If you listened to the latest edition of the Awards Circuit Power Hour (and if you haven’t, I can wait), then you’re aware of the divisive thoughts Terence and I had about Gravity. I adore Gravity, and it’s settled at number one in my year-end list; however, I continue to question whether it’s one small step for women, or a giant leap back into female stereotyping. Let me preface: I love Gravity. This week’s article is more of an open forum and comparison between two movies possessing more in common than you might think. Take note: My article will contain spoilers for Prisoners and Gravity, so if you haven’t seen either you’ve been warned.
During the podcast, I asked if the plot of Gravity, and the character of Ryan Stone, would be any different had George Clooney played it. After thinking on the question, I came to the conclusion: Yes, it would. It would be called Prisoners. At first blush, the Hugh Jackman kidnapping thriller and the Sandra Bullock space adventure have little in common. You could say they’re worlds apart. The lynchpin is both stories deal with characters broken by the loss of a child (a daughter). The distinction is how Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) and Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) react to those losses, and how those losses are segregated by gender.
In the case of Prisoners, Keller is a man’s man who “prays for the best and prepares for the worst.” When his daughter is kidnapped – note the difference between kidnapped and dead – he becomes a violent, volatile man who actively stops at nothing to get his daughter back, short of murdering a mentally challenged man to get information. Gravity’s Ryan Stone is a woman who internalizes her grief, refuses to show any emotion, choosing to enjoy the silence. Keller’s machismo allows him to be violent; his character is able to exert moral ambiguity. With Ryan, moral ambiguity is impossible because women are either villains or heroes; thus, we get a broken woman with no social life after this earth shattering loss.
Furthermore, a key phrase within Gravity is “let go.” Stone’s co-worker, Matt Kowalski, continually tells Ryan if she wants to move forward she has to get over her daughter’s death, and let the grief go rather than get bogged down in it. While never stated, one could say Prisoners theme is “Go further;” Keller will do anything, and the audience roots for him. Even the characters within the movie who find his actions suspect, the Birches (played by Terence Howard and Viola Davis), believe Keller is doing something constructive and let him continue. Nowhere, does a character tell Keller to move on because he is an active participant, and is the hero. Unfortunately, women continue to be painted in shades of black and white, while men are allowed to be various shades of gray (I totally didn’t plan on a 50 Shades joke here). Because women are commonly docile in their film roles, even when they are heroes they’re given some type of love interest or male counterpart to allow them to be active by osmosis, it’s incredibly hard to find a heroine allowed to do what Keller does throughout Prisoners. In contrast, Jackman could easily take on the character of Ryan Stone and do whatever.
One should also look at the history of familial dynamics within gender relations in film. There are countless movies about men dealing with dead children, and several of them focus on revenge (Death Wish and Death Sentence come to mind); whereas, with females the loss of a child generally causes them to internalize their grief, and by proxy, push away friends and loved ones. It’s common that female films about the loss of a child are domestic dramas, whereas men can star in thrillers or action movies about the same subject. By the same token, women generally are either mothers or single women who feel something is missing in their life without children. A heap of romantic comedies have surrounded the latter, but there are few distinctions made between the two. Children and motherhood are inherent within women in film, whereas with men it is a conscious choice or character trait. In the case of Gravity, some (including our own Terence Johnson) felt it to be pandering and unnecessary. It is unnecessary, but it’s also conforming to gender stereotypes of women in film. It isn’t enough that Ryan Stone is a strong women leading a film in the science-fiction vein; (Yes, I understand it doesn’t conform explicitly to the sci-fi canon but women leading space expeditions are almost non-existent in Hollywood.) she must also be a mother who has suffered a loss supposedly common to all women. While said loss is just as grievous for men, it is the de facto characteristic in almost all female characters.
Take a look at the women in Prisoners; Mario Bello plays Dover’s wife and the mother to the child in question. Yet her loss is so profound – damn women and their vaginas – that she’s in a drug-induced haze and labeled crazy by Jake Gyllenhaal’s Detective Loki. Mind you, her crazy ramblings, which he didn’t take seriously in the beginning, end up providing a break in the case. Unfortunately, due to dramatic conventions, Bello is unable to be a rational presence in her daughter’s disappearance. Her character is the mother, and thus must be so distraught she’s of no help to anyone; thus, a man must take over and save the day. You also have Viola Davis as Nancy Birch, the mother of the other missing girl. She is given a glimpse into Dover’s activities, but when Paul Dano’s character lashes out she becomes a weak woman cowering in a corner and has to be removed. Only men are able to handle the situation; it’s no place for women. Ryan Stone is a tough female, that’s not in question; it is the fact that the movie has to gender stereotype her in the first place by casting her in the role of mother. Said role should never be limiting, and while it never cripples Stone to the extent of the female characters in Prisoners, it does stereotype her into a role with preconceived notions. It isn’t enough for her to be a human being trapped in space; she must be a broken woman suffering from something only women can truly understand.
The issue is complexity: Men can raise children, love children, and still find time to kick ass. For women, they must think about children (if they don’t have them especially), bear them, and then become slaves to grief over them for the rest of their lives. Men are able to be complex and have it all; women are told they can’t. Keller Dover can beat a man senseless, get his daughter back, and remain likeable; Ryan Stone must be a shell of a person over her child, get over it, and gain the audiences respect to become likeable. I love both movies equally, but they compliment each other in more ways than expected.