[Spoilers for Jurassic World follow]
Jurassic World is a spectacular film. The scale of the resurrected-dinosaur franchise did not appreciably increase with the previous two sequels two decades ago, but here, it swells to encompass a larger ecology of reborn dinosaurs, a larger setting, and a larger cinematic vision, which is a fitting continuation to the spectacle of its forebears. Less fortunately, that larger scale has pushed the franchise away from its suspenseful, adventure-film roots toward creature-feature garishness. At least they added or restored several characters of color and acknowledged in-universe that their undead sauropsids often bear only superficial resemblance to their ostensible forebears.
As much as the biologist in me was shrieking the whole time, the movie had one joyous redeeming feature, and that was Bryce Dallas Howard’s character, Claire Dearing.
Claire Dearing spends most of the film in stark focus, her every decision the focus of audience scrutiny and the other characters’ criticism. The men in the film, whether above her in her corporate hierarchy (Masrani) or below her (Lowery and Grady), or her own family (Zach and Gray), refuse to take her seriously and impugn her ability to do her job every chance they get. Her own sister treats her current childlessness as a tragic character flaw and her being required to work during her nephews’ visit as a betrayal. She is subjected to belittling contempt and sexual harassment, in particular by a character built up as sympathetic and likeable in the film’s marketing and in his own scenes, and no one is ever taken to task for this mistreatment. The men in particular treat Claire as though every single thing the escaping zoo animals wreck is specifically her fault, no matter how little sense this makes.
And through all this, she is the single most effective person in every room she enters.
She has an extraordinarily demanding job and she is good at it. While the film’s crisis unfolds around her and an engineered super-predator rampages through her theme park, she is constantly on top of the situation, directing responses and doing everything her role demands to keep the thousands of attendees safe. On top of that, she attends to the safety of her over-adventurous nephews personally despite this being well outside her career mandate. She rises to this new challenge with aplomb only slightly dampened by Grady’s sustained contempt, she saves his life from a pterosaur attack, and she engineers the dinosaur battle that ultimately defeats the film’s antagonist by luring a tyrannosaur out of its enclosure.
The sort of person the film’s men all assume her to be would have wilted before such an onslaught and met the fate of Gennaro the lawyer in the first Jurassic Park. Claire Dearing tricks a velociraptor into fighting a hologram for crucial seconds and drives a truck containing two ungrateful children out of a prehistoric warzone into another prehistoric warzone.
And she does it all wearing the increasingly tattered remains of a once crisp three-piece skirt suit and matching heels.
Women in action films are regularly maligned and insulted for impractical shoes, with no example acknowledging that high heels became an iconic and enduring part of women’s fashion during a period in which fashion dictated that women borrow men’s styles—in this case, shoes meant for keeping a grip on stirrups during horseback riding—and men then mostly abandoned them to avoid seeming feminine. The high heel is held up with mascara and long fingernails as ways to show women as laden not just with artifice, but with deliberately impairing artifice. The loss or denial of these things is regularly held as a symbolic rejection of femininity and, by binary default, embrace of the “neutral,” “natural,” “practical” state of masculinity. The fact that high heels actually do come with a suite of medical harms associated with their habitual use disappears against this background, wherein women are faulted both for accepting and for rejecting the accoutrements of femininity, allowed to feel effective only when men give them limited, conditional permission to act outside of feminine norms.
But Claire? Claire does all of her dinosaur wrangling, including leading a hungry Tyrannosaurus to its desired target, in heels.
She isn’t a waif-fu fantasy, maintaining highly fetishized femininity while engaging in feats of strength well beyond her own geometry. Nor is she made to discard this part of herself to satisfy others’ idea that femininity is the same as weakness.
Claire’s femininity is not an obstacle, real or imagined, in her path to anything she wants, except insofar as it prods people to direct their misogyny at her.
Claire is not the hero that Grady or Lowery or Zach or Gray or Masrani deserved. She is the hero we deserve.
Wear your heels with pride, Claire Dearing. No one wears them better than you.
I saw Jurassic World yesterday and had mixed feelings about the film’s treatment of Claire (Oh noes! A woman wearing heels in a corporate environment! The park manager has to work during the day! She’s unmarried and childless!) so I enjoyed this immensely.
I’m glad 🙂