For a movie filled with freakish genetic hybrids and raptors wearing night-vision headsets, the most far-out, fantastical element of Jurassic World might just be Bryce Dallas Howard’s heels. Introduced with a foot-focused shot worthy of Tarantino, Howard plays Claire Dearing, the park’s operations manager, an icy, career-oriented businesswoman who seems like she may well have been cloned in lab using Sigourney Weaver’s DNA from Working Girl.
In a film loaded with retrograde takes on gender, the shoes initially seem to signal all of Claire’s flaws. We’re supposed to know that Claire is unlikable and needs to loosen up because she is uninterested in children, obsessed with her company’s profit margins, and refuses to be nice to Chris Pratt. Her shoes—severe, nude-tone stilettos that seem completely incompatible with tromping around a tropical island filled with prehistoric animals—seem to serve as a shorthand for all of this in the film’s first quarter, where they’re the subject of several loving close-ups and get roughly as much screen time as Vincent D’Onofrio.
As the film goes on, the park’s animals go rogue and Claire develops a heart, experiencing a classic cinematic transformation from dispassionate professional to family-loving babe with a gun. But while her pristine white business suit is shucked in the name of mobility, the heels stay on the whole time.
A lot has been made of the improbability of Claire’s heels—the film’s insistence on having her wear them through multiple jungle hikes and dino chases has come to symbolize, among other things, the film’s goofy sexism. Though I doubt that the heels wrote the scene where Claire’s sister chides her for her lack of interest in children, or suggested that Jake Johnson’s Larry exist only so that various characters could cast aspersions on his masculinity. Vulture’s Jada Yuan dismissed them as “foolish;” the Dissolve’s Genevieve Koski pointed to them as a “tiny but maddening detail” that kept the film from working. Howard herself has been taken to task for her own insistence on wearing the shoes; director Colin Trevorrow frustratedly passed the buck to Howard on the issue, telling i09: “I mean, look, I had that conversation with her so many times, and she insisted on wearing those heels.”
But given that films so often require a heroine to drop her high heels in order to be deemed likable (think Kathleen Turner in Romancing the Stone, or even Jennifer Garner at the end of 13 Going On 30), or use heels as a way to signal that a woman is bait for a predator (think half the horror movies currently streaming on Netflix), I’d argue that the stiletto backlash has been grossly overblown. The way Claire’s heels support her, rather than fail her, throughout her journey is actually one of the most interesting, offbeat decisions in a film largely dedicated to propping up old-school action movie tropes.
I spent the first half of the movie bracing myself for Claire’s heels to buckle and give, necessitating a heroic rescue by Chris Pratt’s Han Solo-by-way-of-Seal-Team-Six Owen Grady. As time went on, I began to wonder if she’d take them off to show that she was ready to get serious about being an action heroine. But she didn’t. Howard’s Claire does go through a transformation—one that allows her to simply become a slightly better version of herself, rather than undergo some kind of generic badassification process where she suits up in combat boots and a flack jacket and reveals that she knew judo the whole time. In the end, the heels aren’t a symbol of the values that made Claire weak; they’re a symbol that she isn’t going to have to change every single classically “feminine” thing about herself in order to redeemed.
While Owen makes a crack about Claire running around the jungle in her heels, she still does so just fine—at one point passing up his offer of a helping hand as she runs in them—which shows that he doesn’t necessarily know everything about her, who she is, or what she’s capable of (and neither do we, for that matter). Sure, it’s fully unnecessary to flee from dinosaurs in stilettos. But the fact that she didn’t have to go full Linda Hamilton in order to save her family may have actually been this film’s most progressive bit.
Jurassic World is goofy popcorn cinema of the highest order, a place where our disbelief is so suspended that the film’s final conflict is joyfully solved via some deus ex dino. It is a movie that is “cool” far more than it is “good.” Watching Howard outrun a T. Rex in shoes that most of us would find uncomfortable through our morning commute may have been ridiculous, but it upped the film’s stakes and looked pretty awesome—just like the Indominus Rex, those dumb gyrospheres, and that time Claire’s assistant was eaten by a pterodactyl that was eaten by a mosasaurus. If we can clone raptors, we might as well hunt them in footwear that doesn’t make any sense, either.
Read more in Slate about the Jurassic Park movies.