‘Gravity’ and the Impact of Its Unique Female Hero

Gravity film

Written by Megan Kearns | Spoilers ahead

I was excited to see Gravity for a long time. A female-centric sci-fi film? Yes, please! I adore Sandra Bullock. Even when she stars in shitty movies, I don’t care. I unapologetically love her. While people envision her as a comedian (and yes, she’s incredibly funny), I’ve always thought she had the potential to shine in more serious roles (sidebar, 28 Days is one of my favorite films).

But the best part of Gravity? It offers us a different kind of female hero.

Haunting and harrowing, Gravity is a gripping cinematic spectacle about astronauts stranded in space. The visual effects are breathtakingly stunning. I can’t stand 3-D. But the visuals were so gorgeous, so crisp, I completely forgot I was watching a 3-D film. The film envelopes you, immersing you into the vast expanse of the star-filled void of space. You feel as if you’re stranded, drifting in space too. Gravity transports the audience to a place most of us will never see.

Gravity doesn’t merely rest on its technical laurels. The dialogue suffers from schmaltz in a couple places but the acting is nuanced and powerful. While George Clooney is his typical charming self as veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski on the brink of retirement, make no mistake. This is Sandra Bullock’s film. The film rests on her shoulders, which she carries with  raw emotion and nuance.

Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is not a stereotypical female protagonist. Yes, she’s smart. And white. And thin. While those traits make her similar to the majority of women leads, her personality differs. A biomedical engineer on her first mission in space, she’s quiet and reserved. But that shouldn’t make you underestimate or question her strength. Dr. Stone analyzes situations, she uses her ingenuity to figure out solutions to the problems that bombard her in space.

We feel the palpable tension she feels. We feel her anxiety, her panic, her fear. It feels claustrophobic at times as the camera shots sit inside her helmet, as if we too are stranded in the empty abyss of space. We also visually see the camera from her perspective, a tactic that garners greater empathy for her from the audience. We see the world through her eyes.

Gravity film Sandra Bullock

Films often objectify women as sex objects or relegates them to the role of the male protagonist’s wife, mother, sister, lover, sidekick. And yes, the studio tried to give Dr. Stone a love interest (bleh), as if she needs a relationship with a man to define her. When we do see strong women who define themselves, they typically are portrayed as tough badasses kicking ass or wise-cracking or feisty. Don’t get me wrong. I love badasses. I love mouthy, opinionated, angry, tough as nails women. But those shouldn’t be the only kind of female protagonists we see.

It’s unusual to see a female hero who’s frail or vulnerable or even an introvert. Looking at children’s movies, the majority of female protagonists are extroverts. We rarely see a girl who isn’t spunky or gregarious in a leading role. (Although others disagree and insist that we see plenty.) As Natalie Portman recently said, feminism in film is about more than just kicking ass:

“I want [women & men] to be allowed to be weak & strong & happy & sad — human, basically. The fallacy in Hollywood is that if you’re making a “feminist” story, the woman kicks ass & wins. That’s not feminist, that’s macho. A movie about a weak, vulnerable woman can be feminist if it shows a real person that we can empathize with.

And therein lies the beauty of Dr. Ryan Stone. Not all women leads need to kick ass in order to be strong or complex. We need to see the stories of intelligent, quiet, reserved, vulnerable women too.

We also rarely see a female film hero struggling with depression. Dr. Stone has lost the will to live. Due the tragic death of her daughter, she yearns for silence. Grief swallows her. She tells George Clooney that that’s what she likes best in space. The silence. There’s no chaos. Only peace. He tells her that he gets it as, “there’s nobody up here who can hurt you.” In her life, her routines confine her. She goes to work and then just drives, listening to the radio, a reminder of her daughter. Yet these routines keep her buoyant as she struggles to stay afloat amidst her depression. She’s surviving but not really living.

The film itself becomes a “metaphor for depression, or for grief: untethered and abandoned in a void so large that it boggles the mind, or simply shuts it down.” Dr. Stone drifts and spins out of control, disconnected, echoing the overwhelming feelings of depression. The trauma of child loss in film and television often catalyzes a mother’s journey towards empowerment. In Gravity we witness Dr. Stone’s transformation from a woman consumed by grief and despair, drifting along on a sea of sadness and attempting suicide, into a survivor who yearns and fights to live. By the end of the film, she’s grounded, no longer disconnected.


There’s a part in the film when I thought, “Oh, here it comes. The ubiquitous scene where a dude comes and rescues her. As if she can’t rescue herself.” Thankfully, I was wrong. Some quibble that it’s a hallucination of Kowalski, so he’s the one who saves her. Nope, it’s all her. Sure he inspired her. But it’s her memory, it’s her imagination.

Now, with a female-centric stranded-in-space sci-fi film, it might be easy to draw comparisons to the queen of survival: Ripley. Both female heroes are stranded in space, both fight to live. Both characters are regular women, both mothers, taking charge in a crisis. Both films feature reproduction themes and motifs: rape and the fear of female reproduction in Alien, womb imagery and rebirth symbolism in Gravity. And both films feature scenes where the female leads remove their protective gear to illustrate their vulnerability. Okay, they do have share a lot of similarities! But here’s where they diverge — Ripley has a ferocity that Ryan Stone does not possess. And that’s a good thing. We need to see myriad female personalities depicted on-screen.

Some have criticized that the film has to humanize Dr. Stone by making her a mother. It’s a fair complaint as most iconic strong female characters in film (Ripley, Sarah Connor, Beatrix Kiddo) are mothers. My fabulous Bitch Flicks colleague Amanda astutely wrote that she encompassed the grieving mother archetype. But Dr. Stone isn’t merely defined by motherhood. Nor do I think her being a mother makes her more palatable to audiences. We see and hear about her career. We accompany her on her emotional journey.

Another reason Dr. Stone as a character matters? We need to see more women scientists on-screen. There are still few women scientists, when compared to the number of men, and female scientists are paid far less than their male colleagues. Young girls aren’t encouraged to participate in STEM fields. They need to see female role models. When Kowalski asks Dr. Stone, “What kind of a name is Ryan?,” she tells him that her father always wanted a boy. It’s a brief gender commentary on how society gives preferential treatment to boys. Dr. Stone works in an extremely male-dominated field. Her father bestowed a masculine name upon her all because he wanted a child of a different gender. This interestingly parallels director Alfonso Cuaron’s own struggle to feature a female protagonist as the studio wanted him to change the lead’s gender. Thankfully, he refused.

Our society sees women as inferior, that everyone aspires to be men. That men do all the awesome, strong things while women serve as pretty décor and accessories to men. Hollywood assumes that only men won’t go see “women’s movies,” whatever the fuck those are (are they films with women sitting around discussing their periods? Wait…I want to see that movie…), while women and men will see films with male protagonists. This is bullshit. People want to see good stories with complex, interesting characters regardless of gender.

Women often have to endure seeing a mediocre or shitty movie with female leads because we desperately yearn to see ourselves represented. Men get to see themselves in myriad iterations in a wide swath of roles. But women are typically relegated to the love interest, damsel in distress or sidekick. Most female film characters don’t shatter gender stereotypes. They rarely lead as heroes, usually serving as props to the male protagonists, and playing out gender tropes.

Seeing a woman in a commanding role on-screen, seeing things from her perspective, seeing her decisions – this is a big fucking deal. Sandra Bullock has called her role as Dr. Ryan Stone “revolutionary,” as Alfonso and Jonas Cuaron wrote the script with a woman as the protagonist. Society traditionally thinks of men in leadership roles, not women. You can’t be what you can’t see. Seeing media representations of yourself in your gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, religion, seeing bodies of different sizes and abilities – all of this matters. It impacts how we see ourselves, the lives we envision for ourselves. And how others see us.

Gravity offers a unique female hero. It’s okay that Sandra Bullock’s character isn’t shooting guns or beating up bad guys. It’s okay that she’s quiet and vulnerable. It’s okay to see a woman struggling through emotional pain. In fact, it’s a good thing. Not all women are the same. Our female leads should reflect that reality.

Megan Kearns is Bitch Flicks’ Social Media Director and a feminist vegan writer living in Boston. She loves watching films and entirely too much TV including Parks and Rec, The Wire, Sex and the City, Breaking Bad, Damages and Scandal. Follow her on Twitter @OpinionessWorld.


  • Heather
    Posted October 16, 2013 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    Fabulous article, thank you. I totally felt the same way, although I have read commentaries where they felt SB’s character wasn’t masculine like male movie heroes, that she ‘needed rescuing” and didn’t “even know how to fly a jetpack”….well neither did Shariff, probably also a visiting, non full time NASA scientist. I find this character a lot easier to get into from a storytelling POV. Thanks for the article; shared now on FB!

    • Heather
      Posted October 16, 2013 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

      Incidentally, I’m also writing a novel about a woman (set in the future) who has a disabled daughter and is battling with depression; so this was another plus for me as a viewer, the topic resonated.

    • Posted October 17, 2013 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

      Thanks so much, Heather! Yeah, I’ve read a lot of valid critiques but for me, she didn’t need rescuing. I mean, this was the very first time she was in space! I think the fact that she did so well while all this shit was happening around her AND she was battling with depression showed her resolve and resilience and resourcefulness. (Okay that was a lot of alliteration!)

      But most of all, I just really enjoyed seeing an introverted scientist who wasn’t the stereotypical hero on-screen. Women have myriad personalities and experiences. We should see that reflected on-screen.

      Now if only we could see MORE women, especially more women of different races, ages, sexual orientations, etc.

  • Posted October 18, 2013 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

    Yes! And finally a movie that I was pumped to see that didn’t disappoint me at all. Sandra Bullock has had two excellent movie roles this year.

  • mm
    Posted January 26, 2014 at 8:18 am | Permalink

    marvelous analysis to a marvelous film. thank you Kearns!

  • Timothy Rigney
    Posted September 7, 2014 at 9:40 pm | Permalink

    I’d like to throw out an alternate point-of-view. I loved this movie; and I enjoyed it without thinking about any of the politics or social ramifications of a movie having a strong female character. I think it’s actually a bit backwards-looking (*to a point*) to point to this movie and say, “She’s exceptional!” She’s a Biomedical Engineer – well of COURSE she is, why WOULDN’T she be? She’s a smart, strong person who got herself out of a tight jam? Well of COURSE she is; that’s what women ARE; that’s what women DO.
    I realize we’re not quite there yet but I think it’s healthy (again, to a point) to start thinking in those terms.
    She was a Biomedical Engineer and an astronaut and a strong person because that’s what women *are* and that’s what they *do.*
    In other words, she didn’t survive because she’s a strong, intelligent woman.
    She survived because she’s a strong, intelligent PERSON. :)

15 Trackbacks