Moments before I sit down with Jurassic World star Bryce Dallas Howard, she sweeps through the doorway and flags down a studio rep, production notes in hand, with a last-minute change to her character’s description in the film’s marketing materials.
“Can we not say she is ‘careerist?’” she asks with an open, friendly smile, more gentle mandate than request.
Howard later explained to me that she’d only just read through Universal Pictures’ synopsis describing her character, the power skirt-sporting Jurassic World executive who’s about to have the worst day ever at work.
“It’s about awareness and mindfulness and pointing things out, and making changes depending on your own sphere of influence,” said Howard, folding her legs beneath her inside a trailer on the Universal Studios lot. “It was a little thing that was brought to my attention, and I brought it to [the studio’s], and there will be no pushback because everyone is onboard. A perfect example is this film. In an action film, for a character to have this kind of an arc regardless of gender is pretty unique and ballsy.”
Gender-swap Jurassic World’s leads and that might be entirely true. But because the film’s lead is an emotionally frosty woman who trades her job for a boyfriend and two kids to care for by the end of the film, the line between feminist/anti-feminist gets murkier than a muddy dinosaur footprint.
In charge of the day-to-day operations of the massive Costa Rican island theme park where 20,000 tourists a day fork over big bucks to ogle prehistoric dinosaurs, Howard’s Claire is the park’s high-strung boss lady. She’s good at her job, and executes it while sporting flawless power bangs, 3.5-inch nude heels, and a monochrome skirt-blouse-and-blazer combo.
Alas, she’s also fixated on metrics over actual human or animal life. She’s too frigid to date jerks like the ex-military dino trainer who once tried to take her out (Chris Pratt). Glued to her smart phone, she’s too busy worrying about guest retention and the considerable new security issues with a top-secret new dino to spend time with her visiting nephews. Is it not reasonable, then, to call Claire a “driven careerist?”
“There can be ways that words are used that aren’t helpful, and it’s about changing the conversation,” Howard argued, pointing to last year’s “Ban Bossy” campaign. Backed prominently by Lean In founder Sheryl Sandberg and a handful of high profile female celebrities, the effort aimed to erase the word “bossy” from the cultural lexicon because of its potential negative impact on young girls.
“Using the word ‘bossy’ for girls can be quite harmful,” Howard said. “What is that saying, that being focused, being assertive, being the boss has a negative attribute? And I have heard that term associated more with women than with men. ‘He’s so bossy’—you don’t hear that. It’s a very subtle thing.”
Howard had input into Claire’s defining elements because she signed on so early, the project didn’t yet have a script. Director Colin Trevorrow had only made one feature, which sent diehard Jurassic Park fans into enough of a panic. But he was anointed by none other than Steven Spielberg, who reportedly granted Trevorrow final cut. He co-wrote Jurassic World with his Safety Not Guaranteed partner Derek Connolly and, Howard says, put her worries at ease with his rundown of Claire’s story.
“In her quest for profit she has disconnected from her own humanity and her own family, and this is a journey for her to reconnect with her humanity, for her actions to be in alignment with her values, and to reclaim her strength,” Howard said. “I also like the idea that she’s a C-level executive—she is the boss—and that’s not necessarily her most empowered self. Her most empowered self is at the end of the film.”
Many will boil Claire down to a simple ice queen bossypants who’s forgone relationships and family to climb to the top, just as Guardians of the Galaxy’s Chris Pratt uncharacteristically plays an acerbic loner who’s chosen to live in relative isolation with Velociraptors instead of humans. They’re both written as people who need people, who only learn to open up and reach out when dinosaurs start running amok. Claire’s nephews don’t help much, since they highlight her childlessness and, at one point, tell her they feel much safer under the protection of her “boyfriend."
Howard prefers to see her Claire as “a character who is flawed and layered and goes on a journey and is a different human being in the beginning than the end. That’s not a gender thing, that’s just storytelling.”
As Jurassic World has weathered some negative reviews, so too has Claire stumbled into the sights of detractors who see her as a regressive kind of action heroine—not the successor to Ellen Ripley or Sarah Connor that director Trevorrow might have hoped. Critics point aggressively to Claire’s single most defining sartorial attribute, one that Trevorrow says Howard insisted upon keeping as they hammered out the character: Her shoes.
Ginger Rogers earned legend status for matching Fred Astaire step for step, “backwards and in high heels.” Eighty years of cultural progress later, she wouldn’t need to wear them anymore, certainly not on a jaunt through the jungle. And yet Howard spends the entirety of Jurassic World in her power heels, a running joke so curious the movie feels the need to explain why in a moment of self-aware exposition.
Pratt’s Owen has led Claire out into the dinosaur-infested park in search of her nephews, and mocks the impractical outfit she’s still wearing. She ties her blouse around her waist and keeps the heels on—not that Jurassic World has stockpiles of women’s running shoes conveniently nestled around the park like flashlights, or dino prods, or spare car parts. She chooses to keep her heels. (Trevorrow even pays cheeky homage to them in a slow motion close-up shot.)
And that, Howard argues, is precisely what Claire would have done.
“For me, the heels were a metaphor,” she said. “First of all, I just believe that she’s one of those women who say they walk so much better in heels. I’m absolutely not one of those women. Beyoncé, for example! But I thought she’s definitely that person.” (Side note: Bey might reject the word ‘bossy,’ but she did postulate that a diva is a female version of a hustler. And she probably could outrun a T. rex in a pair of stilettos.)
Howard says she saw strength in Claire’s footwear choices. “The thing that would have been considered the biggest handicap for her ultimately ends up being her strength. And that’s those heels. I really liked that.”
The winds of outrage have been chasing Jurassic World ever since Joss Whedon infamously slammed a clip featuring the Claire and Owen characters as “70s-era sexist” months before release. Coming from the guy who stuck Black Widow in a corner, that was saying something.
“When I was coming of age, I remembered reading and studying the initial ideas within the feminist movement. There was this idea with my parents’ generation that in order to find equality, a woman would need to behave like a man,” said Howard, who has two young children, has directed 12 of her own short films, and is gearing up to shoot her next project.
“That seems to be from a historical perspective, a necessary step or shift in perception, a paradigm shift,” she continued. “But I think where we are now, for me, it’s about embracing my femininity as my greatest strength, and a God-given strength.”
“Sometimes people are like, ‘Do you want to play strong women?’ I don’t have to play strong women in order to feel like a strong woman myself, but I do feel it’s important to play characters that are complex and interesting and believable.”
Just give them full lives and a few more footwear options, Hollywood. And don’t call them careerists.