Ellie Sattler: Feminism's Unsung Action Hero

There are a lot of things I remember about Jurassic Park after watching it on repeat for much of my childhood. I remember watching in awe along with Sam Neil as the first dinosaur appeared on screen, screaming louder than Lex and Timmy when they were trapped in the car and snapping along with BD Wong after he throws some serious shade at Jeff Goldblum’s rockstar mathematician after that baby dinosaur hatches (seriously, Malcolm? He’s a fucking dinosaur scientist. He knows).

As an unabashed nostalgia addict, I was excited to relive these moments and more with 11 of my closest gay friends last week when we settled in to watch the 20th anniversary 3D edition of the Spielberg classic. Sneaking in PBR, cheap wine and other assorted bits of contraband like the tween girls we all are at heart, I fully expected to have a good time. I expected to use every tense moment as an excuse to fondle the bicep of the dude sitting next to me, to laugh at the the outrageous continuity mistakes (“How did she reach the icecream?” “That door was just open, right?”) and to cheer loudly when the iconic and hilariously random shot of Jeff Goldblum, injured and smoldering with his shirt askew, finally made an appearance in gloriously remastered 3D. What I didn’t expect was to be entranced by one Dr Ellie Sattler, played with strength, wit and the badassery of a thousand Lara Crofts by Laura Dern.

Much has been written on Dern's performance on the HBO Dramedy Enlightened, and why that character is a strong example of a new feminist archetype appearing in pop culture these days. But I'm absolutely shocked that more hasn’t been written on Dern’s Ellie Sattler— an unapologetic feminist, who I’m now convinced is one of the greatest lady action heroes of the 90’s.

The mid-90’s came and went and left us with a slew of memorable female characters to consider here. Indeed, the highest grossing films of that era gave us Sister Act and Whoopi Goldberg as a singing nun on the run from her mobster boyfriend, Mrs. Doubtfire’s Sally Field, a woman who lived much of her adult life in the bay area, but who we're supposed to believe is duped by one of the most terrifying drag acts ever created and Whitney Houston’s legendary performance as Whitney Houston in the Bodygaurd.

We were running high, fresh off the 80's hit Alien which spawned arguably the most iconic female action hero ever in Ellen Ripley and you'd think after such an unquestionable success we'd have more of the same. True, the 90’s did deliver us Sarah Connor and Annie Porter, but it was also the decade that gave us Basic Instinct, Indecent Proposal and True Lies— movies that weren’t exactly swimming with empowered female characters.

I might not blog for Jezebel or write about women’s issues on the regular, but I do have a minor in Gender Studies, SO— Y’all better "hold on to your butts," ‘cause I’m about to prove to all of you haters out there that Ellie Sattler is the 90’s greatest gift to blockbuster feminism.

I’d say “spoiler alert,” but seriously, this movie is twenty-fucking-years-old and if you don’t know by now that the velociraptor is to the left to the left, then you should probably quit the internet.

EXHIBIT A: Fuck Your Traditional Gender Roles.

John Hammond: It ought to be me really going.

Dr. Ellie Sattler: Why?

John Hammond: Well, I’m a... And you’re, um, a...

Dr. Ellie Sattler: Look... We can discuss sexism in survival situations when I get back.

One of the things that I think makes Jurassic Park such a thrilling action movie is that everyone trapped in the park seem to have essentially the same amount of agency. Aside from Bob Peck’s Robert Muldoon, an ambiguously accented and intensely sexual big game hunter, no one on this island is particularly well-suited to defend themselves against artificially created genetic monstrosities. Even Muldoon and his sexy accent, legs and bug eyes are quickly dispatched before the climax of the movie. This place is inhabited by scientists, computer nerds, accountants and children— all of these people should be fucked.

But when the shit hits the fan, the dinosaurs break loose from their electrified prisons and her paleontologist boyfriend goes missing on an island full of fucking meat eating hermaphrodite dinosaurs, Sattler does not take a back seat— She takes shotgun. Puts Jeff Goldblum in the back seat and manages to keep her cool when a fucking tyrannosaurus rex chases them back to the visitor's center. She serves some real talk to John Hammond after he blathers on about some flea circus he started in his twenties (some seriously blatant capitalist propaganda if I’ve ever heard it) and volunteers to be the one to push the restart button on the compound’s power system, even though they put it directly adjacent to the fucking velociraptor pit. Seriously guys, who was the urban planner here?

Her refusal to take on the passive role that is often expected of women in highly dangerous fictional situations is even lampshaded in a brief exchange she has with Hammond (highlighted above). While the moment is comical, it should be noted that this is the only time in the movie that Ellie even needs to address her status as a vagina-haver. In a movie populated almost entirely by men (not counting the dinosaurs of course), Ellie is ready for action and doesn’t need any encouragement or permission from the boys in the room to get her hands dirty (literally and figuratively).

EXHIBIT B: Fuck Your “Having It All” clichés.

Dr. Alan Grant: Kids! You want to have one of those?

Dr. Ellie Sattler: I don’t want that kid, but a breed of child Dr. Grant could be intriguing. I mean, what’s so wrong with kids?

As a child, I’ll admit I wasn’t quite sure what Ellie’s job was beyond “the dinosaur person that was a lady.” But after viewing it as an adult, it’s clear this gal has got it going on in the career department. A successful “paleobotanist” (whatever that is), she works alongside the world famous Dr. Grant, investigating a bunch of extinct flowers and junk. I think. Listen— while it’s not entirely clear what function she serves on the dig, it is apparent that she knows her shit and is in no way out of place in a room full of geniuses.

And guess what? She wants a baby too.

You heard me— this smart, successful woman of the desert someday wants to fulfill that special biological function that drove successful lawyer Ally McBeal to see bad CGI and generic business woman Jennifer Lopez to come up with a Back-up PlanTwo decades later and we're still subjected to the constant portrayal of every successful career woman as an obsessive wretch, pulling out her hair, wailing constantly about wanting to "have it all" and using really gross similes to describe their empty wombs. 

Sure, Sattler and Grant’s relationship could barely be considered a c-plot in the grand scheme of this movie, but it was still nice that they treated the very real-life couple dilemma of “kids” or “no kids” with a drop of respect for the character with two X chromosomes. Indeed, in this case Sam Neil’s Dr. Grant kind of gets the shit end of the stick when it comes to cartoonish reactions to the baby question. I don’t want to spend too much time on this point, because it’s such a minor aspect of the film itself, but it’s worth commending Spielberg for not using these moments as a means to turn Ellie into a Cathy cartoon. 

EXHIBIT C: Fuck Your Male Gaze.

Dr. Ian Malcolm: [about Ellie] She’s, uh... tenacious.

Dr. Alan Grant: You have no idea.

Consider for a moment the history of female archaeologists on film:

                                                 Practical

                                                Practical

Now I am totally on board that Post-Feminism train and believe that a woman should be able to deck herself out in whatever duds she chooses— but when they slid Angie into those hot pants and tanks each day on the set of Tomb Raider, were they really thinking “yes, this is what archaeologists wear”? Hell no. Shit looks great in the club, but not on the dig. Compare that with the sensible khakis and canadian tuxedos of our dear Dr. Sattler:

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Our gal is ready to work and is not interested in your conventional standards of beauty while she’s on the job.

Laura Dern (and Spielberg by extension) was not afraid to have Ellie be a little ugly in this movie.

Seriously, we all know that Laura Dern is a stunning woman and by and large looks like a total brainy knockout throughout this film, but the decision could have easily been made to give us some scream-queen bombshell who could serve up that perfectly quaffed, misty sex appeal that has been required of our monster movie leading ladies for decades.

A lot of credit goes to Spielberg here for giving us a female lead that isn’t there purely as eye-candy. Do you think Michael Bay would have given us a character that so deftly conveys realistic disgust and horror like Dern?

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Doubtful. Laura Dern is not concerned with being a fucking bombshell in this movie. She wants you to know how scary it is to have a sprained ankle and get chased around by a fucking velociraptor. And she does it well. She could teach a fucking masterclass on an ugly limp-run. 

CASE CLOSED, MOTHERFUCKERS.

Without the abundance of adult female characters populating this movie, it’s tough to tell how a character like Ellie Sattler would have functioned otherwise. Would this movie have passed the Bechdel test? Had circumstances changed, and Ellie ended up shepherding the kids back to the compound, would much of her conversation with Lex  been dedicated to boys and the trouble she’s had getting Dr. Grant to commit? We’ll never know, but I think there’s enough evidence here to safely assume the answer is no. ‘Cause let’s be honest — flash forward twenty years and Lex is totally living in the Bay Area, working for Anonymous, blogging about being a vegetarian and engaging in Lisbeth Sanders cosplay on the weekend. That girl is whole separate blog post.

Sure. There are a ton of female scientists that litter the pop culture landscape, many of whom are probably stronger examples of feminism than our Dr. Sattler. But when I look to the future, and the movies that I’ll want to share with my hypothetical daughters and (more likely) nieces , I think I’ll have an easier time getting them to sit down and watch Jurassic Park with me, than say, uh, Contact. And when that day comes, I hope they can look to me and say, “Uncle Joel, what’s a ‘paleobotanist’?” And after I’m done making up what I think that is, I hope they will say “I want to be one of those when I grow up.”