The day after Alfonso Cuarón’s new film ‘Gravity’ scored a record-breaking opening weekend at the box-office, CNN quoted several astronauts – all male – poking holes at the film’s technical details and plausibility. To which director Cuarón responded simply, “It’s not a documentary. It’s a work of fiction.” In another all-time low, a separate article took issue with the underwear that Sandra Bullock’s character wears in the film.
Let’s just admit it: ‘Gravity’ is a sensation! It’s an edge-of-the-seat, visually and aurally stunning thrill ride that is superbly executed by Cuarón at the top of his game after ‘Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban’. It will continue to rake in millions of dollars, and it should.
Let’s also admit that men are threatened by it. And they should be.
Women have had to sit through countless movies and watch men drive cars with majestic speed, agility, and confidence in a car-chase scene; men get stabbed in the gut fifteen times and still be able to get up and jump off buildings with their damsel-in-distress in tow; or geriatrics like Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson rescue their kidnapped daughters vigilante style.
Women have to tolerate scene after scene endorsing the cisgendered, hyper masculine, unquestionably Kinsey 0 heterosexual identity of the male protagonist. An identity that is validated by pairing the man with a female character, one whose corresponding lack of skills or bravery is meant to further spotlight the male character’s superhuman qualities. Any movie that doesn’t subscribe to this formula is either dubbed a “chick flick” or languishes in art-house theaters as an “independent” film.
‘Gravity’ completely messes with the formula. The male astronaut Matthew Kowalski – played by the epitome of Hollywood maleness, George Clooney – is a supporting character, literally hurled off into space within the first twenty minutes. He’s also a half-wit, incessantly chattering, annoying little Bimbo – the kind of character that Sandra Bullock herself has played in a number of male-dominated films.
Bullock plays medical engineer Dr. Ryan Stone. Kowalski sarcastically asks her, “What kind of a name is Ryan for a girl?” Stone replies, “My father wanted a boy.” Stone blames a man for his egocentric insistence on giving a male name to a girl. But the line also reminds us that we’ve never had a male character named Michelle Walters, for example, in the movies. God forbid men – or Hollywood – would ever think of giving their little boys a girl name, other than discreetly ambiguous names like Leslie or Kelly or Chris.
We also learn that Stone had a daughter who died a tragic death in childhood. She has no male, or female, partner. She is a working woman, singly and singularly focused on her passion: outer space. After initial help from Kowalski, Stone does everything by herself in this film. And when she finally lands on Earth, there are no weeping husbands or boyfriends carrying engagement rings to greet her. No one’s calling ‘Gravity’ a chick flick.
Earlier this summer, Bullock partnered with the comic dynamo Melissa McCarthy in ‘The Heat’, a send-up of male buddy cop movies. ‘The Heat’ takes down every cop movie stereotype in devilishly clever, and sometimes politically incorrect, ways. They even shred body stereotypes by having McCarthy play the hypersexual Lothario part and Bullock play the buttoned-down prude. There is even a hilarious scene when FBI agent Ashburn (Bullock) meets police officer Mullins’ (McCarthy) family and they all think that Ashburn is a trans woman. More remarkable is that Ashburn does not react in righteous disgust at their comments. In this scene, Bullock proves that she can be hysterical even when her character is being bullied. As an actress she seems to have no problem playing a character whose look may be gender ambiguous.
And now we have Bullock’s Ryan Stone in ‘Gravity’ basically saying “I don’t need a scrotum to do what men have been doing in movies for a lifetime”. After hitting ground at the end, Stone gets up, shaken but triumphant, and starts to take her first steps toward a new horizon. The film doesn’t specify where she lands. It could be the Andes for all we know. But ‘Gravity’ leaves us wishing for a sequel where we can watch Ryan Stone make her way from the Andes to her home in Illinois.
The end to gender and sexuality stereotypes in mainstream movies may have finally come from the unlikeliest of sources: America’s Sweetheart herself, Ms. Sandra Bullock.