Pre-historic Gender Roles

Jurassic World is dominating the global box office. Admittedly, the film is entertaining. It delivers standard “popcorn” action. This means, of course, that your brain can focus more on the popcorn than the plot, which doesn’t feel fully cooked. Still, there’s enough fake buttery, heavily salted flavor to make you forgive the lack of substance.

Interestingly, it doesn’t appear that the film aspires to be memorable, only profitable. Hence its unabashed nods to Jurassic Park and its reckless marketing integration; the film’s verbal condemnation of corporate commodification ends up being nothing more than grossly ironic self-awareness (Mercedes especially is visible at what feels like every turn). This lip service prevents the film from having any enduring value, yet although its social commentary loses power in the film’s hypocritical complicity in consumerism, as a cultural artifact, it still reveals exactly what it doesn’t go all the way in criticizing effectively. That is, we can examine Jurassic World as a reflection of our culture’s DNA.

Spielberg-directed films have a self-serious tone, which makes his worlds more convincing and lasting. Trevorrow’s take is more lighthearted, which captures the spirit of our age perfectly. We’re all too disillusioned to buy such nonsense, right? Yet what do we get as a result of our elevated, guarded consciousness? More nonsense! And we lap it up! We put on the airs of skepticism, only to become even more immature and ignorant in our childish consumption. It’s like we’re playing the “not to be _______” card ahead of everything we do, admitting our social consciousness only to dismiss it in the next second.

In Jurassic World, the creators clearly did this in prescribing gender roles. Of all the female characters in the film, only Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) is meaningfully empowered, but it’s a half measure. When the stakes are highest, she vacillates between active hero and marginal sidekick, or worse, love interest. Her relationship with Owen (Chris Pratt), like every convoluted relationship in the film, is developed only for the convenience of plot momentum, not any internal, nuanced logic based on characterization; they’re pawns to the dinosaurs, after all.

For all its talk of chaos, which is woefully inadequate given the beautiful reality of chaos theory, the relationships are simply a mess. You could be extraordinarily generous and argue that the relationships reflect the nonlinear dynamic nature of chaos, reinforcing the film’s explicitly stated theme about control (and how we have little of it, especially relative to nature’s ultimately unpredictable impositions), but in the end, the writers were more likely asking, “how do we keep this thing moving?” than “how do we make this thing not only make sense but have weight?” The film is weightless nonsense, which is why it’s such a breeze and a pleasure to watch, as long as you don’t think about it too much, which is exactly the mindless state that the writers lull you into with all the comforts of prehistoric archetypes.

Enter the masculine hero! Owen is a combination of Dr. Ian Malcolm and Alan Grant. He has Malcolm’s levity and theoretical intelligence and Grant’s severity and practical wisdom; his mind is pristine and he gets his hands dirty. He respects nature, he’s humble, charming, dashing, and daring, and he is our conscience. He knows what’s right and wrong, and he enacts this wisdom with unquestioned conviction. To him, we must concede.

At first, Claire is strong enough not to do this. She resists his sexual prowess (at least verbally, since we see her fixing her hair prior to their first meeting, which may be a more general OCD thing than a heteronormative attraction thing) and shows herself as a competent, albeit obsessively, career woman (who is caught as prey in the tangled triangular web of male acquisitive ambition, in the form of Henry Wu, Masrani, and Hoskins). It should be noted here how the film depicts the frustrating binary bind for women: either you’re a self-centered career woman, or you’re a selfless mother. The film argues you can’t be both. Claire’s sister is nothing more to us than a mother (going through a divorce that is…resolved at the end? We don’t really care by that point, I guess.), and it’s her job to espouse the virtue of motherhood to Claire and the audience. Claire questions whether she’ll ever be a mother; her sister speaks of it as an inevitable duty/necessity. (Also, the – as far as we know – single woman who escorts Claire’s nephews around is portrayed as irresponsible and effectively worthless. She is neither mother nor career woman and so is socially useless, hence her inconsequential death. Speaking of Claire’s nephews, we get a male-imbalanced world in this film. In Jurassic Park, Tim and Lex shared childhood, but here, we have two brothers, both aiming at manhood and both revering Owen.)

From that moment, we see Claire experience her “natural” arc to motherhood. I’m tempted to call it surrender or acceptance, which isn’t to demonize that role, but to doubt it as an imperative. Biologically, perhaps, but not socially. To be fair, Alan Grant’s arc in Jurassic Park is to fatherhood, so there’s a precedent in the series that the film is following: let’s focus on natural creation and our own species’ endurance instead of playing God. But by making Claire’s journey the central one (Owen doesn’t change one lick), it’s as if the writers were reminding Claire and us of the proper place for women in social hierarchy. Women aren’t denied strength, courage, intelligence, or business acumen, but their primary purpose is to give birth. Dr. Ellie Satler (Laura Dern) knew this from the beginning of Jurassic Park, so what’s taking Claire so long to catch on? Does she really need to go through all that trouble of running a theme park (by the way, will she be held at all responsible for the crazy destruction and death that just happened?) and almost being eaten to realize this fundamental truth?

The worst moment comes after we’ve seen Claire prove her mettle. Owen tries to help her at various points, and she runs right past him. Neither blinks. They share the heroic activity. But then, once Claire saves Owen from being eaten by a small flying dinosaur, he kisses her, and she suddenly becomes the princess (minus summoning the T-Rex into action later on, prompted by her “genius” nephew). Her nephews put everyone in their place: Owen is the hero they want and trust, Claire is their good enough aunt. Let’s be clear here. She just showed them how badass she is, and they act like she’s never done anything. Later, when they’re all stuck in an emergency van, waiting for the hero to do his business, the nephews remark, “Aunt Claire, your boyfriend’s a badass.” Claire’s response? Unabashed glee in the form of a damsel-in-distress smile.

Seriously? That’s all she is? Owen’s prize? Owen, to be fair, is not portrayed as actively enforcing this role. In fact, in the end, when asked by Claire, “what do we do next?”, he says, “we stick together. To survive.” (Or something along these lines.) In other words, we share (heteronormative) responsibility for the future. And off into the sunset they go. But wait…why would the previously ultra-confident Claire suddenly have doubts about her next step? Why would she rely on Owen for an answer? Perhaps this is her necessary surrender of control. I can get behind that. We could say Owen is also giving up control and saying “come what may” with Claire. But she’s conceding control to a man.

Meanwhile, her sister is right back to being a mother, and familial order is restored, for dinosaurs and humans alike. Destroyed is the genetically modified creature that was wreaking havoc on the “natural” order of the dinosaur family. Let’s parallel this pseudo-natural order to the heteronormative, institutionalized structure of the family. Again, I’m not saying this is a bad thing, but representing it as the option for the good life, as though it’s natural and right. Come on. The family structure is as natural as the pre-Indominous Rex dinosaurs of the park, and even though we root for their return to dominion on the island, there is nothing right or inevitable about their victory. Just as there is nothing inevitable or right about any socially constructed roles. The film would have us believe otherwise.

We would do well to remember chaos as the only true nature. For all the order we struggle to create and perpetuate, things fall apart. And for so much of our social order, this falling apart is natural, inevitable, and (would be) right.


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