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‘Gravity’ and the Impact of Its Female Hero

‘Gravity’ and the Impact of Its Female Hero

Long before it opened in theaters in 2013, I was excited to see Gravity. A female-centric sci-fi film? Yes, please! Haunting and harrowing, the film rests on Sandra Bullock’s shoulders, and she carries it off with raw emotion and nuance. But the best part of Gravity? It offers us a different kind of female hero than what we normally see on-screen.

Gravity is a gripping, cinematic spectacle about two astronauts—a biomedical engineer on her first mission and a veteran commander on his final mission—stranded after their space shuttle is destroyed.

Ryan Stone (Bullock) is not a stereotypical female protagonist. Yes, she’s smart. And white. And thin. While those traits do make her similar to the majority of women leads, her age and her personality make her a unique heroine. She’s quiet and reserved but that shouldn’t make you underestimate or question her strength. Stone analyzes situations. She uses her ingenuity and her years of life experience to figure out solutions to the problems that bombard her in space.

With younger characters, Gravity might have treaded into typical, action-heavy territory, rather than existing as a contemplative, allegorical film. Played by midlife actors, Stone and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) possess maturity that separates them from the typical, younger stars of action and sci-fi movies. Gravity’s genre doesn't typically feature older women in lead roles. Bullock is 50—the other actresses interested in the role were in their 20s and 30s. Stone is fearful and unsure, a result of being a novice in space. She also has the years behind her to know she’s not invincible. She is keenly aware of the ephemeral nature of life. Kowalski is jocular, affable and calm, attributed to his years on the job.

Strong female characters are typically portrayed as ass-kicking. Don’t get me wrong. I love mouthy, opinionated, angry, tough-as-nails women. But those shouldn’t be the only kind of female protagonists we see. It’s unusual to see a female hero who’s frail or vulnerable or even an introvert. And therein lies the beauty of Ryan Stone. Not all women leads need to kick ass in order to be strong or complex. We need to see the stories of intelligent, quiet, reserved, vulnerable women too.

We rarely see a female film hero struggling with depression in such a palpable, visceral way. Stone has lost the will to live. Due to the tragic death of her young daughter, she yearns for silence. Grief swallows her. Her earthly routines confine her. She goes to work and then just drives, listening to the radio, a reminder of her daughter. She’s surviving but not really living.

The film itself becomes a “metaphor for depression, or for grief: untethered and abandoned in a void so large that it boggles the mind, or simply shuts it down,” writes Laura Hudson at Stone drifts and spins out of control in space, disconnected from her ship, her oxygen supply, her fellow astronauts, echoing the overwhelming feelings of depression.

The trauma of child loss in film and television often catalyzes a mother’s journey toward empowerment. In Gravity, we witness Stone’s transformation from a woman consumed by grief and despair, drifting along on a sea of sadness, into a survivor who fights to live. By the end of the film, she’s grounded, no longer disconnected.

Some have criticized the film for humanizing Stone by making her a mother, encompassing the grieving-mother archetype. It’s a fair complaint as most iconic, strong, female characters in film (Ripley, Sarah Connor, Beatrix Kiddo) are mothers. But Stone isn’t merely defined by motherhood. We see and hear about her career. We accompany her on her emotional journey.

Stone’s career is yet another reason why her character matters. We need to see more female scientists on-screen. There are still few women scientists, when compared to the number of men, and they are paid far less than their male colleagues. Young girls need to see female role models. When Kowalski asks Stone, “What kind of a name is Ryan?” she tells him that her father always wanted a boy. It’s a brief, gender commentary on how society gives preferential treatment to boys. Interestingly, this parallels director Alfonso Cuaron’s own struggle to feature a female protagonist as the studio wanted him to change the lead’s gender. Thankfully, he refused. Cuaron always envisioned the protagonist as a woman. However, he didn’t write her as a middle-aged woman: it was Bullock’s casting that determined this path.

Bullock has called her role as Dr. Ryan Stone “revolutionary.” You can’t be what you can’t see. Seeing media representations of yourself—age, gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, religion, body type, physical and mental ability—all of this matters. It impacts how we see ourselves, the lives we envision for ourselves. And how others see us.

Gravity offers a notable female hero. It’s OK that Sandra Bullock’s character isn’t shooting guns or beating up bad guys. It’s OK that she’s quiet and vulnerable. It’s OK to see a woman struggling through emotional pain. And it’s definitely OK to see a strong woman older than 40 taking charge of her circumstances and her life. It’s better than OK—it’s inspiring and it gives us hope that we’ll see more complex female leads on-screen. Not all women are the same. Our female leads should reflect that reality.

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Tags:   media    myths and stereotypes 

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The Silver Century Foundation promotes a positive view of aging. The Foundation challenges entrenched and harmful stereotypes, encourages dialogue between generations, advocates planning for the second half of life, and raises awareness to educate and inspire everyone to live long, healthy, empowered lives.

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