Sexism in Survival Situations: What We Have and Haven’t Learned from Steven Spielberg

Sexism in Survival Situations: What We Have and Haven’t Learned from Steven Spielberg

Like many movie fans, especially those who grew up in the 70s and 80s, I awaited the release of Jurassic World with both excitement and apprehension. I really wanted to love this movie, but I was worried that it wouldn’t live up to expectations. After watching it, I was still left split. I liked it, but I was disappointed. It looked like a Steven Spielberg film and, at times, felt like a Steven Spielberg film, but this was no Steven Spielberg film, even if his name is listed as “Executive Producer.” Below are six takeaways from the movie that show what current filmmakers and their audiences learned and failed to learn from watching Spielberg, especially his fantasy/monster/family films, over the past three decades.
Three things we learned:

Don’t show the monster too soon
Going all the way back to Jaws and continuing through the first two Jurassic Park films, Spielberg knew that the best way to build suspense and dread is to keep the monster hidden as long as possible. Though the first attack happens early on in these three movies, the monster itself isn’t seen: Chrissie skinny-dipping at night, the gate-keeper being knocking off the cage, and the little girl picnicking with her parents are all attacked by an unseen or barely seen menace. In the Jurassic Park films, we are shown the nice “veggie-sauruses” before we finally meet the T-Rex and velociraptors. Jurassic World continues this tradition by keeping the lab-created Indominus Rex out of sight as long as possible, showing us instead the gentle herbivores, and contained—and trained in the case of the velociraptors—carnivores.

Kids can be compelling leads
Beginning with E.T. and continuing with the Jurassic Park films, Spielberg was never afraid to let youngsters be the main protagonists. Elliott and his brother and sister are the heroes we know we can trust. Tim and Lex are more than sidekicks in the park; they actually join in the adventure and even have certain skills that allow them to help the adults survive. Ian’s daughter Kelly does the same in the sequel. Jurassic World picks up on this by having Zach and Gray not simply be lost kids who have to be saved. They are competent and have the skills to stay alive in the park even without the help of the adults. They even know how to get a jeep running, which brings me to the third lesson learned…

Movies should have a sense of discovery
When Zach and Gray come across the original Jurassic Park exhibit hall, I was reminded not so much of the first film as I was of the Indiana Jones movies. When they find the building, it has been almost completely overtaken by the jungle and resembled the temple in the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark. The coloring, pacing, and music also created the same sense of awe and discovery. As they enter the building and see the ruins, they are like young archaeologists looking into a past that both no longer exists and yet is very present.

Three things we missed:

Death is terrifying and should mean something
Apart from first victims, everyone who dies in a Spielberg film is someone we know and care about, even if we don’t like them. In Jurassic Park, we don’t like the lawyer Gennaro or the computer programmer Dennis, but we do cringe when they are killed and eaten by the T-Rex and dilophosaurus. We don’t think they deserved this death. However, in Jurassic World, the overwhelming majority of victims are faceless entities we neither know nor care about. They are random victims picked up by pterosaurs, much to the delight of the audience. At the packed house where I watched the film, people were actually cheering, much like the park visitors in the film, every time a dinosaur “scored.” The audience especially loved when Claire’s personal assistant, Zara, was attacked and carried off by a pterosaur before being attacked and eaten by the mosasaurus. I guess they thought she was being justifiably “punished” for not paying closer attention the boys in her charge.

Women are smart and can actually save the day
In Jurassic Park, there is a point where Ian says, “God creates dinosaurs. God destroys dinosaurs. God creates man. Man destroys God. Man creates dinosaurs.” Ellie responds, “Dinosaurs eat man. Woman inherits the earth.” Later when they are trying to restore power and Hammond suggests that he ought to be the one going out to the tool shed because he’s a man, Ellie replies, “Look, we can discuss sexism in survival situations when I get back.” Towards the end of the film, Hammond’s granddaughter, Lex, who is a computer geek, is able to hack into the mainframe and restore power to the park’s systems, thereby saving the day. In the sequel, Ian’s girlfriend, Sarah, is a strong capable woman able to survive on her own for weeks. Ian’s daughter, Kelly, is a gymnast who saves everyone by doing a routine that ends with kicking a velociraptor into a cage. The scene is contrived, but has been set up earlier in the film (more on this later). However, in Jurassic World there are four “main” female characters: the aforementioned Zara who is there only to run around in heels, lose the kids, and get ripped to pieces. Karen, the mother of Zach and Gray, who is around only to weep and check up on her kids from afar. Vivian, who works in the park’s control room and provides occasional comic relief with co-worker Lowery, deserts the control room with everyone else while Lowery volunteers to stay behind. Finally, there is Claire, the female lead. She is the aunt of Zach and Gray and the park’s general operations manager. Though she has a commanding presence in the boardroom, she had absolutely zero survival skills in the jungle. While she is the most dynamic character in that she undergoes a change, this brings up the final problem with the film…

Characters should develop organically over the course of the film
After a dinosaur sneezes on Lex in Jurassic Park, her brother Tim says, “Oh, great. Now she’ll never try anything anymore. She’ll just sit in her room, and never come out, and play on her computer.” Earlier he calls Lex a computer nerd, and she argues, “I am not a computer nerd. I prefer to be called a hacker!” This could all be unimportant sibling banter, but at the end of the film, a computer nerd/hacker is exactly what they need to get the park back online. Similarly, in The Lost World, Kelly mentions in passing that she was cut from the gymnastics team. Later, her skills as a gymnast come in handy. On one hand, these are contrivances built into the movie. On the other hand, the early scenes are seeds that Spielberg plants so that the audience won’t be shocked later when the seeds come to fruition. Furthermore, even though words were used, these seed-planting scenes are an extension of the “show, don’t tell” rule of film. Spielberg doesn’t beat the audience over the head with the information. However, in Jurassic World we live in a tell-all world. The first time we met Zach and Gray, we could have seen them in the garage tinkering with a car or bike. Or perhaps been shown a photo on the mantel of them restoring a car with their grandfather, but no. We are given no indication of their mechanical aptitude, but when they come across the run-down jeeps, one asks the other if he remembers when they rebuilt an engine with their grandfather. Rather than planting a seed and having it sprout later in the film, the filmmakers place the characters in a situation and suddenly throw in a line that explicitly tells the audience how the characters will get out of the situation. This is just one example of poor character development. We are also expected to believe that Owen and Claire not only know each other but that they were previously romantically involved. I didn’t buy it. Those two, as presented, would have never been attracted to each other. What makes it worse is the fact that the “romance” was completely unnecessary to the plot. They could just as easily have never met or hated each other and the plot could have played out exactly the same. It was unnecessary information that did nothing to enhance the plot or develop the characters. Speaking of development, as mentioned earlier the only character who is dynamic in the film is Claire. But her change is as unbelievable as the romance. Every scene with her sets her up as a non-emotional, no-nonsense “strong” business woman. How people “feel” is irrelevant to her. All that matters is coming up with bigger and better attractions to bring in more investors and larger crowds. There is absolutely no thought given to consequence. She is completely clueless about people and her surroundings. But suddenly, after she and Owen realize that her nephews have gone over the cliff, she dramatically rips open her blouse and ties it off, showing us that she is now in “survival” mode and can help track down the boys and fight off the dinosaurs. In fact, it’s her idea to let loose the T-Rex. She even leads him out with a flare just like Jeff Goldblum did in the first film, because, you know, she’s seen it. There were so many ways the character could have been set up for the audience to buy the transformation, but instead we had her initial character shoved down our throats in every scene to the point where we wouldn’t buy a subtle change. The change had to be instantaneous and forced on us as well. Sad, because this could have been a chance for true character development and commentary on “sexism in survival situations.”

Overall, the film disappointed more than it thrilled. Spielberg has laid so much groundwork for current action filmmakers who, sadly, just want the give the audience the very thing they are criticizing in the film: bigger, louder, faster, but definitely not deeper.

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