Saturday, 4 January 2014

Gravity May Not Be the Feminist Film You Think It Is


Who would have thought that Sandra Bullock, Queen of the chick flicks and star of such revolutionary films as Miss Congeniality and The Proposal would have ever landed the role of Dr Ryan Stone, the female star of Alfonso Cuaron’s space set thriller Gravity?

Bullock claims the critically lauded movie should be celebrated as a “human action film” yet it’s hard to deny the cultural impact that such a powerful female performance will have at the awards season and beyond. Aside from The Hunger Games, it’s hard to think of a mainstream Hollywood film that positions an actress of Bullock’s calibre within a predominantly male genre. Whether Gravity is a science fiction film or a space set thriller is irrelevant; critics and feminists worldwide are getting excited about Dr Ryan Stone’s refusal to be objectified or masculinised like the majority of female characters in Hollywood today.

Finally, we have a woman who uses her ingenuity and intellect to survive against the odds; all without the help of a man…

Wait, wait. Maybe people are missing something here.

Dr Ryan Stone is a huge leap forward for female characters in cinema, there’s no denying that, but just because she doesn’t sit around talking about boys and tampons doesn’t mean she’s quite the symbol of feminist hope that audiences have been led to believe.   

Bullock’s character arc is certainly one of growth; as Gravity progresses, Stone transforms from a bundle of nerves into a woman of strength who survives against all odds.

It’s a shame then that she needs a man to get her there.

For all of Stone’s intelligence as a medical scientist working for NASA, when shit hits the fan, it’s the man, Matt Kowalski, who comes and saves the day. Damn you George Clooney. Damn your smooth talking and dashing eyes. Without Kowalski’s instincts, the two lead characters would have died within the first ten minutes of the film. Sure Stone eventually survives but not without the help of a man first.

Even the way the two leads handle the prospect of death is disconcertingly sexist. While, Stone freaks out and suffers a panic attack, Kowalski handles the threat of dying unusually well, calmly accepting his fate with good humour. Hysterical women eh? Who let them into NASA?

Stone then proceeds on the advice given by Kowalski and does an admirable job of surviving. However, as the obstacles mount up, Stone’s spirit is eventually broken and suicidal thoughts take over. Now, that in itself is understandable. The stress of having to face such an impossible task could have that effect on anyone, regardless of gender. My issue with this scene is what happens next.

Just as Stone decides to give up and end it all, Kowalski returns, nabs some vodka and inspires her to keep on living. It’s like a Disney film in space. Despite the fact that Stone is obviously a competent scientist who has achieved so much to survive so long, that’s not enough. The message here is that women can try all they like to be strong and independent but ultimately, you’ll only get so far before a Prince Charming of sorts is required to bail you out. Thank god Kowalski turned out to only exist alive in Stone’s imagination. Some critics have cited this as more evidence of Stone’s strength, that she can bring herself back from the edge of despair but seriously? All I took from the scene was that even a dead male figure is more inspirational than no men at all.   

Now I’m not saying Stone isn’t a strong character. Just by choosing to have a believable female lead in a thriller about scientists is a huge step forward. Far too often, female scientists in the movies have either been bimbos with glasses or have just fallen completely flat. Hello Natalie Portman in the Thor franchise. I’m sure Bullock’s stellar performance will go some way towards inspiring the next generation of women to pursue a career in the sciences, but only if they cut their hair short and adopt a boy’s name like Ryan.


In a film such as this, you would like to think that the focus would be on Stone’s mind rather than her body and to begin with, Gravity follows this admirable route. Astronaut suits are neither masculine nor feminine, they hide everything about us that defines us physically, yet the voyeur inevitably comes out to play as soon as Stone removes the suit. Yes, you could argue that Sandra Bullock floating around in her underwear is a tribute to the ultimate action heroine, Alien’s Ripley, but you’ve got to ask yourself; if the tables had been turned and Clooney was the star of Gravity, would the studios have kept lingering shots of him floating in his pants?
      
Some may argue that it was necessary to remove Stone’s suit, to explicitly show Stone as a strong woman rather than just a strong person, but you can’t deny that certain male members of the audience would undoubtedly get a thrill from seeing Bullock in her undies. Even the final scene lingered far too long on Bullock’s slim toned body and once again, you could argue that watching her rise out of the water was extremely symbolic yet I’m sure the most memorable part of that moment for many is the close up tracking of her legs and buttocks.

At least they didn’t glam Bullock up too much. I think I would have walked out if Stone had been painted up like a space bound clown.

It’s commendable that Bullock’s character wasn’t given a love interest beyond the occasional flirty moments with Kowalski but then why bring in the sappy back story about a lost child? It’s vitally important that mainstream cinema shows a myriad of female personalities beyond the ‘mother’ or ‘lover’ archetypes and while Gravity certainly makes huge strides in this direction, I’d love to see just one Hollywood film resist temptation to fall into any of these clich├ęs. Why avoid most of them only to give in at the last hurdle?

One day, a female character of strength will be written who is neither objectified nor given masculine traits in order to survive. But until that day comes, don’t go calling Gravity revolutionary just yet. Cuaron’s movie is certainly a step in the right direction but we’ve got a long way to go still before women hold equal footing in cinema. Maybe Bullock claimed Gravity is a “human action film” because she was too embarrassed to admit that the movie isn’t as feminist as it might first appear.

I can’t argue with her decision to label the film “human”. It’s just unfortunate that use of the word “human” here refers more to the male half of the population.

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