The estimated reading time for this post is 4 minutes.
By Robert-Jan Wille
Classic dialogue in the classic movie Jurassic Park. The mathematician Ian Malcolm is rambling about the consequences of Jurassic Park and about the cloning of dinosaurs. At a certain moment he says: “God creates dinosaurs. God destroys dinosaurs. God creates man. Man destroys God. Man creates dinosaurs.” The witty palaeobotanist Ellie Sattler is quick to answer: “Dinosaurs eat man… woman inherits the world.” It is a funny word play. The womanizer and “rock star” scientist Malcolm does not respond.
In the movie the female characters of Ellie Sattler and Lex Murphy (John Hammond’s granddaughter) are put forward as counterweights to the predominantly male world of (dinosaur) science and finance. But two characters are not much of a counterweight: they just confirm certain stereotypes. You get the impression that screen writers wrote the scripts and then thought: “hey, let’s make the female side characters more interesting”. Sattler is to the Jurassic Park movie what Arwen is to the Lord of the Rings movies.
The sequels are not getting better. The second installment contains only two female main characters as well; in the last movie of the trilogy there is just one and she is above all a mother. And what about the books? In the original book by Michael Crichton, the role of women is even smaller. In the book Tim Murphy is the older of the two kids and is both the paleontology nerd and the computer geek. In the movie it is still Lex who saves the day with her knowledge of computers. Although she of course reacts the most hysterical when it comes to encounters with dinosaurs.
But I want to go to a more deeper level of sexism. A very Victorian level.
What I find really interesting is the fact that Sattler is a palaeobotanist. Or that Sarah Harding, the leading female character of the second movie, is a Jane Goodall type scientist studying behavior in the field. They seem to represent archetypical nineteenth century women scientists and nurses. They are either collectors of flowers (albeit fossilized) or do-gooders in the field. Who wants to stay with the sick Triceratops and takes over from a man? Sattler. Who is operating the baby T-rex when it is wounded? It is Harding. The men are not interested in field studies and caring for the wounded: they are interested in stealing eggs and embryos, delta flying, supervising the electronic department, flirting, arm chair theorizing, laboratory research. They are the astronomers and astronauts, to paraphrase the second movie.
The directors get their cues from a superficial reading of the past, in which men were the ones more likely to do adventurous stuff. They study corpses and experiment on living animals with instruments. Sattler and Harding remind me of women ending up in university in either medicine or botany in the Victorian Age. Plants were considered safe for women. Healing people seemed to be the dominant wish of other women. The first female student to succesfully finish her studies in the Netherlands? In medicine. The first female professor in the Netherlands? In botany. And who dominated the movement against experimentation on living animals? Women.
Or are we selectively shopping in the past? Of course, palaeobotany or medicine weren’t ‘feminine’ studies. Many male biologists fled to the field too or preferred healing above killing. So, I am not suggesting that there are two worlds of science, but just want to demonstrate that there are areas in which it was more likely that women appear first. Why is that? I am not an expert on this and as a historian I always tend to suspect this is purely cultural and that it has nothing to do with genes. Does the name Rosalind Franklin ring a bell?
I was thinking about this when I was in Berlin at the Botanical Museum. They had a great exhibition on the evolution of plants. I was thinking: why, that is interesting! You see so many trees of animal evolution, with dinosaurs, reptilian mammals, Archeopteryx, Neanderthal Man, and so on and so on… but here I was looking at fern trees and club mosses and the first flowering plants. I want more museums showing palaeobotany, botanical morphology and the genealogy of plants. I want less ‘cool’ laboratory messing-with-animals Jurassic Park stuff.
Next time, a poem on plants by Goethe.
Update: Just today I read a letter written by Melchior Treub, director of the Botanical Gardens in Buitenzorg Java, to the German palaeobotanist Graf zu Solms-Laubach. The letters were kindly sent to my by the Laubach Estate, for my PhD thesis on tropical botany. In this letter Treub writes about the first time he had hired a woman in his tropical laboratories, Gerharda Wilbrink, a student of the Utrecht botanist Frits Went Sr.
So, he writes in French (yes, we are talking about a Dutchman with Swiss backgrounds who is writing to a German count):
‘J’ai engagé une dame, élève et actuellement assistante de M. Went d’Utrecht. M. Went m’en a dit beaucoup de bien et elle m’a fait une bonne impression, de sorte que j’ai risqué ce saut dans le féminisme; d’ailleurs je n’avais presque pas de choix, car il est impossible à ce qu’il parait de trouver de jeunes botanistes que l’on pourrait employer dans les pays tropicaux.’
To summarize: Went had recommended her and he was impressed by her, so he was willing to take the feminist jump. However, he had not much choice. At that time there were not many candidates for doing botany in the tropics, he writes.
Cowards, those men!