Long Reads

How Jurassic Park’s Dr Ellie Sattler inspired a generation of young feminists

As Jurassic Park celebrates its 25th anniversary, Stylist’s Kayleigh Dray reminds us why Dr Ellie Sattler is the most important character in the film.

It is no overstatement to say that, on the 16 July 1993, my life changed forever. 

My red sneakers squeaked on the cinema’s lino floor, and my thin T-shirt and cycling shorts (it was the Nineties, remember?) were useless against the chill of the dark and cavernous Odeon. Barely four years old, my hair had been piled up on top of my head in a desperate bid to make me look taller… or, to be more exact, make me look older. Jurassic Park was a 12A movie and my dad, for all his bluff and bravado, didn’t want anyone looking too closely at the tiny girl he had brought to the big screen adaptation of Michael Crichton’s cautionary (and very bloodthirsty) tale of genetic engineering.

It proved to be an unforgettable experience – one which sparked a lifelong love affair with dinosaurs. I didn’t care that the velociraptors were chasing children through kitchens, slashing stomachs with their curved claws and ripping off people’s arms (sorry, Samuel L Jackson). I didn’t care that the Dilophosaurus was jiggling like a rattle-snake as it spit poison everywhere. I didn’t even care that the T-Rex tossed Dr Ian Malcolm (even then, I think I recognised that Jeff Goldblum was someone very special) into the air like a ball and sent him crashing into a near-comatose state. I loved every single one of those dinosaurs. I was rooting for them, all of them, and was disappointed whenever they failed to ‘win’.

Except, of course, when they were doing battle with Dr Ellie Sattler.

Dr Ellie Sattler in Jurassic Park, 1993

Laura Dern as Dr Ellie Sattler in Jurassic Park, 1993

Ellie was completely unlike any other female character I’d seen on screen up until that point (mostly two-dimensional Disney Princesses and singing nuns, if I’m honest). She wasn’t wearing a pretty dress and heels: instead, she had on a pair of practical hiking boots, shorts, a baggy shirt and (shock, horror) her glasses, which she happily wore whenever she needs to do any close-up work. Her hair wasn’t perfectly coiffed and styled: it was tied up, out of the way, in a ponytail for most of the film. Her make-up was minimal, almost non-existent.

Nowadays, in the context of the ‘running in heels’ debate, that feels even more startling.

“Ellie in her late 20s, athletic-looking,” reads her character bio – a far cry from the overtly sexualised descriptions of women so often seen in movie scripts. “There’s an impatience about Ellie, as if nothing in life happens quite fast enough for her.”

Essentially, she’s a heroine, but she didn’t look anything like the cardboard cutout heroines we’ve been treated to over the years: she looked like… well, like Ellie. 

Dr Ian Malcolm: God creates dinosaurs, God destroys dinosaurs. God creates Man, man destroys God. Man creates dinosaurs

Dr Ellie Sattler: Dinosaurs eat man… woman inherits the earth

And, of course, Ellie’s character development doesn’t stop at her costume. She’s determined, sensible and opinionated, too. Indeed, shortly after Dr Hammond’s embarrassingly proud tour of his park, the paleobotanist sits him down to tell him her thoughts. Of which there are plenty.

“How can you know anything about an extinct ecosystem?” she demands of him. “How could you ever assume that you can control it? I mean, you have plants in this building that are poisonous. You picked them because they look good, but these are aggressive living things that have no idea what century they’re in, and they’ll defend themselves… violently, if necessary.”

Ellie Sattler and Alan Grant with the triceratops in Jurassic Park

Dr Ellie Sattler and Dr Alan Grant tend to an injured triceratops in Jurassic Park, 1993

Later, she calls Malcolm out on his ridiculously gendered ideas and terminology – a move which causes her partner, Dr Alan Grant (Sam Neill), to smile to himself. And, on that note, it is worth noting that Ellie and Grant’s romantic relationship does not define her role in the film by any means: indeed, it is just something that… well, that is accepted and happens away from the cameras. There are no big kiss scenes, no big declarations of love, no drama: theirs is a relationship based on mutual respect, friendship and independence. 

This much is made clear when they spy a distressed Triceratops and immediately get down to diagnosing the problem: Grant listens to the creature’s heartbeat, while Ellie makes a note of all the poisonous flora and fauna in the area, identifies the sores on the creature’s tongue as evidence of consuming West Indian Lilac, pulls on a pair of elbow-length gloves and gotten down to the very serious business of examining the dinosaur’s droppings. And, as a storm breaks overhead, Ellie informs Grant that she will be remaining with the Triceratops – a decision he readily accepts, without feeling the need to insist she return to the car with him (or that he remain with her as protection). He knows Ellie can handle herself, and she knows she doesn’t need his permission to do anything.

All of this, of course, makes Ellie a good female character. And then along comes bloody Dennis Nedry, who gets greedy, breaks the park and sets all the dinosaurs loose. This gives Ellie the opportunity to shine like the badass action hero she is. This is where she becomes not just a good female character, but a great one.

John Hammond: It ought to really be me going.

Dr Ellie Sattler: Why?

John Hammond: Well, I’m a… and you’re, erm, a…

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

No one on Isle Nublar is particularly well-suited to defend themselves against artificially created monstrosities. In this film, there are no athletes, assassins or superheroes of any kind. Instead, we have scientists, computer programmers, accountants, elderly men and, y’know, children. All of these people are out for a jolly trip around a new amusement park: they’re expecting sunshine, fun and photo opportunities. They aren’t emotionally or physically prepared for deadly thunderstorms, T Rex-induced car crashes and violent beasts. 

In fact, the only person who is ready is Bob Peck’s Robert Muldoon (oh he of the ambiguous accent, powerful thighs and incredibly long socks), and it’s Muldoon who gets eaten alive by velociraptors before the end of the movie.

Ellie, though, rises above and beyond the challenge that has been set her. When Grant and the others go missing, she doesn’t take a backseat: instead, she takes a shotgun and heads out to find them. It is she who tracks down the upturned jeep in the forest, and rescues Malcolm from the wreckage of the Tyrannosaurus attack. She is the one who pops him in the back seat of the jeep and gets him back to the safety of the visitor’s centre – screaming the word “s**t” at the top of her lungs in the process because… well, because there’s a dinosaur pounding down the street after them, and fair e-bloody-nough. 

Back in the VC, Ellie uses her medical training to dish out morphine to the Rex’s latest victim. And, once that’s done, she finds time for a bowl of ice cream, which she (naturally) chows down on whilst giving Hammond a piece of her mind.

Think our heroine’s work is done? Think again. 

When Ellie dresses Malcolm’s wounds and props him up on a table, she expertly flips gender expectations on their head. How? Because, while she remains in control and in command of her own destiny, Malcolm – with his unbuttoned shirt, gentle sheen of sweat and impossibly languorous pose – becomes the film’s eye candy, a role which is traditionally filled by subservient women in action movies. 

When I was a very small girl, though, I was most struck by the fact that it is Ellie who volunteers to be the one to push the restart button on the compound’s power system – and she does this in spite of the fact that a) Arnold tried to do the same and never returned, b) it’s a seriously long walk from the safety of the compound, and c) the park’s planners put the emergency reset button directly adjacent to the f**king velociraptor pit. Which, presumably, is yet another example of male incompetence.

The men try to talk her out of it. Hammond even dares suggest that he, a frail 70-something old man, should be the one to undertake the dangerous mission – a concept so utterly laughable that Ellie refuses to let it slide.

“We can discuss sexism in survival situations when I get back,” she informs him curtly, grabbing hold of a torch and a walkie-talkie. 

It’s a scene that has stuck with me for as long as I can remember; this, right here on the screen, was a female heroine unlike any other. Ellie was smart, she wasn’t afraid to make her opinions heard, she refused to let anyone determine her fate, and she wasn’t afraid to get her hands dirty – both literally and figuratively. All of which is, considering little girls are constantly taught to be good, keep quiet, stay tidy, and look pretty, a Very Big Deal.

Knocking aside all of those silly, vapid, corseted and painted princesses of old, the paleobotanist was a welcome blast of fresh air; I quickly became obsessed with my new feminist role model.

After watching the film, I expressed my desire to become a “dinosaur lady” – and my parents encouraged my newfound obsession with palaeontology, getting me a subscription to a dinosaur magazine, helping me build my own T-Rex skeleton and spiriting me off to the Natural Museum on weekends. And, while I later turned my attentions to journalism, I never forgot the enormous impression that Dern’s performance had upon me. Indeed, every time I strap on a pair of hiking boots, a part of me is secretly thrilled, and busily hoping that I look just the littlest bit like her.

Ellie Sattler didn’t just break all the moulds: she positively shattered them. She was able to be vulnerable and ballsy, tender and stern, all at once. She was the first to teach myself and countless other Nineties kids the value of hard work, perseverance and dedication. And she taught us that there’s so much more to being a female heroine than simply wearing a nice dress and looking pretty.

In doing so, Ellie inspired countless little girls everywhere to shoot for the moon – and recognise that the force for change comes from within. We need only rely on ourselves to make our dreams come true.

No singing, or kissing, or wishing on stars required.

Image: Getty

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