By Rachael Kelly (PhD)
Originally published in Infinite Earths (online; November 2013)
Let’s get this out of the way before we begin: Gravity is a must-see science fiction movie. It has breadth, it has scale, it has tension, it has breathtaking visuals, and it has — hold the phone — actual science. Yes, ladies and gentlemen: that qualifier at the start of your genre description is not there for show: Gravity wears its “this could actually happen” credentials front and centre, and so diligent is the research behind the movie that it has managed to acquire a hearty thumbs up from none other than the second man to set foot on the moon. In a review for The Hollywood Reporter, Buzz Aldrin pronounced himself “extravagantly impressed” by the science on display in the movie, and, as far as authenticating accolades come, it doesn’t get much more authoratitive than this. Now, there’s certainly an argument to be made that this isn’t necessarily a good thing: we use science and movies to satisfy very different impulses within the human psyche, and advancements in human knowledge very rarely go hand in hand with an aesthetically pleasing zero-g explosion, a mutant rampage, or an alien invasion, all of which are generally pretty good reasons to watch some sci-fi. Gravity‘s great strength, however, is that it allows the dramatic tension to flow directly from the facts about current realities in space travel — hyperbolised, sure; catastrophised, oh, very much so — but the narrative’s main thrust is based around the idea that this is something that could absolutely happen; it just hasn’t happened yet. And this makes for a very effective movie.
That said, while it shoots for perfect (and comes remarkably close), the movie is let down by a number of points, some of them niggly, others less so. For one thing, the filmmakers have fudged their science in a couple of places, for reasons that make narrative sense (the difference in orbital trajectories between the Hubble telescope and the International Space Station would have made for a much shorter movie in which everyone dies really quickly and with much less fuss), and for reasons that make visual sense (do we really want to see photorealistic cloud and haze obscuring the breathtaking beauty of planet Earth whenever the camera swings around to capture the place we call home in lingering, reverent long shot?). And, more than once, Mission Specialist Ryan Stone owes her continued existence to an almost magical ability to avoid the high-speed death cloud of orbital debris that manages to shred two space stations, a shuttle, and pretty much everything else in the skies above Earth. It’s a neat trick, but, given that Mission Commander Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) also pulls it off on at least one occasion, maybe NASA were road-testing some kind of prototype debris-repellent spacesuits? If that’s the case, of course, then they’re due a refund on the suit worn by Flight Engineer Shariff Dasari — the first member of the team to die by shrapnel strike — and this, arguably, leads us into a consideration of the movie’s more serious issues: some unsettling racial and gender politics that see the one and only non-white cast member given no face at all (and have him killed him off without fuss or ceremony), and undermine the female lead’s agency through a gender discourse that defaults to essentialism.
This is, of course, in some respects catastrophically unfair. Gravity is not only not that sci-fi movie, but it’s actively seeking to avoid being that sci-fi movie: you know, the one where women are scantily-clad objects of lust for the hegemonically masculine hero, and anyone with dark skin is automatically plotting the end of Earth as we know it. But, in many ways, that makes it all the more disjunctive when Gravity allows some traditionally problematic discourses to seep to the surface.
It hasn’t been a particularly good year to be a gender theorist and a science fiction fan (and it’s been a terrible year to be a gender theorist and a Trekkie): Oblivion gave us a stylishly conceived Monstrous Feminine; Elysium gave us twin ends of the female stereotype in a child-murdering megalomaniac and a nurturant, sacrificing mother; Star Trek Into Darkness gave us Carol Marcus in her underpants and a Lieutenant Uhura who thinks that a life-or-death mission to Q’onoS is the time to pick a fight with her boyfriend about his emotional distance. This in itself is not necessarily unusual: scholars have long noted the tension that exists between science fiction and representations of gender: “The dominant trend in science fiction,” argue Geoff King and Tania Krzywinska (2000) in Science Fiction Cinema: From Outerspace to Cyberspace, “is to represent women as objects of the gaze, as helpers to and prizes for the hero, or as ‘othered’ aliens” (p. 41). They cite Sigourney Weaver’s landmark performance as Ellen Ripley in Alien (Scott, 1979) — a movie that has drawn much praise for its progressive construction of femininity — as an early example of a narrative that began to deconstruct the gender discourse of the genre and posit an alternative mode of performing the female in a science fiction setting. It’s worth noting, however, that, although in Alien Ripley is configured as equal to (and in many cases more capable than) her male counterparts, and the fact of her femininity is tangential to the plot, her character was originally supposed to have been male — a fact that casts her non-hegemonic construction in another light altogether — and, moreover, the movie’s sequel (Aliens; Cameron, 1986), its heroine now definitively female, devotes its main narrative arc to “re-feminizing” (Mainon, 2006: 193) the character through situating her as mother-figure to the ten-year-old child Newt. Moreover, as Rikke Schubart (2007) notes, the extended cut of the movie goes further and establishes Ripley as a biological mother: “In the original 137-minute theatrical release of the film, Ripley had no family,” says Schubart. “No husband or children. In the extended version aired on television in 1987 (available on English distribution) Ripley had a daughter. In 1999, a 154-minute director’s cut showed Cameron’s conception of Ripley’s character as a mother with a loss: On Earth Ripley cries over her daughter Amy, who has died at the age of sixty-two. ‘I promised I’d be home for her birthday. Her eleventh birthday.’ In the director’s cut, the ten-year-old Newt fills in for Ripley’s ten-year-old daughter” (p. 80).
All of which is a rather long-winded way of saying science fiction movies, generally speaking, have a hard time with women, and even when they manage to work out those issues and create a genuinely progressive, independent action heroine whose agency is not dependent on a male counterpart, the narratives often spend quite some time mitigating any presumed emasculatory threat embodied in that construction by specifically and insistently situating her as motivated by conventionally feminine concerns. Terminator 2‘s Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) is fighting to protect her young son. Ellen Ripley is fighting to rescue a surrogate daughter in the hope of redeeming herself for the loss of her child. “By connecting Ripley’s power (and, by extension, female power) to motherhood,” argues Judith Grant, “the film shows the impossibility of female power without martyrdom” (1993: 171).
What does this have to do with Gravity? Both a little and a lot. From the outset, it’s clear that Gravity has ambitions over and above the standard popcorn-muching science fiction spectacle: it’s spectacular, all right, but in a manner that demands engagement with the text and rewards the audience for active watching. There’s a moment, very early into the movie, when the careful viewer will suddenly pull up sharp and realise that, what they’ve seen so far — possibly eight to ten minutes of footage (this reviewer makes no claim to be the sort of careful viewer in question) — has been shot in one Hitchcockian long take, gliding around outer space like a Clooney with a brand new jetpack, and relying on sound cues to direct our attention to where it needs to be. This only gets more impressive when you realise that, unlike Hitchcock and his penchant for the tricksy, very little of what the camera is capturing is actually there: it’s one thing to move fluidly around a three-dimensional set populated with actors trained to hit their marks; it’s another thing entirely to rely on a series of rigs and the power of the imagination to fill in the backdrop until the SFX guys can get their hands on it in post, and to go ahead and film that according to a picture that, in the moment, exists only in the mind of director Alfonso Cuarón. This is the work of a master in his field, and Cuarón, who co-wrote the screenplay with son Jonás, brings to bear a vision for the movie that evidences an informed and critical knowledge of both filmmaking in general and the conventions genre in which he is working. Nowhere is this more evident than in his decision to make his lead character — on whose shoulders rests the entire dramatic thrust of the movie — female.
This is an important choice, and, by Hollywood logic, a risky one: the fact that science fiction’s target audience is young, white males (regardless of any demongraphic evidence about actual consumption patterns) is an aphorism that continues to hold true for the major studios and, therefore, continues to influence gender discourses in mainstream sci-fi movie output. Cuarón’s decision, then, to frame his movie as a female story, with virtually no male presence at all after the first act, is clearly an act of transgression and challenge to prevailing assumptions, and inescapably demonstrates both his engagement with and rejection of these discourses. Evidence? The director himself says that he came under pressure to change Stone’s gender: “When I finished the script,” he told a panel at ComicCon, “there were voices that were saying, ‘well, we should change it to a male lead.’ Obviously they were not powerful enough voices, because we got away with it. But the sad thing is that there is still that tendency” (Silverstein and Cadenas, 2013). If that sounds like a depressing thing to hear in 2013, that’s because it is: Gravity‘s worldwide gross currently (as of 28 November) stands at $578 million, female lead notwithstanding, so Stone’s gender is clearly not the box office poison of conventional wisdom, and yet, thirteen years into the twenty-first century, a filmmaker with Cuarón’s clout is still obliged to fight to keep her in his picture. That he did — that he made Ryan female in the first place — should not be an act of rebellion akin to placing a woman on the bridge of the starship Enterprise in 1966, and yet, it seems, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
However, for all of the conviction, insubordination and courage that is unfortunately still necessary to put a female lead at the forefront of an action movie, the discourses that inform Stone’s characterisation are not entirely unproblematic. What’s given with one hand is undermined with another, and, as it turns out, the reason we’re able to have our female lead is because, no matter how progressive the narrative that situates her as its raison d’etre, she remains hamstrung by a gender paradigm that defaults into essentialism and denies, at every stage, her ability to spearhead her own rescue.
“In science fiction,” argue King and Krzywinska, “gender differences often overlap with other binary distinctions. Science and rationality are conventionally gendered as masculine and often juxtaposed with nature, the supernatural and the irrational, which are constructed as feminine. […] The male hero figure, according to this reading, must prove his masculinity by defeating the alien invaders or the dehumanising force and by rescuing the beseiged heroine. In this reading of science fiction all types of difference tend to be subsumed to the preservation of conventional gender roles” (2000: 39). It doesn’t take much more than a superficial analysis to map this paradigm onto the gender discourses of Gravity: Bullock’s Stone is conceived of as Earth/nature-affiliated in her distaste for her extra-terrestrial environment (in contrast to Clooney’s Kowalski and, indeed, Paul Sharma’s Flight Engineer Dasari, who are both comfortable in and excited by their surroundings); Stone’s response to the initial debris cloud assault is life-threatening panic, while Kowalski remains calm (though urgent) and in control of the situation; when faced with severing their tether and allowing Kowalski to drift away to his death versus risking both their lives to save his, Stone’s emotion-driven (irrational) response is to insist that she will save his life, regardless of the cost, while Kowalski’s calm, rational appraisal of the situation allows him to sacrifice one life (his own) rather than two. It’s Kowalski’s level-headedness that Stone looks to in order to survive; he moderates her instinct towards over-emotionalism and formulates their initial escape plan, providing her with the information and practical skills that she will require in his absence. Narratively, this makes considerable sense: Kowalski is the experienced astronaut, Stone the novice — a scientist rather than an adventurer, on her first mission outside of Earth’s atmosphere. However, look a little closer, and one is forced to question the imperative behind establishing this relationship dynamic in the first place: it serves to rationalise Stone’s initial panic and her failure to think clearly through their options, and to naturalise her reliance on Kowalski and her assumption that he will lead them both to safety. In other words, it allows the narrative to construct its gender relations in a manner remarkably similar to King and Krzywinska’s notion of the science fiction ideal.
But Kowalski cannot, ultimately, save them, of course, and it might appear that Stone’s ability to survive alone and without his guidance — and Kowalski’s inability to save himself, let alone the “beseiged heroine” — goes some way towards recuperating this earlier discourse. It does — but it also doesn’t. On the one hand, Stone demonstrates clear resourcefulness, logical reasoning, and technical ability, all of which, critically, allow her to formulate the plan that makes it possible for her to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere and survive the crisis that kills all other members of her mission. And yet even this moment of triumph is handed to Kowalski, who, by this stage, has been dead for about one diegetic hour: appearing to Stone as a hallucination as she waits for death in the lowered-oxygen environment of the crippled Soyuz module, he chides her for giving up so easily and suggests that the landing rockets could be used to propel the module to the Chinese space station, which still has a functional escape pod. Stone, realising that this represents her last chance at survival, mutters, “You’re a clever son-of-a-bitch, Matt,” and dials the oxygen back up, determined, now, to live.
And, yes, it would certainly be true that Matt was “a clever son-of-a-bitch” if he’d come up with the plan. The thing is, he didn’t. Kowalski is dead; he died without knowing that the Soyuz was out of fuel, and there was no possible way that he prepped Stone for this possibility or suggested the tactics that ultimately save the day. This was all Stone — and yet she, and the narrative, hands credit to the male hero. Even when he doesn’t rescue her, the movie insists that he does.
Moreover, while the characters operate as broad archetypes rather than fully fleshed-out people (which, I would argue, works to the film’s advantage), Stone alone is afforded a back-story, and her motivation is very much in line with the “re-feminizing” discourse applied to Ellen Ripley in Aliens: she was a mother, and her child, at some unspecified point in the past, died, aged four, in a tragic accident. This is information that the narrative returns to in her Soyuz-based hallucination, when Kowalski’s shade suggests that it’s the reason Stone has decided to give up, rather than continue to fight for survival. “I get it,” he tells her. “Your kid died; it doesn’t get any rougher than that.” On the surface, it’s difficult to take exception to the words, except for the fact that the explanation they offer is entirely unnecessary: Stone is exhausted, demoralised, traumatised, and, essentially, without hope. She cannot contact Mission Control in Houston; she has limited supplies of oxygen; the Kessler Syndrome induced by the debris cloud has all but eliminated any possibility of long-term survival or rescue; and, as far as she can tell, there is no way for her to make her own way back to Earth. Her decision to opt for a painless suicide is intelligible on its own, and the reference to her daughter is superfluous — the only rationale for including it in this scene is, arguably, to justify including it at all within the movie. Kowalski has no similar motivational narrative: he is a cipher, without history or future, permitted, simply to be. The most we hear of him is that he has an ex-wife, mentioned as a throwaway comment, and a stock of old stories that may or may not be true; it’s impossible to judge, as not one of them is allowed to play out in full. Yet we’re required to read Stone as Mother — bereaved and looking for meaning — and to understand her presence in space as an extension of the loss she has experienced, her effort to escape the pain of her child’s death. Her scientific achievement, her value to the mission, her technical prowess and wealth of knowledge, are subordinated to gender essentialism, and Mother becomes her defining characteristic: both explanation for her gender transgression and, ultimately, what saves her from it.
None of the above, however, should be read as evidence against Gravity‘s importance as a challenge to and articulation of the gender paradigms embedded in mainstream science fiction filmmaking — more a reminder that there are discourses buried so deeply within popular culture that they find themselves reproduced unconsciously, even within a text that consciously sets out to challenge them. As such, from a gender perspective, I would argue, Gravity gets a (mostly) unequivocal pass: by placing gender front and centre, the movie is at least attempting to open up a dialogue with the representation of woman in science fiction, rather than quietly stepping into line with the covert female/emasculation theme espoused by the likes of, for example, Oblivion, or the overt sexualisation of the female body as discursive justification for its presence in the presumed all-male world of the science-fiction text (Star Trek Into Darkness, I’m glaring daggers at you). It has a point to make, and it makes this point, clearly and overtly, making a case — unfortunately still necessary — for the presence of women on their own terms within the text. It does not make this case perfectly, and, in centralising the gender of its protagonist, it also cannot help but buy into some of the discourses it’s purportedly seeking to challenge, but the fact is, it tries, and the only way progress is made is by those who are prepared to try. Star Trek (the original series) has rightly been criticised for the misogynistic and racist discourses encoded into the figure of Uhura, but it remains an early attempt at attempting to visualise how to do things differently. Does it succeed? Not entirely, and it suffers, in particular, from the fact that questions of race and gender are now so foregrounded that the 1960s ethos that Star Trek attempted to problematise (while — perhaps inescapably, given the white and largely male privilege enjoyed by the creators — remaining limited by the prevailing socio-cultural mores that shaped the series’ worldview in the first place) echoes within the text in a manner that is now considered at best unreconstructed; at worst, indicative of a discourse of the very prejudices it seeks to avoid. And yet Star Trek remains, within popular culture, a moment of challenge to the status quo; an articulation of a fundamental inequity in the predominant power structures of its era and an optimistic looking forward to a future where those structures are substantively different. Without moments of challenge — to which science fiction, as a mythic space, is well-suited — hegemony is allowed to remain invisible through a tacit acceptance of its structures and discourses. This is what the gender discourse of Gravity seeks to problematise and, though it cannot avoid defaulting back to conventional signifiers of femininity in order to mitigate the threat embodied in Ryan Stone (by virtue of her usurpation of the body of the male hero), it is, nevertheless, engaging in the sort of agenda setting that Gene Roddenberry might understand very well. And that’s the highest compliment that this die-hard Trekkie could possibly bestow.
Grant, Judith. (1993). Fundamental Feminism: Contesting the Core Concepts of Feminist Theory (NewYork: Routledge)
King, Geoff and Krzywinska, Tania (2000). Science Fiction Cinema: From Outerspace to Cyberspace (London: Wallflower Press)
Mainon, Dominique (2006). Modern Amazons: Warrior Women on Screen (Pompton Plains, NJ: Limelight Editions)
Schubart, Rikke (2007). Super Bitches and Action Babes: The Female Hero in Popular Cinema, 1970-2006 (Jefferson, NC: Mc Farland & Co.)
Silverstein, M and Cadenas, K. (2013, July 24). Alfonso Cuaron Defends Having a Female Lead in Gravity. Retrieved November 30, 2013, from IndieWire.com: http://blogs.indiewire.com/womenandhollywood/alfonso-cuaron-defends-having-female-lead-in-gravity