Real does not equal always strong

I stumbled across a discussion the other day about the findings of Gender Inequality in Film (the infographic is disheartening but exceptional work by the team at the New York Film Academy). One of the comments attracted my attention, and I’ve been musing on it since.

The gist of this woman’s comment was that Dr. Ryan Stone in the movie Gravity, the female protagonist played by Sandra Bullock, set the cause of feminism back by her actions. This had me puzzled and confused.

For those who haven’t seen the film, I would suggest that you do. It’s spectacular, and the production team have focused on beautiful starscapes and realistic disorientation in the vastness of the universe around. If you haven’t seen it, please read on. I don’t think any of the spoilers I mention should give away the story, beyond any trailers released or reviews read.

Dr. Stone is a medical engineer who is recruited by NASA as a Specialist, because of the advanced electronics work she does at home, and in the beginning of the movie is on a spacewalk finishing the last of the repairs on the Hubble Telescope. What happens from there is that a debris field hits the Telescope, her vessel and leaves her spinning out into space, cut off from command at Huston and without her fellow astronauts. The rest of the movie is about her bid to get home, aided by veteran astrounaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney).

Most of the movie, she is out of her depth. Out of control and unaided. Spinning out in space, untethered, is but one of many problems she faces. Now, as a minimally trained astronaut, and one on her first mission, facing disaster and possible lonely death in space, she panics. The sounds of the movie are all heavy breathing and shrill calls for assistance and trying to reach Huston. Even with training, I imagine that spinning out into space like this is every astronaut’s nightmare, as it’s a death sentence when there is no assistance.

As it goes on, every event mounts another hurdle for her; not one plan comes off as it should. She is unable to be assisted by any one else. She is required to rely on the memory of the minimal training she has to fly aircraft that does not have instructions in the same language nor the same set-up. She faces up to having to confront the same event that last caused her distress to escape once again.

Admittedly, at one point, she gives up. She believes she cannot succeed. That she is without any assistance. She cries, she talks to herself, and says farewell to her life in the only way she feels she has left.

Nothing that she did was not an emotion I could not understand. Overwhelmed, in a seemingly hopeless and life-threatening situation, she alternated between coping and not coping. The character of Dr. Stone was an engineer, not an astronaut who had spent all their life training to be on the International Space Station.

There is a difference between being real and setting back the cause of feminism. Moments of weakness, of giving up, do not mean a person is not strong. In fact, sometimes realise which battles are not worth your fight is intelligent. Recognising that you are overwhelmed does not mean you are less of a person.

Just because Dr. Stone did not act in a gung-ho manner, like a two-dimensional male lead charging in to save the day and damn the odds, does not mean the character let down the cause of feminism. Because you rely on the experience of a more senior member of the team, it does not make you useless or less of a person.

There seems to be a great deal of confusion about what constitutes a real woman character in fiction and in film. Let me share my thoughts. A real woman is someone an audience can relate to, who lives by the rules she deems are important. A real woman has a story that has an effect on the way she reacts to situations. A real woman relates to her environment, settings and surrounds in a believable way.

In the same way, feminism is not answering all questions and achieving all goals on your own, without gathering and relying on experience of others. Feminism means being equal in rights to others; so has an equal right to life, to the pursuit of their own happiness and projects not controlled by another; not that an individual never accepts assistance or never works with another.

Gravity is a film that went for realism in its production and in its storyline, particularly with their female lead. I would highly recommend it as a film to see, as an offering that is a little different and wholly engrossing, and attempted to be true to the actual experience of being in space.

For those who have thoughts on Dr. Stone in Gravity, or “real women” in cinema, I hope you’ll share them and we can have a discussion on this topic.