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Does It Matter That ‘Gravity’ Has a Woman Protagonist?

Gravity, the Alfonso Cuarón-helmed space odyssey that nearly everyone loves, broke October box-office records over the weekend, taking in over $56.6 million. It has also been sold to us as groundbreaking on another score: the gender of its protagonist. In every pre-release interview, both Cuarón and Sandra Bullock have been at pains to point out that it’s a rare thing to have an action movie with a female protagonist.
To Collider, for example, Bullock said:

I was always longing to do, emotionally and physically, what my male counterparts always got to do.  I just felt envious, every time I saw a movie that I was in awe of, and it was usually a male lead.  And those kinds of roles weren’t available.  They just weren’t being written… Jonas and Alfonso wrote this specifically as a woman.  It wasn’t an afterthought.  I think it was the integral part of the story.  I don’t want to say that’s revolutionary, but it’s revolutionary.

Bullock is not wrong. While it would be an exaggeration to say there have been no women in the action-adventure genre of late — there was Aeon Flux, and, uh, Lara Croft, and that’s not even getting into The Hunger Games — what is rare is pegging an aesthetically ambitious and Oscar-worthy project like this one to the stardom of a woman. It’s not that Bullock is, in any sense, a risky box-office choice — it’s that amid the serious pageantry of the big-budget Oscar-bait movie, the genre is usually male-dominated. So now we know that with the right star, yes, even women can have central roles in this kind of work.

But like all claims of gender-busting in Hollywood, the hype, if anything, manages to frustrate the reality. Watching the film with its gender ambitions presented in advance — and let me be clear that I agree that this is a thoroughly enjoyable and visually stunning film! — it is hard not to be frustrated by the ways in which the Gravity script makes the character’s gender important. Without giving too much away, let me say that Bullock’s character is given a slightly superfluous backstory involving a dead child. And that backstory is frustratingly oblique, in a way Slate’s Dana Stevens called “emotionally manipulative.” Whether or not you felt manipulated by it is subjective, but I kept wondering if a film about a male protagonist would have had the character’s inner emotional atmosphere pivot on the same point. And, lucky me, I had the George Clooney character — really something more of a spiritual cipher — there to say: in fact, no.

Far be it from me to deny that for most people, the death of a child would be a central psychological drama. I concede, too, that it would lead someone like Bullock’s character to retreat from the world so thoroughly that only a close brush with death in the earth’s atmosphere could shake her out of it. It isn’t the realism of the situation that I question; it’s the placement of this character in a rubric of “groundbreaking” for “women” that turns on my skepticism bat signal.

Something that might be worthy of that title, “groundbreaking for women,” is the fact that NASA recently selected women as four of its eight new astronaut candidates. And that consequently, out here in the real world, it is getting harder and harder to deny women entry to the higher-end sciences, not that people aren’t trying just as hard to continue justifying their exclusion.

It’s certainly true that an iconic Hollywood blockbuster performance can go a long way towards cementing some young woman’s dream of space, but such connections are always speculative at best. And it isn’t like this film presents Bullock as a kind of Tom-Hanks-in-Apollo-13 stoic heroine. Instead, she is presented as unsure, space an ambivalent experience for her. There’s barely a word about the beauty of it from her own mouth; it’s Clooney who gets all the transcendent lines about the awe-inspiring view. It is hard to imagine her character wanting to go up again, to explore, even to take actual risks, after the experience she endured. Which is the sensible position at the end of an ordeal like the one she endured, even realistic. But is it the one that would actually “break ground” for women, as astronauts, actresses slightly below the Bullock pay grade, or anyone else? Well, I guess we’re going to have to wait and see about that.

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