Why Joss Whedon was right about Jurassic World being sexist

Jurassic World has been a (suitably) monster hit. But, as Jayne Nelson argues, it's a pity its human ladies aren't quite as well-rounded as the dinosaurs...

Warning: This article contains spoilers for the film.

Back in April, Joss Whedon watched a promo clip from the upcoming Jurassic World and found it somewhat lacking. “I’m too busy wishing this clip wasn’t ’70s era sexist,” he complained. “She’s a stiff, he’s a life-force – really? Still?”

As we all know, the backlash stirred up by this tweet eventually led Whedon to abandon Twitter; he had to apologise for criticising another director's work before seeing the finished film, and he raised the ire of an array of feminists, who harked back to his words and called him a hypocrite after seeing his treatment of Black Widow in the second Avengers movie. Oh well, that's Twitter for you. Sometimes there's just no way to win at it.

A few months on and Jurassic World is finally here. I sat down to watch it last week aware that it couldn't possibly live up to the first film, which – even now I've reached the grand old age of 43 – is still my favourite-ever cinema experience. While bearing that in mind, however, I also knew it would be good. I have a dinosaur tattoo taking up half my arm, so you could say I'm a fan of the scaly buggers. I’ll watch ’em for hours, even in terrible movies. And, thankfully, the Jurassic World dinos were just as much fun as I'd hoped (can you feel that Mosasaurus love?). But sadly, other things weren't...

Because, three-quarters of the way through the film, I realised that Whedon had totally called it. Jurassic World is ’70s-era sexist. I'd even go so far as to say it's ’50s-era sexist – all that’s missing are some disturbingly pointy bras. Those who had an issue with the way Whedon wrote Black Widow in Age Of Ultron should watch this movie to reset their anger gauges: Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff wasn't perfect, but at least she wasn’t Bryce Dallas Howard’s Claire Dearing.

Oh Dearing, Dearing me.

In case you're genuinely baffled at all the anger towards Claire (which I know some people are), here's the crux of the problem. She’s ostensibly presented as a strong, capable woman in charge of the Jurassic World theme park, which looks great on paper, doesn’t it? A woman with power! And yet, at every single turn in the script, this character who should be badass – because hell, you’d have to be, running a multi-million-dollar, world-famous theme park – is undermined by men. Not just once, mind you: it happens over and over and over again. It's death by a thousand paper cuts. Or Pteranodon pecks, if we want to stick to the dinosaur theme here.

We meet Claire in in a lift, rehearsing what she’s going to say to the male bigwigs she’s about to greet, because clearly she's such a control freak that she can’t have an ordinary conversation without having to plan it all out first. She remembers to ask about the bigwigs’ families, but she forgets the ages of her own nephews – despite the fact she has, presumably, known about their visit for months, and could easily have checked beforehand; she’s a control freak, remember? She tells off an employee because she’s a woman in power and therefore has to be a killjoy beeyatch (gee, never seen that trope before) and then has a conversation with her sister, who hints, with all the gentleness of a T-rex foot coming down on a Jeep, that Claire needs to have kids.

And at this point we realise the problem with her: the reason she's a soulless, joyless, work-obsessed robot is because she doesn’t have children. Of course! A few babies would totally make her happy! In fact, they'd turn her into a real woman, wouldn't they? Yes, this script was brought to you from the Mad Men era. How did Claire ever get out of the kitchen and get a job at Jurassic World in the first place, eh?

Things are worse when Chris Pratt’s Owen is around. He mocks her because she apparently wrote an itinerary for their date, while he was laid-back and just wanted to have fun. As Whedon said, he’s a life-force, she's a stiff. A few scenes later, we’re invited to laugh at Claire as she rolls up her sleeves to prove she can run around a jungle, while Owen laughs at her. The message is clear: she’s a silly female, and he’s the man in charge. Sigh.

And so it rumbles on. Finally, blessedly, Claire does something powerful: she saves Owen's life as her nephews look on. For a moment, a brief, wonderful moment, she’s cool. She’s Owen's equal. She’s actually in control of the chaos going on around her, which is really saying something when that chaos involves leathery birds swooping out of the sky and ripping innocent tourists to shreds. But what happens afterwards? Owen pulls her in for a snog in true Romantic Action Hero mode, the audience laugh and the kids forget about their Aunt Claire being cool and go on and on about how fabulous Owen is. The narrative turns firmly from her to him, and yet she just saved his life!

There’s more, such as the cringingly unsubtle message at the end of the film that she should settle down with Owen and have children (the camera cuts purposefully from her sister's kids to him – there should be a neon sign flashing up that says: “REPRODUCE NOW!”). Or the fact her final line is her asking him what to do next. Oh, and the fact that she runs around for most of the film in punishingly high heels, which is apparently some sort of misguided sign that she's competent and in control of herself as a woman. Funnily enough, as a woman myself, I don't measure my worth by the fact I can run in heels. Like most women, I can’t, which would thus make me worthless. I do know for a fact, however, that those heels would’ve either sunk irretrievably into the jungle mud within five minutes, or snapped like twigs at the first sign of running. Which leads me to believe that the real stars of Jurassic World are Claire’s heels, because they're made from bloody adamantium.

I could go on, but you’re probably already bored. I was bored watching the film. Not with the dinosaurs, of course: like everybody else, I whooped and hollered when they appeared – dinosaurs are never boring (I mentioned my dino tattoo, right?). I was bored because I’d seen Claire before, over and over again, in countless Hollywood films that thought they were doing a female character a favour by giving her a position of authority, while they also enjoyed chipping away it and making her look foolish while the Romantic Action Hero stole all her thunder. The saddest part is that the screenwriters probably had no intention of doing so, either: until all this stuff is pointed out to you, it can be hard to see. But once you’ve noticed it, it can’t be unseen. It happens too often, time and again, and Claire’s just the latest in a long line of female characters who shouldn’t be jokes but are.

There’s also this: one of the places we've seen Claire before is in Jurassic Park itself. Remember how Sam Neill’s Alan Grant didn't like kids? Remember how he learned to love them by the end of the movie because they'd bonded after going through hell together? Remember how he waved the flare around to lure the T-rex? Claire is just a less-successful re-run of another Jurassic character. She isn’t even allowed to have an original moment: her big, selfless act at the film's conclusion, waving the T-rex towards her with a flare, had been done before by the male star of the original film. (Oh, and Jeff Goldblum. Who did it better than either of them, simply because he’s Jeff Goldblum.)

Okay, so we've discussed Claire. There's also her sister, who inexplicably weeps in two scenes before anything’s even gone wrong at the park, then weeps afterwards, too; a woman in the control centre who’s basically Uhura (“Hailing frequencies open, sir! Shall I tell them to evacuate the park?”) and a cold, uncaring nanny who dies the most shocking death of any nanny since that woman in The Omen leapt out of a window with a rope around her neck and really ruined a birthday party. Nothing to shout about there, then.

The other female characters, of course, are the dinosaurs. It’s been pointed out – most notably by The Guardian – that the fact the dinos are all female means the film passes the Bechdel Test. Except that, no, it doesn't. The criteria for the Bechdel Test are simple: there must be two or more women in the film, and they must have a conversation that isn't about a man. Amazingly, the dinosaurs in Jurassic World do just that. They actually have a conversation about whether they want to eat Owen or not. The velociraptors decide that no, they love him far too much to chow down on his tasty human bits, so they’re prepared to die to save him. Yes, that's right, die. Not-so-clever girls.

That’s not passing the Bechdel Test; that's failing it spectacularly. That’s the writers telling us, the audience, that Owen – the lead male – is more important than anybody else in the entire movie. When a critic jokes that a bunch of reptiles are more realistically presented than the film’s female characters, you're in trouble.

Joss Whedon was right: this film – and by extension, a huge array of Hollywood blockbusters – are stuck in the ’70s. Hell, we could just as well be in the Jurassic era.

Still. That Mosasaurus, eh? Fantastic.

Jurassic World is out now. Read our review of the movie and subscribe to Total Film (opens in new tab).