Here’s one thing I’ve never said upon exiting an action film: “Those accusations of sexism were totally unfounded.” Because I always think they’re founded. One of the hazards of listening to about ten pop culture podcasts is that when a new movie really hits, you better believe all ten podcasts are going to discuss it in NPR levels of detail. By the time I see most films, I’ve already heard arguments about sexism, racism, appropriation, and homophobia, and I’m basically writing my thesis as my popcorn hits the bag. So I was entirely prepared to be incensed by Alfonso Curón’s Gravity after hearing Josh Larsen of Filmspotting describe George Clooney’s character as a mansplaining Buzz Lightyear with Jiminy Cricket pretensions. But upon exiting this particular action film, all I could think was, “Those accusations of sexism were totally unfounded.”
Larsen leveled the charge of mild sexism against Gravity because of the supposedly patronizing nature of Clooney’s Matt Kowalski—a space hero always eager to rescue space newbie, Ryan Stone—played by Sandra Bullock (a.k.a., the queen of 2013). Normally, I’d be totally on board with this accusation, but Kowalski’s defining characteristic is his seniority. Not only is the man seriously greying, but the film reminds us at least four times that he’s breaking the record for time spent in space. He’s literally been doing this job longer than any other living being in the known universe—EVER. Stone, on the other hand, is on her maiden voyage. And she isn’t even a real astronaut. She’s a scientist who happened to end up in space after a series of unfortunate events. Despite the fact that she’s clearly coded as competent and highly intelligent, she also frequently comments on how much she’d really rather not be in space right now. And, honestly, who can blame her? So having the veteran Kowalski teach the rookie Stone how she can ultimately save herself doesn’t seem so much sexist as the basis of every cop movie ever made—if you change one of those pronouns, of course.
This pronoun shift is significant not only because female protagonists in action films—who aren’t wearing heels and corsets—are rare but because this particular female protagonist is allowed to represent humanity itself. Individual (sadly, usually white) women are allowed to stand in for themselves or for all women but never for mankind. Because mankind is, shockingly, always depicted as a man. Granted, this makes little biological sense because, well, nipples. Nonetheless, women have historically never been allowed to shed their gendered baggage, so it’s striking that Stones’s primal journey from the abyss to rebirth to her ultimate steps on terra firma isn’t depicted as some allegory of ovulation. She’s simply allowed to be human.
Ryan isn’t Ripley, and she isn’t Barbarella. She inhabits the space between traditional genders that houses, oh, I’d say 90% of the women I know, whose Facebook walls are filled with images of baby pandas and rants about Michael Bloomberg. And, I mean, her name is Ryan Stone. Even an undergraduate engaging in her first close reading would be able to point out that perhaps that name is significant to this whole gender discussion. He’s quite subtle, that Jonas Curón.
When Stone sheds the boxy spacesuit and floats in her underthings, her blunt haircut and toned, athletic figure don’t code her as your typical leading lady. Ridiculously attractive though she may be, the camera doesn’t cut her body into sexy, non-threatening bits meant to arouse a theater full of 16-year-old boys. She’s shot as a human, not a woman. And even though her backstory involves the loss of a child—which would seem to highlight her most prototypical lady side—the filmmaker’s decision not to include flashbacks or any discussion of the child’s father, makes this heartache less specific to one woman and more a signifier of immense human loss. All viewers are intended to identify with Stone because, well, her last name is Stone. They might as well have called her Ms. Carbon or Lady Primeval. Allowing a woman the symbolic right to be human above all else is meaningful. And it’s far more innovative than any of the film’s technological marvels—stunning though they may be.
Now, having said all this, I do have a few suggestions for how Kowalski could have improved his treatment of Stone. First, don’t be a space creeper. When a woman without oxygen is hurtling into the abyss, attempting to grab hold of a busted spaceship with clumsy astronaut fingers, it’s really not the time to ask if she fancies you. I’m pretty sure sexual harassment laws are valid in zero gravity, so anytime would be a bad time. But minutes before presumed death is a particularly bad time. Second, don’t call a 49-year-old woman a girl. I know her face and body don’t appear to have aged since she was driving that bus in 1994. But she’s supposed to be an accomplished scientist about to hit the half-century mark. A little respect should be paid.