“Gravity”: The Unbearable Lightness of Being a Woman

In the film Gravity, Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) fulfills what appears to be a prerequisite for women in films: She undresses alone:

Sandra Bullock, Gravity

As a science fiction film fan, I immediately thought of Sigourney Weaver in Alien:

Sigourney Weaver, Alien

At the end of the film, when Ryan Stone crawls out of the water, again in her underwear, I was by then struck as well by Stone’s cropped hair and the camera’s apparent fascination with Stone’s (Bullock’s) physique, both of which can be fairly described as man-like—not unlike her name:

Matt Kowalski: What kind of name is Ryan for a girl?
Ryan Stone: Dad wanted a boy.

While I found Gravity to be a powerful and well-crafted film—stunning cinematography, stellar acting, tight and compelling narrative—I am less enamored by the rugged individualism theme and the need to frame Stone as a (wo)man. The triumph of Stone is one grounded entirely in her conforming to male norms, much of which is portrayed in her androgynous body, boyish haircut, and man’s name (even the “stone” of her last name erases the emotional core of the character that could have been celebrated more fully than the weightless tear scene).

Instead of Gravity, the film possibly should have been titled Oxygen or Breathe, but Gravity ultimately does capture the weight of the male gaze and the weight of the male norm that anchor the motifs and theme of the film—regretfully, not elements celebrating Stone as a woman, but ones that reduce her to the same tired messages coming from Hollywood about the Great White Masculine Hope.

While the film appears to downplay Matt Kowalski (George Clooney)—the quintessential man’s man in film and life and Stone’s cavalier Obi-Wan Kenobi, always there (even in delusion) to make sure she bucks up—that secondary role proves to be a distraction because Stone must assume the qualities Kowalski would have played if the roles were reversed—lest we forget Clooney strips alone in films as well:

George Clooney, The American

The larger message found in Gravity is the inability of mainstream films to celebrate women as women. Consider the superhero makeover of Katniss in the Hunger Games films, as revealed in the second film’s poster:

Catching Fire promotional poster

And Lisbeth Salander in the U.S. film version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, notably her Batman-esque scenes in leather and on her motorcycle (as well as her snarled, “There will be blood”):

Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander in U.S. film, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

The Unbearable Lightness of Being a Woman

A week ago today, I was in the delivery room while my only daughter gave birth to my first granddaughter. That experience was surrounded by the professional brilliance of a nursing staff (all women) who provided my daughter the medical and emotional support that made a difficult and painful experience far less difficult than it could have been.

As a father, I was helpless, watching, worrying.

Once my granddaughter was born, and the baby and mother were healthy and safe, I could not stop considering how this day had held up to everyone the unbearable lightness of being a woman.

Yes, childbirth is a solitary thing, and maybe even heroic, but it is nothing like the rugged individualism myth (childbirth is communal and life-affirming; rugged individualism is competitive and conquering) and it is everything like the essential qualities of women that we should be celebrating: the selflessness, the endurance, and that which we call “maternal.”

But the nurses as well—with their professionalism and care—demonstrated a woman’s world, their pay and status secondary to the doctor (a man).

Just the day before the birth of my granddaughter, Nikki Lee wrote Ride like a girl, a blog exploring how riding a bicycle captures something like being a woman daily: vulnerability, being blamed even when a victim. Lee ends with:

These are just a few of the thousand little environmental microaggressions that you don’t have to deal with when you’re sitting behind the wheel of a car. Any individual one isn’t a big deal, and plenty of cyclists don’t pay active attention to them at all. After a while you just kind of deal with it, because listing out these small annoyances mostly serves to make you feel bad.

At the end of the day, you can always hang up your helmet and declare bike commuting “a great idea and all, but just not worth it”.

What if you didn’t have a choice?

And that brings me back to Gravity, where filmmakers do have choices, and audiences have choices.

Objectifying and reducing women to the male gaze appears to be the choice we are bound to, a gravity of another kind.

One comment

  1. Dawn

    I love the witty title reference to Milan Kundera. I also love how you use three major movies with a heroine that is lauded for being individualistic and rugged and “male” to contrast with the act of childbirth that while brave and heroic isn’t individual, it is communal and renewing and essentially, only a woman’s – it is hers.

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