a film of pygmalion proportions
The story of Pygmalion is one of the oldest myths in the Western canon. He is also one of the original fuckboys.
According to the myth (most famously transmitted through Ovid’s Metamorphoses), while in Cyprus Pygmalion witnesses the acts of the Propoetides, a group of prostitutes so perverse “they lost the power to blush.” Pygmalion is so ashamed and disgusted that he swears off women—wives in particular. Still, he’s lonely, and in his loneliness decides to fashion himself a woman of ivory. He is so enamored with his own creation that he falls in love; a prayer to the gods brings the woman to life, and she goes on to bear Pygmalion a son.
The central conceit of this tale—that human women are imperfect and that the only way to achieve an acceptable female, flawless and fertile, is for her to be fashioned by a man’s hands—remains a powerful structuring myth in modern film and television. The story of the man disgusted by women’s immorality (one might even say complexity) is, after all, a common one; look to Landry Clarke from Friday Night Lights or Xander Harris from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and you will find men personally offended by the fact that their love objects are insolent enough to not want them. Despite being quite flawed themselves, male characters are rarely accepting of their imperfect female counterparts. This is in large part because these men are being written mostly by male writers who have been socialized to think in the same way. The male domination of the industry makes all of cinema, all of TV, into Pygmalion’s studio: female characters are all potential ivory women.
The recent blockbuster Jurassic World is a prime example of the sculpting that imperfect women are forced through in order to satisfy the narrative, and their male peers. Claire Dearing, the female lead played by Bryce Dallas-Howard, is initially presented as heartless, rigid, and sterile: She enters the film through a slow pan up her body, which is covered nearly head to toe in a pristine white outfit. From the beginning, the film frames her as the Frigid Woman (aka, not a woman at all), blowing off her nephews for work and dedicating herself to numbers and profits instead of empathizing with the park’s visitors and prehistoric inhabitants. Although she is afforded some level of sexuality through a history with the studly Owen Grady (played with swagger, smolder, and sensitivity by Chris Pratt), that, too, is marked by disapproval. “Who prints out an itinerary for a night out?” Owen exclaims, recalling their failed first date; Claire’s reasoned reply of, “I’m an organized person” is brushed off in favor of further ridicule.
On its own, this exchange might be seen as nothing more than combative flirtation, but the sheer number of times this type of interaction occurs leaves little doubt that this is ridicule. Practically every interaction Claire has in the first part of the movie is antagonistic—not because she picks fights, but because her personality and personal choices are met with disapproval at every turn. Owen, park owner Masrani, and employee Lowery all criticize her for treating the dinosaurs like “numbers on a spreadsheet,” and her sister Karen invalidates Claire’s choice not to have children by insisting that one day her opinion will change.
It is this last point that clinches Claire’s status as a Problem. Behind every disparaging comment, every trivializing assumption, is a single, scorching objective: to make Claire, a woman labeled as unfeminine because of her aversion to reproduction, more motherly. And in the end, these attempts seem to succeed. In the final scene of the film, Claire watches longingly as her nephews embrace their parents. She forces herself to look away, searching the crowd for… Owen, the virile male most able to give her the children she now longs for.
Claire deciding she wants to become a motherly woman after all is not the problem. The issue lies in the fact that Claire was bullied onto this path instead of choosing it for herself. And, perhaps more importantly, she makes this journey of self-improvement alone.
While Claire’s arc is about her being pressured into becoming a “better” version of herself—and more feminine as a result—Owen undergoes no parallel journey. This gives the sense that he needs no such journey: From his opening hero shot, commanding his raptors and framed by the sun, Owen is in complete control of himself and his environment. The only people who criticize him are Claire (mistakenly, as the film proves through her capitulation to Owen’s preferences) and the crudely-drawn villains.
This relationship—the rigid, unfeeling character with the empathetic one—is a common trope in relationships between male characters; in those circumstances, however, there is no right or wrong role. Take Hermann and Newt from Pacific Rim. They have similar ideological stances to Claire and Owen, but in Pacific Rim, Hermann’s obsession with numbers is considered useful and valid by the people in authority. Hermann is never forced to revolutionize his viewpoints in order to fit a new ideological mould; he and Newt grow toward each other, recognizing the best part of the other and incorporating it into their own growth. In Jurassic World, Claire does an ideological 180, while Owen is proven already correct in all matters, the perfect male specimen. The character “growth” is completely one-sided, non-mutual, and coerced.
Owen’s particular brand of softened masculinity reveals just how stark and unbalanced the relationship between Claire and Owen really is. In an article on British horror cinema, Linnie Blake talks about the feminized masculine hero. Before the Reagan/Thatcher era, masculinity and femininity were diametrically opposed—men were valued, and “hypermasculine characteristics such as aggressively individualistic ambition [were appreciated] over all others.” The post-Thatcher era, on the other hand, brought us figures like British Prime Minister Tony Blair: strong, militaristic men who nevertheless were valued for their dedication to family. The negative legacy of the Thatcher regime meant that, for progressives at least, jingoism for the sake of jingoism was no longer acceptable—it needed to be tempered by familial concerns, accepting of building alongside destruction.
Owen is a prime example of the post-Thatcher hero. Perpetually squinting, swagger-hipped, built like a brick house, he is framed as a modern-day Harrison Ford—rough and tumble and emerging from the dirt with a flex and a wink. “Your boyfriend’s a badass,” Claire’s nephew Zach exclaims in one of many moments that display the hero worship (you might even say crush) that he directs towards Owen. It’s the old cliché: Women want him, men want to be him. Claire herself is proof of his devastating charm: A woman who begins the narrative shunning anything that doesn’t contribute to her work, she quickly succumbs to Owen’s gravitational force.
Owen isn’t merely a badass, though—he is also a mother. Mother, that is, to a brood of velociraptors that he trains and protects from the evil designs of a hyper-militaristic villain, who wishes to turn Owen’s “children” to evil use. Owen is perfection, from beginning to end—a nurturing, dino-slaying badass, haloed by the sun. Claire has no such access to this dualism. Owen can mother without forfeiting his masculinity, but Claire cannot be a woman without the accompanying characteristics of maternity.
This molding of Claire serves as a powerful example of the Pygmalion paradigm of womanhood: an imperfect woman made “perfect” by the men around her. She begins as someone who breaks the mould, a woman who rejects reproductivity; she ends a woman prepared to raise a child, just as she’s been pressured to be since the beginning. The compulsion evident in her transformation makes the “success” not really hers. This is not to say that Claire is a weak or badly-crafted character. There are many empowering aspects of her journey, the infamous “running in heels” scene first among them. This doesn’t mitigate, however, that whatever triumphs she makes during the course of the film remain circumscribed by the writers’ choices—trapping her, like many a dinosaur, in a prehistoric enclosure all her own.