The Gravity of ‘Gravity’ / by Tara Kaushal

October 2013: Gravity, called both “viscerally thrilling” and “deadly boring”, has become a global blockbuster, and is being pushed as a “must-see at IMAX right now” by all and sundry. Apart from the breathtaking cinematography and technological excellence, the film’s portrayal of the female protagonist, Dr Ryan Stone played by Sandra Bullock, is one of its strongest points.

*Plot Spoilers

Us jaded media consumers can tell from a mile away when a star or star-pair is due to have a film released. As the stars acquiesce to promotional and PR tours, the interviews, general interest, red-carpet-sightings, romantic rumours swirl toward a crescendo, and reach an enduring frenzy if the film is a success. So, we knew from afar that Gravity was coming.

I also began to sense that it was bound to be ground breaking from a gender studies point of view. Sandra Bullock—50 years old, sans make-up, unsexualised—had been getting the privileged media coverage reserved for revered male stars, overshadowing the other half of the lead pair, one of these aforementioned men, George Clooney. (This was before I realised that the movie does not have a lead ‘pair’ per se.) I’ve been watching closely as she continues to hold centre stage, with an unparalleled number of interviewers taking an in-depth interest in her holistic self, going beyond the inane beauty/favourite brand/fashion sense/weight-loss regime/love-sex life questions reserved for female actors.

We saw the film a few days ago, a spectacular 3D IMAX experience that blew our minds. Once we recovered from our pacing hearts, I realised this unusual media phenomenon is because of both—Bullock as a mature person and actor, and Alfonso Cuarón’s film and the role she’s essayed in it, that has allowed her to be perceived as such. Because her role is that of the smart victor, not the sexy peripheral in this sci-fi action drama, her media strategy and portrayal is not limited to the physical dimension of her personality.

Mission Specialist Dr Ryan Stone, a first-time space traveller, is accompanied by veteran astronaut Commander Matt Kowlaski. Space debris renders their shuttle Explorer useless, and they travel to the International Space Station to try to evacuate to Earth, talking about their lives on the way.

Stone is smart, not sexy. She’s a doctor and an astronaut, and for a long time, you see only her make-up-free face through the visor of her bulky suit. Even when she does remove it to reveal frill-free, practical inners, the focus is on the physical fitness of her body, a necessity for an astronaut one would presume, and not its ability to titillate. In a global culture that puts increasing pressure on women to look flawless, whatever other talents and qualifications they may possess, prioritises thinness over health and places a high premium on looking young, Bullock’s naturalness sets a refreshing example. Of course, she’s white, thin, beautiful, but not superhumanly so.

In a capacity best described as a ‘support role’, worst as ‘eye-candy’, Clooney’s character chooses to die after these 20 minutes, to give Stone a chance of survival, in a plot device to necessitate/facilitate/stimulate the hero’s dormant heroicness. Stone battles her inexperience, fear and seemingly insurmountable odds, gets advice from Kowlaski who she hallucinates up in a bit of deus ex machina at her point of resignation, and makes human contact in an unfamiliar language over a satellite phone. She embarks on a solitary fight for survival à la Tom Hanks in Castaway, with only her smarts and tenacity, not to mention physical strength, at her disposal. Where she starts nauseous, uncertain and vulnerable, she steps up to the plate when required, and rescues herself. No man necessary, thank you very much.

Though the plot thins, the characters are a tad too cardboard for a deep exploration of their psychological progression through this trial by fire and the dialogue slackens, the film floats along on stunning awe-inspiring visuals of space, tightly paced action and Bullock’s powerful acting. Stone emerges a hero as her capsule lands in a lake and she breaks to its surface and swims to the shore. In the film’s final moments she is granted the honour of the hero shot, from a low angle that makes her look large and victorious, usually reserved for portrayals of dominant males in sci-fi, battle or superhero films. Contrast her triumphant surfacing from the water, a fit body encased in asexual ‘work clothes’ being saluted by the camera, with Ursula Andress’s emerging from the water in the iconic Dr No scene: sexy, bikini-clad, stereotyped and pandering to the male gaze.

This is the supporting role women have traditionally played in action and survival stories (and almost all other genres), shown, as Virginia Woolf noted in 1929, “in their relation to men.” At a press conference at San Diego Comic Con in July this year, Cuarón, also the scriptwriter of the film, admitted to facing pressure to change the protagonist to a male one; Bullock called him “brave” for sticking to his guns. Stone’s own father wanted a son; it is an obvious and important lesson that she’s a child that would do any parent proud.

In Gravity there is a total absence of romantic love, not between her and Kowlaski, not even in their back-stories. This also challenges the genderist notion that the emotional is women’s domain (as protagonists and watchers of chick-flicks, rom-coms and drama) and that the cerebral and the physical (science, sci-fi, action, thrillers, rescue sagas, spaces outside the domestic and emotional sphere)… well, leave that to the men. Stone is nuanced: deeply depressed and unexuberant—she’s lost her daughter and loves the silence of space; alongside, she’s inspiring, in a leadership position in space doing science. She’s a human superhero.

Motherhood and fertility are recurring themes in Gravity; according to Cuarón “there was an understated but vital correlation of her being a maternal presence against the backdrop of Mother Earth.” During the phone conversation (revealed to be with a Greenland Inuit in the accompanying short film Aningaaq by Jonás Cuarón), in what she believes is her last human contact, Stone hears his baby crying and a dog howling—reminding her at once of her loss and the sobering cycle of life. In a post-modern gendered reading, I reiterate that motherhood, nurture, depression (so-called ‘feminine’ traits) need not be at odds with the so-called ‘masculine’ territory of heroism, greatness, career, intelligence. One must acknowledge and accept people, and their individuality and multifacettedness beyond stereotypes in all divisive spheres—gender, politics, religion, race…

It is heartening to see the enormous success of the film because it pushes the audience’s boundaries, opening their palate to a female hero not typecast by gender, sexual or body definitions; similar to Ellen Ripley in the 1979 film Alien. Its success will also allow those concerned with the bottom line to explore non-formulaic non-stereotypical films. Says Bullock: “It’s about making money, and if studios see that a female brings in audiences… hopefully that will become the norm.”

An edited version of this column appeared in Governance Now in October 2013.