Women in Cinema: Defying Gravity


It finally happened.

A major studio released a film featuring a strong female heroine that doesn’t need to be rescued by a man.

And it turns out the film is a big hit.

With Gravity, Sandra Bullock proves that women do, in fact, have what it takes to lead a movie and keep an audience captivated from start to finish.

(Don’t worry, this isn’t another review. Our own fearless leader has already done that.)

The point is, Hollywood has given us a film that does everything movies aren’t supposed to be able to: a thriller about a highly intelligent woman who must save herself. And not only that, it stars a 49-year-old actress. Granted, Sandra Bullock looks as good at almost 50 as she did at 30. Maybe even better. Add to that the fact that the movie had a huge opening weekend AND is currently polling at 97% on Rotten Tomatoes.

And, unlike other female-centric sci fi blockbusters (like Alien), Gravity is poised to be nominated for a slew of awards in coming months. This is particularly significant because the early expected nominees are generally centered around men. Just a few of the titles you’ll be hearing over and over between now and March include: 12 Years a Slave, Captain Phillips, Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Inside Llewyn Davis, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, and The Wolf of Wall Street.

Gravity, though, is great news for women in cinema. It sets out to prove that women are every bit as capable as men in all the ways that matter, but without having to act like men. Bullock’s Dr. Ryan Stone is a woman who finds herself in an unthinkable situation with supporting character Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney). And it’s scary and tough and requires so much more of her than she ever thought she had. There are tears and screams and thoughts of giving up. It’s refreshing to see a woman portrayed as a woman. With feelings and fears and without the need to exhibit over-the-top machismo in order to survive.

That’s one thing that has always been lacking in female-led films. There are generally two types of female leads: the silly romantic comedy type, or the ultra warrior/overly masculine type. Neither of these is particularly fair because they don’t represent real women. Men get to be slackers and average joes and hard-working businessmen in thankless jobs. They popular male hero is the anti-hero. Women, on the other hand, must be either adorably funny or outrageously amazing in order to be allowed to lead on the silver screen.

But Gravity gives women permission to be vulnerable and scared and unsure. It proves that fear and strength are not mutually exclusive, but that they can, and often do, go hand-in-hand.

When you factor in everything that Gravity has accomplished for women, it seems unthinkable that the studio originally wanted the lead character to be a man. At Comic-Con earlier this year, director Alfonso Cuarón said:

When I finished the script, there were voices that were saying, ‘well, we should change it to a male lead.’ Obviously they were not powerful enough voices, because we got away with it. But the sad thing is that there is still that tendency.

Sad indeed. In a world that sees women as Secretaries of State and National Security Advisers and presidential candidates and NFL sideline reporters, Hollywood still has a tendency to want to give all the good, juicy roles to men. A tendency to believe it’s what audiences want.

But now Gravity has come along and proven that what audiences want is good film making. And there is plenty of room for women in good film making.

It’s about time.