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A guide to Jurassic World's sexism controversy

Jurassic World.
Jurassic World.
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Jurassic World is now one of the most successful movies ever made. It's also one of the most successful movies ever made that's been branded as sexist.

Yes, this silly summer flick about a group of fantastic idiots who invent a killer dinosaur, a dopey hero who can talk to Velociraptors, and the worst security detail ever assembled is also, to some people, a misogynistic fable. Indeed, the film has spawned reviews from outlets as varied the New York Times, New York magazine, and Slate that read like a disclaimer you might find at the actual Jurassic World theme park: prepare to be entertained, but also to be offended.

The outcry is rooted in the film's treatment of its female, non-dinosaur protagonist, the rigid operations manager Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard). But the debate goes beyond what Dearing (and Howard) leave on screen and delves into questions about art, about criticism, and inevitably about politics.

Here's a brief guide.

Ironically, the conversation about Jurassic World's sexism began with Age of Ultron director Joss Whedon

The controversy over whether Jurassic World is sexist started in April — approximately two months before the film's June 12 release — when Joss Whedon tweeted a response to one of its teasers.

"I’m too busy wishing this clip wasn’t 70’s era sexist. She’s a stiff, he’s a life-force – really? Still?" he wrote. (Whedon has since deleted his Twitter account, but not because of his Jurassic World tweet.)

Because Whedon is a famous director and TV creator, and a well-respected voice when it comes to issues of gender and feminism, his comments became a news story of their own.

When Whedon made his quip, only the people involved in making the film had a real grasp on its plot and characters. Back then, the trailers made it seem like there'd been a conscious marketing decision to portray Chris Pratt's Owen Grady as a hero with a sense of humor (thanks to his jokes about dinosaurs having sex), while Dearing (Howard) was presented as cold and unfeeling:

Whedon's Jurassic World observation also preceded the May 1 release of Avengers: Age of Ultron, which itself endured a mountain of criticism for its alleged sexism; in hindsight, the situation carries a strange pot-kettle dynamic.

Even before the movie came out, Jurassic World director Colin Trevorrow kind of agreed with Whedon


Bryce Dallas Howard plays Claire Dearing in Jurassic World. This is one of the few scenes where she's badass. (Universal)

In the days leading up to Jurassic World's release, director Colin Trevorrow did an interview with an Italian website called Bad Taste, during which he addressed Whedon's concern for the first time. Trevorrow agreed that the clip Whedon commented on was edited in such a way that Whedon's concerns were valid. But Trevorrow also promised that his movie had more to offer.

"I wasn’t bothered by what he said about the movie and, to be honest, I don’t totally disagree with him," Trevorrow told Bad Taste. "I wonder why [Universal] chose a clip like that, that shows an isolated situation within a movie that has an internal logic. That starts with characters that are almost archetypes, stereotypes that are deconstructed as the story progresses."

Trevorrow insisted that Jurassic World — which hadn't yet been screened for critics — was more feminist than its marketing suggested, and that Dearing/Howard would be the true heroine of the film.

"The real protagonist of the movie is Claire, and we embrace her femininity in the story’s progression," Trevorrow said. "There’s no need for a female character that does things like a male character, that’s not what makes interesting female characters in my view. Bryce and I have talked a lot about these concepts and aspects of her character."

Howard also defended her character and Trevorrow's vision in an interview with the Huffington Post. She too blamed the film's marketing, and declared that it was simply a mistake.

"[Whedon is] a hero, he’s an amazing guy and a champion for women in this industry," she told Huffington Post. "Marketing for a film is tricky because you release stuff without context … Of course there was a part of me being such a fan of him that was like, ‘Nooooo!’ Especially because when you see the movie it’s not at all like that, but we make movies and it’s out there for public opinion and I hope he likes the movie!"

Of course, since the movie still hadn't been released or screened, no one could say for sure whether Trevorrow and Howard's assertions that its much-discussed sexism was an illusion of marketing or an actual thing.

Now that seemingly everyone has seen Jurassic World, do people believe it's sexist?

Jurassic World

Chris Pratt gets to do a lot of badass things in Jurassic World. He is not a woman. (Universal)

When I first saw the movie, I felt as though it made a clear attempt to paint Claire Dearing as a job-oriented monster at the beginning and a "changed" woman by the end. Early on, the character is shamed for not having maternal instinct when she's asked to host her nephews at Jurassic World, but instead leaves them in the care of her assistant while she focuses on her work. She's also informed that she'll eventually "understand" the error of her ways when she has children of her own — and lo and behold, that prophecy comes to fruition when she begins to take care of her nephews.

Jurassic World divides women into two categories, presenting the characteristics of those two categories as mutually exclusive; loving women with demanding jobs don't exist in this world, nor do tough moms. And by the time Dearing has been changed, just as Trevorrow vowed she would, she falls into the role that's been prescribed for her. She doesn't have a job, but she does have a new boyfriend and a newfound appreciation for her nephews.

In her review of the film, the New York Times's Manohla Dargis wrote that Dearing is a static, lazy trope:

She mostly just schemes and screams, before Owen melts her like an ice cube on a hot griddle, proving that, yes, she’s every bit as bad as Joss Whedon thought when on Twitter he called out "Jurassic World" as sexist: "She’s a stiff, he’s a life-force — really? Still?" Yes, still.

Meanwhile, Marlow Stern at the Daily Beast asserted that the entire movie is about hammering Claire into a role of subservience and domesticity:

Yes, Jurassic World is not about corporate greed, anti-militarization, crass commerciality, disrupting the food chain, or dinos eating the shit out of people. No. It’s about a woman’s "evolution" from an icy-cold, selfish corporate shill into a considerate wife and mother.

I'm not sure Stern's assertion is completely fair. If we're judging the movie solely on the attention it pays to its various themes, it certainly spends more time on dinos "eating the shit out of people" and tracking the dinosaurs that are eating the shit out of people than it spends on any of the human characters.

But with that said, Dearing fails to make good on Trevorrow and Howard's promise. She is indeed the icy woman who appeared in Jurassic World's trailers; nothing is lost due to a lack of context. The stereotype of this work-oriented monster isn't "deconstructed" so much as it is swapped. And though Trevorrow assured us there'd be an alternative avenue in which "femininity" could succeed in the carnage that is Jurassic World, Dearing seems to succeed through accidents, shrieking, and accidental shrieking save for the final moments of the movie.

How Jurassic World got caught up in a culture war

Stern and Dargis weren't the only critics who spotted the sexism in the movie. New York devoted a second column, separate from its main review, to discussing the movie's female characters. Sites like Refinery 29 and the Mary Sue followed suit.

But it was Stern who faced the quickest and most visceral backlash:

Stern refers to his critics as MRAs, or Men's Rights Advocates. MRAs adhere to the belief that feminism means elevating women over men, a belief that routinely devolves into blatant misogyny. MRAs most recently made headlines in the entertainment news cycle for railing against the feminism of Mad Max: Fury Road, the blockbuster that preceded Jurassic World.

Whether it was the mounting backlash, an innate hatred of the Daily Beast, or the first step in some clandestine ritual, right-wing websites and pundits also began picking up on Stern's critique and attacking him. One of these was the Federalist, which ran a piece under the headline "Liberal Claim That Jurassic World Is Sexist Is Hilarious." It was just as focused on taking down Stern as it was in refuting his claims. Mollie Hemingway wrote:

A perfect example comes from The Daily Beast’s Marlow Stern, an entertainment editor and writer with a masters from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Apparently what he learned there was to regurgitate the worst of campus groupthink. His review of Jurassic World is headlined "‘Jurassic World’: A Big, Dumb, Sexist Mess."

Hemingway argued that Stern's review was itself sexist, because Jurassic World's plot mirrors that of Jurassic Park, with the only difference being a gender switch:

I mean, yes, Claire Dearing is a woman and Alan Grant is a man, but they both have basically the same story. The idea that it’s sexist for a woman to learn to care more about humans than work but not even remotely sexist (or gendered!) for a man to do the same is a perfect encapsulation of the incoherency of feminist outrage culture.

That might be the strongest takeaway from Hemingway's piece, mainly because Hemingway repeatedly tries to attach politics to Stern's writing, saying that his wrongness is baked into his liberalness. She also implies that whether Jurassic World is a good movie or a bad movie depends on your political beliefs.

Hemingway clings to a static view of feminism and feminists, asserting that feminists believe what Stern believes and because Stern is wrong, all feminists and liberals are wrong. This argument has been extrapolated by conservatives, and parlayed into a theory that successful movies don't have to cater to killjoy feminists.

Of course, Hemingway is obviously wrong, because dinosaurs would be bipartisan if they didn't already transcend politics, and it is impossible to hate anything that involves a dinosaur. (See: Dino-Riders; Denver: The Last Dinosaur; Dinosaur! etc.) But I digress.

Is it possible for Jurassic World to be sexist and still succeed?

I would say yes.

When you buy a ticket to see Jurassic World, you've essentially made a bargain with Universal to take your money in exchange for the experience of watching dinosaurs eat stuff, including people. It's just like Titanic or the Fast & Furious movies — you're there to see the boat sink (and that guy who hits the railing and flips on the way down), or to see cars parachute onto a mountaintop. The rest is just window dressing.

So much of Jurassic World is disposable and minuscule compared to the dinosaurs. The science, the logistics, the geography, the characters — they all exist solely to be destroyed and/or devoured. How much weight can we reasonably assign to these things when they're essentially a means of getting us closer to the dinosaurs?

Many critics, including me (Jurassic World is currently scoring a 70 percent "fresh" on Rotten Tomatoes), have cited Jurassic World's sexism but ultimately concluded that the movie succeeds in what it sets out to do: entertain you with gigantic, man-eating reptiles.

"You don’t go to the fourth Jurassic Park movie for up-to-date gender politics," Slate's Dana Stevens wrote. "You go for the crunchy dino-on-human action, and Jurassic World provides plenty of that."

Watch: Jurassic World features 1980s-era dinosaurs:

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