The Feminist Thing that Irritated the Hell Out of Me about GRAVITY

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If a female scientist is intelligent and tough enough to qualify to spend months on a mission with NASA, she should not need a male scientist to tell her EVERY SINGLE THING SHE HAS TO DO


To the extent that she GIVES UP and SETTLES DOWN TO DIE until he COMES BACK FROM THE DEAD to tell her this one piece of information that she needs to get back to the earth.

Seriously. He COMES BACK FROM THE DEAD with this info, because DEAD MEN apparently have more knowledge and common sense than living women, even living scientist women. And Ryan Stone, Sandra Bullock's character, is so EMOTIONAL and FEARFUL and in need of a MAN to direct her that she would never survive without Mental Ghost Matt Kowalski.

Or maybe Manic Pixie Dream Astronaut Matt Kowalski, as he's the quirky (country music!), grounded, life-loving dude who awakens Ryan's desire to live again. But that again highlights what a void Ryan is herself, how little we know of her besides her role as a grieving mother . . . and of course the movie makes her a mother, one of the most safe and unthreatening things a woman can be, and lets that role take precedence over whatever knowledge and intelligence she should have as a scientist. When she makes it back to earth, it's not thanks to any such knowledge and skill (she flunked the flight simulator, as she reminds us repeatedly), but all down to a manual and dumb luck, it seemed to me. This feels like an almost systematic diminution of any power the character could claim, and reader, it made me ANGRY.


My rational, analytic, critical mind knows all the caveats and other interpretations on this. There is the character history angle:  It's her first time in space, while he's the jokey veteran; of course he knows better what to do. There is the character investment/plot angle:  If she knew exactly what to do the whole time, we wouldn't fear for her as much as we do, and as the film operates pretty much entirely on suspense, the entire movie would fall apart with her knowledge. There's the personal angle:  Yes, if it were me, I would be too terrified to think straight, likewise unable to breathe in the little sips that would preserve my oxygen, and grateful for any direction. (This is why I am not an astronaut, and why I expect better of the people and characters who are.)

There is the emotional-journey angle:  As the good people of The Dissolve point out, the movie can be read as a metaphor for depression, where Ryan has been floating in a void of grief since her daughter's death, and a good friend and the task of surviving call her back to earth. There is even a completely opposite, equally feminist angle that is DELIGHTED to see a woman at the center of the action, to have a man in the Manic Pixie role (sacrificing himself for her rather than the other way around), to discover Ryan's emotions eventually informing her survival rather than being locked away, Strong Female Character-style. All of these things are true, and I can acknowledge them.

But none of them change the root of my near-rage on this subject, which is not just a feminist's anger at seeing a man given all the intelligence and ability in a movie, but a story-lover's anger at not being able to respect my protagonist fully -- a failure of narrative architecture in a plot like this one, as I kept being knocked out of that all-important suspense by thinking, "For God's sake, Stone, GET IT TOGETHER. You are an ASTRONAUT. You should be BETTER THAN THIS."

Alfonso Cuaron should also be better than this. All scripts should be better than this. The movie is a visual wonder and a filmmaking achievement; that gets no argument from me. But until Hollywood starts giving us not just female protagonists, but ones with the same brains and resourcefulness as the male characters in their films, I am going to be irritated.

To conclude, I hereby propose a new tagline for the move: