Let me preface this entry by saying that my intentions regarding this blog have been to avoid discussing politics, for reasons that this entry will make clear. Alas, the intention to avoid politics can itself be thought of as a political stance.
This week, Kelly Lawler took Jurassic World to task in the pages of USA Today, terming it “another aggressively sexist blockbuster” and promising to “sit out on Jurassic World 2.” Lawler is, of course, entitled to her opinion, and to make choices about what films to see or not based on her opinion. I am troubled by her piece however, as an example of a critical stance common in today’s popular and academic press.
Lawler describes Claire, the film’s female lead, as a “cold, childless career woman.” She isn’t wrong on this point, at least not entirely. Claire does possess these qualities early in the film. And, without giving away any spoilers, by the end of the film Claire learns to appreciate the dinosaurs in her park as living breathing creatures; that her love life might improve if she would loosen up a little; and that children are useful for reminding adults to keep a sense of wonder about the world. And really, to be precise, it’s this last change to which Lawler objects. For her, it seems to suggest that all women need to learn this lesson. In her words, in Jurassic World “goodness is inherently linked to motherhood.”
Unfortunately, Lawler bases her argument on a poor reading of the film. Claire is, in fact, an archetypal example of the villain who – beneath her gruff exterior – turns out to have a heart of gold after all. For this archetype to work, she must begin the movie as a “cold, childless career woman,” and she must grow and develop into a better version of herself by the end of the film. She does happen to be a woman, but I could list dozens of male characters who make the same basic transformation, from Ebenezer Scrooge to Han Solo.
But must Claire’s redemption come in the form of learning to appreciate children? Well…yes. Again, I could list dozens of novels and films, but for the sake of time, I’ll focus on work by Steven Spielberg, Jurassic Park’s director and one of the producers of Jurassic World. Spielberg, as it happens, has a history of privileging children in his films. Children are the focal point of The Goonies, Back to the Future, E.T., Gremlins, Hook, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, A.I. How many times in his films have “cold,” unimaginative adults discovered that childhood wonder is the key to happiness? It’s hard to make that point without an adult to make the transformation.
In fact, Spielberg’s original Jurassic Park used exactly the same plotline. Sam Neil’s character Alan Grant begins the movie as a “cold, childless” scientist. In his first scene he delights in scaring one kid half to death by describing in detail how a velociraptor killed its prey. If that doesn’t make his feelings about children plain, his comments to Ellie in the next scene do: “Kids?” he asks her incredulously, “You want to have one of those?” Like Zach and Gray’s rediscovery of Jurassic Park’s gift store, or the statue of John Hammond that stands at the entrance to Jurassic World, Claire’s development serves as a clever echo of the original franchise.
The mistake Lawler makes, though, is a common one in criticism these days, a kneejerk reaction to a work of art based on its perceived social messages. In academic circles, this kind of approach is a form of what’s known as “cultural studies.” It involves art critics taking on the role of cultural critics and pronouncing on the suitability of “messages” in everything from Louis C.K. stand-up to The Mindy Project. It springs from positive impulses, the desire to intervene in a world where social messages, artistic or otherwise, have become so sophisticated we fear they may be used to manipulate the populace to commit all sorts of social atrocities.
When I was a kid, one of the things that seemed most frightening about the Soviet Union was their insistence that all art conform to a rigid set of social and cultural parameters. Such authoritarian systems demand art extol favored virtues and that stories punish every transgressor of these virtues, so that we as a society may learn how properly to behave. Liberal thinkers used to shudder at this attitude towards art. Today, I sometimes feel Soviet Russia has become the model of our criticism.
In the West (and indeed in the Soviet Union itself in underground pockets of resistance) the response to the Soviet program was the so-called New Criticism. While New Criticism was not without its flaws (its failure to take account of social influence and impact among them), one of its chief merits was that it refused to judge a poem on its political merits, or for that matter on its message at all. New critics searched for other criteria to judge a work’s value – how well its characters were developed, whether its assonance fit well with its rhythm. I’m no conservative, but I sometimes wonder if scholars today couldn’t use a touch more of that objectivity.
Do I have political opinions? Of course. And I’m not shy about defending them. More importantly, I am not so dense that I fail to see the effect art can have (though I am reminded here of Auden’s comment that “art makes nothing happen”). Here’s the problem, though (and maybe in the end it does come down to a kind of political stance on my part): if I begin rejecting this or that novel or poem or television show or album or film, how am I any different from fundamentalist Christians, or fundamentalist Muslims, or fascist dictators, or any number of intellectual bullies who believe their ideology trumps everyone else’s? I don’t feel it’s my job as a literary scholar to complain that Mindy Lahiri needs to date more men of color. And even if I agree that sometimes we need to point out a film’s negative cultural influence, I can’t help thinking that if we worried more about the object itself and less about its potentially society-wrecking messages, we might not get the message wrong quite so often.
MK Adkins has a Ph.D in English that he occasionally uses to think about literature, but more often uses to think about television, music and film. Adkins is the author of two popular culture books as well as numerous articles and reviews. Until recently, he worked as a college professor but made the decision to devote himself full-time to writing and podcasting in January 2019.
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