Feminism and Dinosaurs: How Jurassic Park is more feminist than it appears.
If you were to ask most people what blockbuster films constitute as feminist or female empowering, most people would respond with movies such as Alien or Captain Marvel. However, I would like to present a surprising entry to that list...Jurassic Park.
At first you may be wondering, how a film, with an almost exclusively male cast save for 2 named female characters (Dr. Ellie Sattler and Lex Murphy), can be considered feminist. However, let's be clear in our definition of a feminist film. When we say Jurassic Park is a feminist film, we don't mean to imply the content of the film is focused on women's issues or details the nuances of third wave feminism (unless you are counting the cast of all female dinosaurs, in which some, uh "find a way"). What we mean is the women that are shown in this film are positive, empowered characters who have their own agency outside of men. To get to that point of discussion, we need to first examine the baseline of defining a feminist contention of the film. A contention that has to be deeper than the popular quote of "Clever Girl" by a man who has been outsmarted by the feminine wit of a man-eating Velociraptor. Even though that could be construed as an allegory for how feminism will devour the patriarchy.
However, if we are going to argue that the 1993 movie Jurassic Park is a feminist film, let's establish the baseline with the Bechdel test. Unlike how mainstream Hollywood likes to argue that the Bechdel test is the "End all, be all" when it comes to feminism in film, it is rather a starting point, with the only constraints being
having two named female characters,
having them talk to each other, and
having the conversation be about something other than a man.
Fortunately, despite its small number of women in the main cast, Jurassic Park does pass this test, with at least two separate conversations between Dr. Sattler, and the young Lex Murphy. One is when the children are introduced to our team of advisors that includes Dr. Sattler, as well as when the children and Dr. Sattler are hiding from the velociraptors near the end of the film. Although, it takes more than a Bechdel test to declare a film feminist and requires an examination of how the female characters are portrayed within the film. This is demonstrated both by the actions of the characters, how they are constructed, and how they are portrayed by the film itself.
Again, the Bechdel test is only a baseline, and doesn't determine the film as being feminist. However, related to the test is the film's interactions between characters. Dr Ellie Sattler provides an excellent example of how women are usually treated within STEM fields. Despite being an accomplished scientist herself, with expertise in paleobotany, she is instead treated as an object of sexuality or regarded as inferior to men. This can be seen in how the lovable, but creepy mathematician Dr. Ian Malcolm tries to flirt with her throughout the film. Luckily, Dr. Sattler is not fooled by his attempts and rebukes him by jumping out of a moving car. Dr. Sattler also has to deal with the unfortunate reality of STEM women in that she has to constantly prove her abilities to other. While getting ready for an attempt to turn the park's power back on, the elderly owner John Hammond initially rejects her offer of going. He rebukes her volunteerism, despite her being the best candidate, implying that a man should go, rather than a woman. Dr. Sattler then rightfully scoffs at him, stating "We can discuss sexism in survival situations when I get back". The film uniquely highlights the need of feminism, that even in life or death situations, sexism can still impact decision making.
The other female character in the film is that of Lex Murphy, the granddaughter of park owner John Hammond. While her character herself is not exactly a positive role model for women, being portrayed mostly as a spoiled brat in her interactions, Lex is given agency and goals of her own. Lex has no problem questioning the authority of adults, and trusting her own experiences rather than the experiences of others. In a way, this is the core idea of feminism which is to question the roles of gender within a patriarchal society and to question its authority. For being a 12 year old child, this gives a lot of empowerment in her interactions with other characters, as well as her own story.
However, what provides the best examples of the feminist ideas of these characters is within their actions of the film. Dr. Sattler stands as the biggest testament to this notion, having her actions integral to the group's survival as well as showing she has goals outside of the men's definition. As was stated before, Dr. Sattler jumped out of a moving vehicle to get away from Dr. Malcom. What was not stated was the reason, with a sick triceratops being the catalyst. While the rest of the onlookers were marveling at the prehistoric creature, Dr. Sattler began assisting the park's veterinarian in diagnosing the ailment. Deducing that is it a result of ingested West Indian Lilac plants, Dr. Sattler shows no apprehension (unlike the rest of the group) in sticking her hands inside the dino dung to investigate further. After finding no traces of the plant, she decides to stay behind in assisting the veterinarian, while the rest of the group continues on the tour. More examples of this agency and abilities are displayed in her rescue of Dr. Malcolm from the T. Rex and in her restoring power to the island from the power shed. Despite the dangers, Dr. Sattler proves she is no damsel in distress, using her abilities to save her friends, where other experts had failed and were devoured by the park's animals. Lex is shown to have similar agency, despite being a child. She uses her hacking skills during the climax of the film to utilize a state of the art computer system in restoring the park systems back online. This later leads to the groups rescue and saves them from the ferocious beasts. Rather than being just another helpless child, Lex shows how any woman can be empowered, even children, in film.
Although, there are some critiques as to whether the film itself can be truly constructed as feminist besides the portrayal of its characters. Besides the fact that the female characters are strong and empowered (including the dinosaurs, which are all female according to InGen scientists), there are some questionable plot elements that counteract this. One such example is how both Dr. Sattler and Lex Murphy are largely defined in their goals and relationships to other men in the film. Lex is not only the granddaughter of the wealthy park owner, but also has a younger brother named Tim, who she spends a large part of her story in either arguing with him or trying to protect him. While a good quality of familial love, it does not help in defining Lex as a character outside of her relationship to him. Even more problematic is the possible romantic relationship between Dr. Sattler and Dr. Grant. Despite being work colleagues and Dr. Grant being her superior, the film tries to heavily push the idea that their relationship is more than just professional or on the terms of friendship. Throughout several times in the film, Dr. Sattler asks Dr. Grant on his opinion on kids and tries to get him to warm up to kids. Even worse, while the camera never does a male gaze style of shot, it does try to highlight Dr. Sattler's as being flirtacious. An example of this is shown when Dr. Sattler tries to force the kids to ride with Dr. Grant, with the camera cutting to a medium shot of Dr. Sattler with a sly smile on her face after her attempts are found out by Dr. Grant. However, what saves the film from this creepy, Me-Too esque relationship is that it never officiates the relationship between Dr. Sattler and Dr. Grant, and does not try to romanticize any other scenes with the two throughout the film.
Despite a lack of female characters and possible problematic details around the agency of its own female characters, the film overall is a solid argument for strong, empowered female storytelling. Rather than looking at as the peak of feminist filmmaking, its best to examine it with the same regards as Dr. Sattler views fossils. As an object of the past that is defined by its past, and how new things have evolved from it as the result of the strong foundation left by it. With that, filmmaking will continue to evolve and become more feminist as we progress forward. Since its release, more and more films with strong female protagonists are being released, with new focuses on the storytelling of women. Jurassic Park then stands as a jumping off point, where women have evolved from being strong, empowered characters within the narrative, to today where they are the focus of the narrative. The growing state of feminism in film can best be described by one of Dr. Sattler's lines, in response to Ian Malcom saying man created dinosaurs, "Dinosaurs eat man. Woman inherits the earth". Just maybe, women will inherit the world of film as well.