danger of the place to the guests, but to nature and the animals. Malcolm identifies the sexual subtext and gives it a voice – while Sattler and Grant never truly acknowledge that the imposed control is wrong not because it could harm the humans, but because it is wrong to the animals. In comparison, Sattler only offers up that nature will ‘defend itself, violently if necessary.’ And Grant simply doesn’t know what to expect.

Malcolm is the experienced older brother to Grant’s almost virginal innocence. Although Malcolm irritates Grant with his interest in Sattler, Grant casually asks him while they’re alone if Malcolm has children. Malcolm nods and advises ‘anything at all can and does happen’. Grant visits the other car to see if they have a radio, and on his return, Malcolm begins teaching Grant about fatherhood. Here’s the dialogue;

M: Are the kids okay?

G: I didn’t ask, why wouldn’t they be?

M: Kids get scared.

G: What’s scary? It’s just a little hiccup in the power.

M: I didn’t say I was scared.

G: I didn’t say you were scared.

M: I know.

Grant is tetchy and uncertain, while Malcolm is politely encouraging Grant to think responsibly about the children. When the T Rex arrives, Grant’s instinct is to get involved and draw the dinosaur off with a flare, and it seems that Malcolm is only following him. But the dialogue again tells a slightly different story:

G: Ian, freeze! Get rid of the flare!

M: Get the kids!

G: Get rid of the flare!

M: Get the kids!

As with the animals on the island, Malcolm recognises the danger not to himself or the fellow adults but the children. Despite being an entirely inappropriate, sexually promiscuous poser – Malcolm is the moral compass of the film.

Petticoat Lane

Richard Hammond is introduced to the audience as a man whose values are askew, preoccupied with issues of policing female sexuality. The lawyer Donald Gennaro arrives on the island asking after him and is told Hammond is away because his daughter is getting a divorce ‘…which is more important than a £20milllion law suit?’ The lawsuit is due to a worker’s death on site which makes his prioritising of his daughters love life even more absurd. When he does turn up, he’s rattling on about the ‘biological attractions’ – a phrase which could easily be read as code for a brothel. Hammond is Dr Frankenstein, incestuously in love with his creations instead of terrified of them, insisting on playing father to each and every creature born on the island. He thinks being present at the birth will mean he ‘imprints’ on them – based on no factual evidence but his own sordid imagination.

Nedry warns him the park is over-automated, Malcolm warns him that ‘control is not possible’, Grant and Sattler warn him the park is dangerous and unpredictable – but this is a man who describes his own grandchildren as his ‘target audience’. Hammond has dollar signs in his eyes and is a perfect example of male entitlement. Hammond thinks he’s playing God, but the subtext hints he is little more than a grubby pimp, manipulating and forcing female bodies to perform the way he wants them to. He wistfully describes his first attempt at making money from entertainment as his flea circus called ‘Petticoat Lane’ – the name of which again suggests a brothel. Hammond wants ‘Something they could see and touch,’ which happens to be exactly what punters expect from prostitutes. The use of the word ‘something’ is telling here too. In Hammond’s eyes these animals are things for sale to be ‘seen and touched’ over and over while he turns a profit. Hence Hammond’s repetition of ‘spared no expense’ – he’s laid out the cash for these females, and he wants a return on his investment.

Life Finds A Way

Grant’s experience in Jurassic Park is two-fold. He finds himself not only in a strange new world where extinct animals have come back to life, but also facing the challenges of impending fatherhood.

He is mesmerised by the dinosaurs when he sees them initially in the first Brachiosaur scene. This is virtually the only time the dinosaurs are behaving in the way Hammond wants them to; beautiful, docile, and distant. Grant’s understanding of the factors at play here are confused. He knows the animals are all meant to be female, and yet repeatedly refers to them as male. When the goat is left out for the T Rex he comments, ‘T Rex doesn’t want to be fed, he wants to hunt.’ When the T Rex first appears, and Lex is screaming, he immediately puts his hand over her mouth (which has its own dubious undertones) and whispers ‘He can’t see us if we don’t move.’ However, the ill and incapacitated triceratops is immediately female, ‘She was always my favourite when I was a kid, and now I see her she’s the most beautiful thing I ever saw.’

Grant first shows his ability to behave as a good father once the T Rex arrives. Gennaro has ran off to the toilet, abandoning the children, an absconding father figure, and Lex is frightened by the memory even when they are relatively safe. ‘He left us! He left us!’ she cries, to which Grant faces her, looking deep into her eyes and firmly saying, ‘But that’s not what I’m gonna do.’ Later he tries to explain to Lex that the dinosaurs in the park ‘aren’t monsters…they’re just animals.’ This alludes to his own burgeoning sympathy towards the female beasts that have been brutalized. When the children curl up to him to fall asleep, Grant promises he will stay up all night – he’s innately a good father, despite himself. In the morning, when Grant comes across empty dinosaur eggs, he murmurs in awe, ‘God….’ showing he understands that Creation is not ‘an act of sheer will’ as Hammond would have it, but something far greater. He also immediately acknowledges his teacher, ‘Malcolm was right. Life found a way.’

At the climax of the film, Grant finds himself standing in front of his substitute nuclear family, prepared to die to protect them from the hungry raptors. Luckily, he is saved by the biggest bitch in the paddock – the T Rex starts bursts in to eat the raptors and the humans manage to escape in the chaos. The implicit message here is feminism is not only dangerous to men and the family unit, it’s an inherently destructive force which means dominant females can be relied upon to turn on each other to get ahead. There is no sisterhood here, just nature red in tooth and claw.

More Teeth

Jurassic Park doesn’t merely present a polemical view of how the gender wars should play out. Instead it implies that the antiquated and artificially constructed concepts of reproductive control of women should be left in the past. Jurassic Park offers no answers, only an imagined snapshot of the terror of misogyny when faced with the wrath of abused females.  Is Lex weak-willed and destined for a life of conforming to male expectations, or is she reconfiguring the rules of the game, refusing to either forfeit her kind-heartedness or her technological expertise? Jurassic Park leaves the viewer to determine.

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 SF horror.

Article by T.S.J. Harling


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1 comments on “Clever Girl: A Feminist Interpretation of Jurassic Park”

  1. Well, personally compared to the original book, I thought the film was much improved in the feminism department. The young girl character in the book, was so obnoxious I was ready to feed her to the T-Rex also a she…so the others to get away. In the film/at the end when the girl sat down at the computer and hit it and saved everyone (updated from the boy in the book) so of mentally blessed Steven Spielberg.

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