One small step for woman

Recent sci-fi sensation Gravity (by Alfonso Cuarón) stars Sandra Bullock as Dr Ryan Stone, medical engineer and space debutant, joined by veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) on a near future space shuttle mission. During their spacewalk, a Russian missile’s strike on a disused satellite sets off a chain reaction and the duo is bombarded with a cloud of space debris. As a result, their shuttle is destroyed and they find themselves floating through space.

Here we have the chilling scenario of being adrift and alone in a vast emptiness. It really is the eerie material of nightmares, and Bullock imparts Dr Stone’s desperation and despair beautifully. This performance, coupled with disorienting shots – made all the more unsettling in 3D – makes for incredibly tense, edge-of-your-seat viewing through which one does imagine oneself in Dr Stone’s position. The film’s realism is given a boost by some very accurate physics with only a few snags, the most notable and quite literal one being when Dr Stone’s foot gets caught on the Soyuz cables.

It is exciting to watch Sandra Bullock as Dr Stone. To have a female lead is cause for celebration in itself when it comes to Hollywood, especially in the male-dominated sci-fi genre. To have a lead who is also a scientist and over 40 is as commonplace as gold dust, which is a dreadful shame. All this flies in the face of adversity, as director Alfonso Cuarón had to fight to keep the lead a woman: “When I finished the script, there were voices that were saying, ‘well, we should change it to a male lead,'” Cuarón said. “Obviously they were not powerful enough voices, because we got away with it. But the sad thing is that there is still that tendency.”

It is refreshing to have a female lead who isn’t just a cardboard cut-out “strong woman” character, but has a few more nuances

Kudos from Team Feminism so far. Yet, the film has a few niggles. The main criticism that comes to mind is the stark contrast between Stone and Kowalski. Stone is scared and panicky throughout the majority of the film, requiring reassurance and step-by-step instruction the calm and collected Kowalski is only too happy to provide. Even when Stone has given up all hope, her conscience assumes the form of Kowalski to spur her on. All of this is somewhat understandable: after all, Stone is a space first-timer and Kowalski is a seasoned astronaut.

I do wonder about reactions had the genders been chopped and changed. An older and more senior female astronaut guiding a fearful, younger man? An older man guiding a younger and afraid man? Or perhaps the only way to render this aspect of the film immune from criticism would be for both to be women?


Sandra Bullock as Dr Ryan Stone in Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity

It seems to me that in order for the audience to empathise with Dr Stone, Cuarón wanted us to feel her terror, the origin of the patent fear we see: the lead needed to be apprehensive. However, reversing Stone and Kowalski’s genders would have meant not having a female lead.

Even though Dr Stone appears less competent and intrepid than Kowalski, she is no Wendy Torrance (of The Shining fame) in a space suit. She fights through her fears, albeit with a few pushes and handy hints from Kowalski. It is refreshing to have a female lead who isn’t just a cardboard cut-out “strong woman” character, but has a few more nuances.

It would have been more satisfying, however, to have seen Kowalski lose his cool, even for a second and even if Dr Stone didn’t bear witness to it. With Kowalski being nothing but the proverbial cucumber throughout, both characters’ emotional states are almost absolutes; a bit more depth to Kowalski wouldn’t have gone amiss.

Another area worthy of mention is some of the imagery used. Notably, there are myriad poignant shots of the Earth from orbit, something I will never tire of seeing and something Gravity does particularly well. Also featured are recurring themes of birth, for example when Dr Stone reaches and makes it inside the nearby Soyuz: she curls up, foetus-like, with an ‘umbilical cord’ visible.

Some may say that Stone is a mother before she’s anything else

Cuarón has said that his decision to make the lead a woman stems from his wanting her to be a “maternal presence against the backdrop of Mother Earth”. Some may say that Stone is a mother before she’s anything else: after all, the main thing I remember about her life is that she had a daughter who tragically passed. Whether this increases the ease with which the viewer can identify with her and adds depth to her character or whether it’s a tad cliché flirting with a mother archetype, I’m unsure. The jury’s still out on Cuarón’s reasoning, save to say that in my ideal world he would have wanted Dr Stone to be a woman “because women are underrepresented in sci-fi and science and I wanted to help change that”.

Final words? I loved this film and will be making a beeline for the nearest vendor when the DVD becomes available. Its failing of the Bechdel test can be said to be inconsequential as it has but two characters. Women scientists (actually, all women!) can take pleasure in the fact that they’re now somewhat better represented in film. Although she may have missed the mark in some places, Dr Stone will, at least in my mind, be joining the ranks of other female sci-fi heroines – think Sarah Connor, Captain Janeway, Dana Scully… I daresay that Gravity is one small step for woman, one giant leap for womankind.

Video is Gravity official trailer from YouTube, Warner Bros. Pictures, all rights reserved.

Photo is still from the film, of Sandra Bullock floating inside the spaceship in a spacesuit, looking concerned, taken from official Facebook fanpage.

Katie Masters is a physics undergraduate and, she hopes, future journalist. She blogs about women in pop culture at and writes in more of a lifestyle bent at