Jude Ellison Sady Doyle is an In These Times contributing writer. They are the author of Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear… and Why (Melville House, 2016) and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beatdown. You can follow them on Twitter at @sadydoyle.
Chalk one up for progress: The most financially successful, critically acclaimed movie of fall 2013 devotes the vast majority of its running time to a woman talking to herself.
Gravity, director Alfonso Cuarón's first movie since 2006's Children of Men, has made $55 million in its first weekend alone. This is the biggest opening weekend for any Sandra Bullock vehicle, any George Clooney vehicle, or any movie opening in the month of October. And in addition to the piles of cash, the movie has earned unilateral praise from critics.
It's well deserved. Gravity is less a movie-or even a story-than it is an experience: a beautifully orchestrated bit of sensory overload that deploys normally gimmicky extras like IMAX screens and 3-D effects to create visceral awe and terror in the viewer. The plot is brutally simple. Bullock plays Ryan Stone, a rookie astronaut on her first space walk; Clooney plays Matt Kowalski, the veteran who accompanies her and provides most of the spoken exposition; satellite debris hits their shuttle, flinging Bullock into the void. Things only get worse from there.
The dialogue is often clunky, but a movie like this doesn't have to be Shakespeare. Its power is in the visuals: gorgeous, convincing, agoraphobia-triggering shots of the vastness of space, and the many ways things can blow up, catch on fire, or otherwise kill you within it. Buzz words like “immersive” really do apply here. I have a pathological fear of heights, and had to look away from the screen during many of the more impressive shots, so as to be sure that I was not actually in free fall.
Plenty of ink has been spilled over how Gravity will encourage the movie industry to up its game in terms of special effects, and I have no doubt that this will be the case. On a more subtle level, though, it's also making an argument for expanding the stories we're willing to tell about women.
Early on, Clooney disappears, and Bullock is the only actor we see or hear from for nearly two-thirds of the film. And this is done effortlessly, without any moments in which Sandra Bullock has to hammer it through the audience's head that, gosh darn it, she's a girl. We accept the reality of her situation, and our investment in it, as immediately as we accept any of the deadly space debris or floating spheres of fire.
Putting a woman at the center of the story, Cuarón has said, was a way “to strip it from heroists.” Rather than having some well-muscled Vin Diesel type fight off the fundamental indifference of the universe using only his spectacular pectorals, or shooting a centerfold into space and having her shriek adorably to her lover down in Mission Control, Cuarón put a nerdy 49-year-old woman on screen, and then let the audience identify with her struggle to learn independence (bye, Clooney!), resilience and courage. Though the execution isn't perfect-like many reviewers, I wish to God Cuarón had cut the subplot about Bullock's daughter. There's a fundamentally feminist parable at the center of Gravity. It's a story about how a woman learns to take care of herself, for herself, on her own.
This is precisely the sort of story that, as per conventional wisdom, you should not put front and center in your $80 million special effects sci-fi extravaganza. According to conventional Hollywood wisdom, stories about men are stories about humanity; stories about women are just stories about women, and therefore not “universal” enough to attract a male audience and blockbuster sales figures. And preferably, even those women's stories are also stories about men, re: those women finding themselves a boyfriend. The idea that there's no money in movies about women has been debunked repeatedly—comedies about female friendship, like The Heat or Bridesmaids or, heck, even the painfully bad Sex and the City movies, were all wildly successful—but Gravity is working within the two historically macho genres of hard sci-fi and action. (The difference between sci-fi and hard sci-fi is the difference between watching Star Wars and reading a theoretical paper about light-speed travel; the intensely technical, sciencey bent of the latter genre has long been presumed to be a boy thing.) Not only have most of the heroes in these genres been male, the audience for them is presumed to be largely male as well. Trusting that demographic to identify fully with a woman, so much that she's practically the only person we see, is a very gutsy move. Gravity doesn't just want us to root for Bullock; it wants us to feel, on some level, that we are Bullock. Men have to be willing to take that leap.
They've taken it. And they've taken it to the tune of $55 million in one weekend. Some of this is just common sense: Everyone likes a good spectacle. No one went to see Avatar because they were fascinated by the acting talents of Sam Worthington. But it's also a good lesson for Hollywood conventionalists.
Cuarón has spoken about how he was pressured by the studio to turn the character into a man, or into a more so-called “conventional” female lead, or simply to focus on her less exclusively by inventing flashbacks or a boyfriend down in Mission Control who could rescue her. But his vision for the character prevailed. And it's startling how far she differs from the usual action-movie babe: She's neither a sexualized, perpetually be-hot-pantsed bit of eye candy, nor a helpless wife or girlfriend for the male character to rescue, nor, for that matter, the plucky yet fluttery love interest that Bullock herself played in Speed.
Bullock has no love interest. Her most important relationship, on Earth, was with her daughter, and we don't hear anything about a husband or partner. She's a medical engineer whose most important skill is her scientific talent. Her colleagues address her as “Doctor.” She's not unduly sexualized, in terms of the visuals: Bullock wore no makeup for the role, chopped off her hair, and spends most of her time swimming around in a baggy, unflattering spacesuit-all of which are entirely appropriate aesthetics for a woman who is, you know, in space, and therefore quite removed from the nearest Sephora.
The movie doesn't steer 100 percent clear of objectification: In an apparent nod to Ellen Ripley's most famous scene in Alien, Bullock does strip off her spacesuit at one point, and spends quite a few scenes thereafter bobbing past the camera in a tank top and some boxer briefs. (Real astronauts have also pointed out that, in order for the scene to be scientifically accurate, she should have been wearing an adult diaper.) But, given that Hollywood currently operates from a vision of female power that sometimes requires women to fight wars in false eyelashes, fishnets, hot pants and peek-a-boo panties, even the boxer briefs are a blessed relief. They underscore her vulnerability as much as anything else: Bullock's a beautiful woman, but she doesn't look “sexy” in these scenes, she just looks exposed. The second she strips down to her skivvies, she curls up into the fetal position; just a few minutes later, she has to fight a raging fire without the benefit of pants. The point of Gravity, it seems to me, is that Bullock is up against forces so primal and superhuman that her gender is almost irrelevant. It doesn't matter that she's female; it matters that she's human, and therefore small.
And so, here we are, smack-dab in a cultural moment in which every single critic and friend on your social media feed is raving about how you absolutely have to go see a movie that is, essentially, a one-woman show. The fact that men and women alike are willing to give women's stories a chance if the movie is good enough-the fact that gender is self-evidently less important to ticket-buyers than the quality of the film they're about to see-says something pretty great about that cultural moment. One can only hope that Gravity will make room for more moments like it.