The Feminist Pull of “Gravity”


*This review contains no spoilers.*

The recently released, Gravity, directed by Alfonso Cuaron, is visually stunning. Its amazing cinematography gives audience members the sense of being out there in space, detached from Earth.

Detachment is a key theme of the film (“Detached” is also the title of the teaser trailer released last summer). Related to this, the film has many visual images that evoke birth and gestation. Though pulsing with umbilical cord imagery, it is far from a typical exploration of the meaning of life, birth and death, particularly because it places a woman, Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) front and center, and not as a woman but as a human.

Though the movie is about a shuttle mission, the matter of extreme importance at its center has nothing to do with space travel, the vastness of space nor the technological wizardry that makes space travel come alive for the audience. No, the matter of great importance at the center of the film is human survival.  As noted in this review, the film “gives a visceral charge to the metaphorical sense of being lost and alone in the universe.”

Bullock captures this existential exploration of life not only with great dignity, but in a way that captivates the audience, pulling them to the edge of their seats, tugging at their emotions and amping their adrenaline.

Why is this important for feminists?

Because all too often movies that make audiences’ hearts race or adrenaline rush feature only male leads and incorporate violence-packed action.

Gravity, however, proves that a woman can anchor an action-packed blockbuster that does not have to include violence, superheroes, weapons and/or huge death tolls.

Bullock is stupendous in the role. So good, in fact, that I have already added Speed, The Blind Side, The Proposal, Miss Congeniality, The Heat and, yes, even All About Steve to my “watch again” list. Thankfully, Alfonso Cuaron had the ovaries to defend his choice of casting a female lead. Which brings me to wonder why such a defense even remains necessary.  As this Women and Hollywood post notes, “We hear lots of anecdotal remarks from female directors about the scripts they pitch with female leads and how they are asked to change the gender, but hearing this come from an A-List director is pretty rare.”  As the post later queries,

… If Cuaron is getting shit for writing a woman, imagine what the rest of the people down the line are getting.

Indeed. The fact that a male A-list director has to fight for his choice to cast a female lead in 2013 is disheartening to say the least.

So, what can we as feminists do? Well, the least we can do is see the movie.

Hollywood listens to box-office numbers. We need to put our butts in seats and show there is a mass audience for female-led movies. We can also make sure that we get non-female butts in seats so that the spin about women-led movies only appealing to female audiences can die an overdue death.

Like Bullock, who shared her hope at Comic-Con that Cuaron’s casting of female leads would become the norm, I, too, hope that one day soon it will not be a matter of note that a big-budget, action-packed blockbuster has a female protagonist.

I hope that just as Ryan is released from the grip of earth’s gravitational pull, we can be released from Hollywood patriarchy and the limited films it offers us.

Here’s to many more films like Gravity conveying that women are human, and to the realization that our survival as women is profoundly shaped by the ways media and popular culture depict us (or fails to depict us).

Feel that, feminists? It’s the gravitational pull forcing you to look up showtimes in your area. Listen to that pull. It is an important one.

Photo courtesy of canburak via Creative Commons 2.0.

natalieNatalie Wilson, PhD is a literature and women’s studies scholar, blogger, and author. She teaches at Cal State San Marcos and specializes in the areas of gender studies, feminism, feminist theory, girl studies, militarism, body studies, boy culture and masculinity, contemporary literature, and popular culture.




  1. Olivia Randolph says:

    What a great article. I saw the movie and caught the umbilical cord references but was so perplexed with the movie itself that I did not realize what an important role this is. The difference in gender of the lead role did not affect the plot or feeling of the movie in any way and it would have been the same had Bullock been George Clooney, so much so that I did not notice this to be any different from the norm, but thank God it is. I am glad this article is out there and will go on to share this, along with encouragement to buy a ticket.

  2. How was this a feminist movie? Sandra Bullock hyperventilaties all through the movie in fear, anxiety, and confusion about what to do in the face of this danger, whereas George Clooney comes on with a calm masterfal demeanor, making jokes and assuring Dr. Stone that yes, she can do the right thing and they will both come through and get back to earth. What is feminist about that?

    • Fear is universal, her reactions had nothing to do with being feminine or feminist. They were human reactions. How would you have reacted? Not, how would you tell the character to react ideally, but really, as a person on a first mission in space having gone as badly as this? Wouldn’t you hyperventilate maybe a little? I don’t see how that makes the movie less feminist. Any human being might react as she did and I think that’s valid.

    • I disagree Sally – spoiler alert in the following comments!

      Bullock is most certainly a strong female lead. In the beginning, yes, Dr. Stone flounders. But in the end she triumphs through her own determination, intelligence, and ingenuity. If Clooney had come back and rescued her, it would not have been a feminist film. The fact that Dr. Stone is able to pull herself together and devise a plan to get back on her own merits is what makes this a feminist film. A moment of struggle does not belie her incredible accomplishments in the end.

    • There were times when “Ryan” is hyperventilating and loosing it, but I was more impressed by the times when she was clear and mastered what she needed to do, and I felt like she was in that mode more of the time than in the out of control mode. The Clooney character had a lot more experience than she did. He was her mentor, her guru as it were. We all have teachers. She was brave, and determined, and fierce, and those forces overcame her very human fear. Well done, I say.

    • Yeah, but that’s because Clooney’s character is a seasoned astronaut who is comfortable being up in space. Dr. Stone has never been up in space before and it makes sense for her to act the way she did. In fact, the audience can actually relate to her because her reaction to everything that happened was pretty damn accurate. I think even, in real life, the most experienced astronauts would react the same if they went through what she did. It’s feminist because it portrays women as humans whom other humans can relate to and understand, not just as sexual beings or props for men to look at.

  3. patricia w says:


  4. Mary-Kay Gamel says:

    I agree that having Bullock rather than Clooney survive is a strong statement, and Bullock’s initial weakness (nausea etc.) makes her final triumph more impressive (though less convincing). What I found really banal was the saccharine connection with Bullock’s dead daughter expressed in truly terrible dialogue.

  5. kathy finnerty says:

    I’m sorry but I must have watched a whole different film. This was not feminist it was fantasy.
    First of all– can directors please help the very talented George stop PLAYING GEORGE??
    He is calm and heroic and chatty and flirty and suave even in the throes of death defying danger in space?
    Good for the filmakers/writers for writing a role for a women over 40… but hell,
    SHE WS A DR. and AN ASTRONAUT and all they let her do was breath heavily and be scared out of her skin the entire time?? AND THEN WHEN SHE TOOK HER SPACE SUIT OFF SHES WEARING TIGHT SEXY SHORTY SHORTS AND A TIGHT UNDER SHIRT WITH A PUSH UP BRA??? A dr/astronaut ON a mission? IN space?

    come on!
    (spoiler alett)
    and then even AFTER he’s DEAD George returns ( as George) and saves the day–again?? Selfless, brave, charming heroic George. dead george still has it goin’ on.
    Still the hero even as a ghost?
    I am thrilled they cast Sandy but give her something to DO and show some action that comes from something other than fragmented angst and terror. How about courage and strength?
    He was the hero dead or alive..
    she was wasted.

    • “Dead” George was not a ghost. Dr. Stone imagined him as part of a dream – it helped her remember some vital data (buried in her subconscious) that helped her get to the Chinese orbital satellite.

      Would it have been better if she had been naked when taking her space suit off?

      • This scene in the Chinese spacecraft bothered me so much. Finally, here was Bullock’s moment to show that she had regained control; and yet she couldn’t do so without imagining Clooney’s character egging her on. (Translation: a woman needs a man–even a dead one!–to rescue her.) Feminist my ass.

  6. Thank you for this article. I appreciate the insight and will share this article with others, especially those in the performing arts.

  7. Melissa Tate says:

    I find it interesting that many of the action movies with strong female leads are set in space. Two that come to mind are Alien starring Sigourney Weaver, and Contact with Jodie Foster. I guess women are not allowed to dominate on Earth, but they can be allowed to once they leave the planet. One could be optimistic and think that the filmmakers that set women leading in space are imagining a time in the future where women will lead and what it could be like. (I think the Star Trek series is good to study this with.) From the comment Sally made ( I haven’t seen the movie yet myself) , we see a women leader that relies on a man to help her stay emotionally strong in the movie Gravity. Through Sigourney Weaver’s character in Alien we see a very strong as well as compassionate leader. I think if we see these space films as looking toward the future we can judge not only where we currently are with the gender gap, but the trajectory of the gender gap into the future. Of course this trajectory is not necessarily linear. Sometimes it feels like we take one step forward and two steps back.

  8. Science fiction has always been, I won’t say a feminist’s best friend, but a friend to ALL who want equality, to those who would stand for freeedom of choice, and freedom of thought.

    As a male over 40, my favorite SciFi author is, and has been since I picked such a thing, Anne McCaffery. Not that I like EVERYTHING she writes, definitely not. But she writes / has written some of my favorite books of all time.

    I started reading (mostly fantasy and Science Fiction) somewhere between the ages of 3 and 4, and the idea that a man couldn’t (or shouldn’t) write from a women’s POV, or that a woman couldn’t write female leads that a male would find compelling, were alien to me. And I think I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that much of this can be credited to Sci-fi. Much of sci-fi is about growth, breaching personal and societal boundaries, and being an iconoclast within your own society. It’s about the least expected being the answer, or the hero, and the person at hand being the focus. The heroes are not always men, or women, or even human. Ideas about sexuality can be, and have been, explored, even exploded, and taken beyond our familiar sexual duality. And as Star Trek challenged ideas about race, and some ideas about sex, science fiction literature took things light years further.

    I settled on Science Fiction as my genre of choice because of this very freedom granted authors by sci-fi. Romance, horror, drama, mystery, military, adventure, young adult, history, all this and more are merely different aspects of science fiction, along with some core feminist ideals. I might even go so far as to say THE core ideals.

    It’s always seemed to me to be a shame that most females I grew up around really had no interest in science fiction, and I have been hearted by the recent (20 years or so) rise of the female geek, the female anime fan, and the female science fiction fan, as I believe they are all interwoven. (The female scientist is NOT new.)

    I grew up seeing science fiction as the place where humanity could thrash out our future possibilities, and I have grown old seeing my vision played out. I’m a person who believes that the more eyes and minds are on a problem, the more likely a solution is to be found, and the more diverse the minds, the better.

  9. So it’s un-feminist if somebody is not good at and very nervous about very difficult tasks that they have to do then, Sally. This movie is about Bullock’s character overcoming fears and self doubts to save herself. It would have been boring and not very dramatic if she wasn’t scared about having to get herself back to Earth on her own!

  10. Thank you for writing this article. I have seen too many articles about how un/anti-feminist this movie is when I literally was blown away by how the movie was about a woman–but more importantly, a human with relatable experiences. I am totally amazed at how this movie was made, how they made the male lead an accessory to her story and her character. That is awesome, and such a leap for american film. People probably don’t see how big of a deal it is because this is such a subtle difference but oh boy, it is going to make a difference in terms of what’s to come. I think most people think these other female lead action blockbusters like twilight and hunger games are more feminist, and while I have enjoyed them as movies, they don’t come even close to what Gravity does. They still stick the woman in love triangle plots like her story isn’t worth much without romance.

  11. A movie portraying a woman as a human makes it “feminist”? Why not just call it realistic (except for the numerous scientific flaws) ? Why do people feel the need to stake out some sort of territory here?

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