‘Gravity’: A Step Forward for Women Onscreen

I finally watched Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity last week. Some of my thoughts are mirrored here, by writer Melissa Silverstein. I’ll reiterate parts of her review that I feel similarly about, and add some of my own insights. Also, *SPOILER ALERT*.

I’d like to push aside all the impossibilities of the science behind Gravity, which even I took issue with (could they destroy any more space stations? Kowalski could’ve been saved! That fire extinguisher would’ve sent her spinning again!), and focus more on some of the other aspects, including characters, story, and spectacle.

These are estimates, but the film had one lead- Sandra Bullock as Dr. Ryan Stone, one supporting actor- George Clooney as Matt Kowalski, and one more speaking character we see onscreen- Paul Sharma as Shariff. To get a little clinical, although the main character was a female, this film is on par with what we see on the big screen. Sandra is one of three characters onscreen in total. The other two are male, making up 66.7% of speaking characters. She alone represents all female speaking characters, which is 33.3%. If we include the other characters whose voices we hear, there is one other female in mission control. Everyone else is male. 2/7, or 28.6% of characters in this film are female. When seen in that light, no giant leaps are being made to break gender norms, in sheer number of characters.

My non-clinical analysis of the characters: they played their respective scientists well. Bullock was a little high strung, Clooney ever the joker. They were a good counterpoint to each other and served to remind the audience of the severity of the situation, punctuated with light humor. I did like the echoes of motherhood everywhere in the film. Cuaron said “it was always important to us that the central character be a woman, because we felt there was an understated but vital correlation of her being a maternal presence against the backdrop of Mother Earth.” Dr. Stone is a parent whose motivations throughout the film revolve around her daughter. I particularly enjoyed the visual of Dr. Stone when she finally enters the space station, takes off all her armor, and curls up in the fetal position. I see what you did there Alfonso.

Womb, there it is.

I appreciated that Bullock and Clooney had no make-up on for the film. It’s rare for actors to be so naked on film, particularly women. Of course, Bullock is spectacular, proving that the silkscreens and glamour of Hollywood can be a bit much, and unnecessary in the face of good acting.

The story itself was very surface level. We had just enough history to keep rooting for our hero, but the visual effects of the film was its strongest factor. The space spectacle was encompassing so that you felt stressed out with the lack of oxygen, flying debris, and thoughts of loneliness and death. If you can look past the minimal story and let yourself stress/enjoy the action in space, this movie is pretty great.

A non-movie complaint: I take great issue with the fact that Cuaron had to lobby for a female protagonist and had to ‘defend’ his choice. How many directors defend their protagonist being male? I’m pretty sure that statistic estimates around 0%. Time and time again, I hear about remarkable strides made any time one female person/character does something significant, like having been seen. I would argue for the complete opposite. When characters are written, I would question why a character couldn’t be female. Why does an action hero HAVE to be male? Why does the villain? The sidekick, the one liner, the extra?

Would Gravity, have been a less effective movie if Kowalski was a Maddie instead of a Matt? Seema instead of Sheriff? Unrealistic? Films portray unrealistic two dimensional females all the time. Maybe its time to shift the unrealistic female and make her more badass, more central, and simply just more present. After all, let’s not forget that females comprised only 28.6% of this film.

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