Paleo Feminism

Have you heard? Jurassic World is a big, dumb, sexist mess. Even Joss Whedon thinks so!

The problem seems to be that, at the beginning of the movie, Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) is iffy about whether she’ll ever have kids, and is also a bit awkward around them, but by the end she’s kept her nephews from getting devoured, and… well, she doesn’t exactly say she’d have kids now, but she also doesn’t make a point of saying she wouldn’t. Oh, also, she’s uptight and wears high heels and turns down the advances of manly scoundrel Owen (Chris Pratt) but later seems like she wouldn’t totally object to hooking up with him.

What Jurassic World is really about—to the extent it’s about anything, which is not much—is not gender roles. Let’s back up a moment to the original film. As I’ve argued before and Jonathan Last has argued too, Jurassic Park is a classic exploration of our awe and anxiety about the scientific enterprise: part Frankenstein, part I F***ing Love Science, and, smartly, these are mostly the same parts.

That movie was a series of grim morality tales in ignoring the power of nature. The mildest offender was Alan Grant (Sam Neill), a grumpy careerist whose job involves animals but who scoffs at miniature versions of his own species. Compelled into a protective mode over two kids, by the end of the movie Grant has taken a liking to them. Life finds a way.

Sound familiar? Nobody, to my knowledge, raised hackles about this story arc in 1993.

In Jurassic World, Claire doesn’t adopt the parental role as strongly as Grant did in the original movie, and half of her interest in keeping her nephews from being eaten is avoiding the inevitable gripe from her sister. She’s given as much agency as Owen, and the key moments in her arc (spoilers!) are not about the kids. They are (1) when she and Owen encounter the clawed, dying brontosaurus—the first moment where she finally appreciates that her “assets” are real, majestic animals; and (2) when she seizes a rifle and saves Owen from getting devoured by a murderous pterodactyl (not Petrie).

One could also make the case (spoilers again) that there’s a girl-power thing going on here, what with all the dinos being women, galvanized by a powerful new matriarch to reject their male dictator and overthrow their patriarchal oppressors. It’s not worth taking any of these readings very far, though, because the movie only barely seems to care about them. Jurassic World is not reactionary, not progressive, but utterly conventional and of its time. It’s a cookie-cutter bunch of archetypes, there to move us through some glitzy CGI set pieces and funny one-liners. Its romantic dynamic—aloof woman spars with roguish man—is about the oldest one in the film book.

The movie seems to recognize its conventionality, actually, and to apologize for it in the usual postmodern ways. It tries to pass off its numbing amount of product placements by dropping in lots of self-referential winks about it, a gimmick that was insulting the first twenty times it was done on 30 Rock and isn’t less so now. And it sets up lots of tropes—the triumphant kiss, the villain delivering a villainous monologue—just for the clever fun of subverting them, but doesn’t put this to any narrative purpose.

This movie might have been more memorable if it had been less embarrassed about its conventions and really explored them, as the original film did. Jurassic Park’s anti-breeder wasn’t just mildly awkward about kids but got a real kick out of terrorizing the brats. Its rogue womanizer was several archetypes rolled into one, plus a bundle of unobvious and deliciously weird deliveries, including giving the film’s central theme as a pickup performance. Every line of dialogue in that movie, every glance and verbal tic, advanced about five different plot, character, and thematic purposes at once.

Jurassic Park reveled in the texture and language of film. Its dinosaurs weren’t shiny CGI renderings but fleshy beasts, real movie monsters with a felt presence in a lush, gritty world that looked like our own. Its dinosaur scenes weren’t playground-fantasy set pieces—what if the Indominus fought the…no, okay, what if the T-Rex…and the raptors…yeah!—but restrained, taut, integrated unfoldings. The tensest moment in the whole franchise came from a ripple in a cup of water.

As for the morality tale: it is not about the sexes but about sex, or rather, the many ways of the flesh, as gravitational forces yanking science back down to the jungle, which it claims is all there is and yet hovers, ghostlike, above. In Jurassic World this detachment isn’t directly scientific, much less culturally progressive, but takes the form of a corpo-techno-cratic glibness of a peculiarly 2010s variety.

Claire, for her part, never says much about having it all, leaning in, not needing a man, or not liking kids. She’s just a little too immersed in meetings, metrics, focus groups, and synergy, and getting thrown into life-and-death struggles snaps her out of this a bit. The park’s overlords who truly peddle the managerial pretense—all men, incidentally—get relieved of their illusions too, and most in rather more final fashion.

Trying to shoehorn a gender-political controversy into this halfhearted character arc is the kind of silliness that dominates day-to-day discussions of feminism today and makes it difficult for people otherwise sympathetic to feminist concerns to credit the label. Concern trolling, you say? Oh, then I must be wrong.

All of which is just to say: go see Jurassic World. It’s good fun, the poor thing’s lonely, and if you say you don’t want to watch it you’re just denying your true nature.

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