Lessons from Gravity: How to Fail the Bechdel Test (in a good way)



This Oscars 2014 post series didn’t go quite as planned, but even though I only managed to write about one Best Picture nom before Ellen DeGeneres ordered pizza for everyone, I’m still making my way through each of the films because they really are always worth seeing.

As I noted in my post about Her, Oscar nominated films tend to avoid lazy writing traps that result in bad representation. They may seem to have predictable premises, but many times they may defy the pattern audiences expect. Of course, this isn’t the case for all Oscar noms (Avatar is like generic brand cereal covered in shiny wrapping paper), but Gravity succeeds in representation in a surprising way: by failing the Bechdel Test and still having a pretty awesome female character.

Gravity is mostly a one-person act, though, which already brings it out of the scope of the Bechdel Test. The film’s setup makes you believe that George Clooney’s character (Matt Kowalski) will be around much longer than he is. In fact, the opening acts follow a damsel in distress formula and make the audience expect that Matt will always be there to talk Ryan (Sandra Bullock) out of the next disaster. Instead, Matt floats off into space, leaving Ryan to fend for herself. Not only does killing off the knowledgeable male protector create room for Ryan to assert her own strength, but it also helps her grow as a character. She survives on her own because she learns that there is always a way out.

Additionally, Gravity seems to reverse the trope where a female acts as some sort of spiritual guide for the male hero at his lowest point. When Ryan believes she’s in a hopeless situation, she shuts off all the engines and prepares herself to die, but a form of Matt appears to her and pushes her to think creatively. For once, a dead male character is sanctified in death and serves as a muse of sorts for a female lead. Typically, it’s dead women who are portrayed as 100% pure and whose appearances stir a male lead into revelation and action.

At the same time, Gravity fails the Bechdel Test, which asks if a film has two female characters that talk to each other about something other than a man. The Bechdel Test sets a very, very low bar that a lot of popular media fails in addition to having lackluster representation. However, there are times when the parameters of the Bechdel Test are negligible to me because I find the representation of women to be well executed. Gravity is one of those rare cases. It fails the Bechdel Test, but a woman is the main hero and this isn’t a romantic comedy. It fails the Bechdel Test, but Ryan Stone isn’t sexualized nor does she stay dependent on a man’s guidance. It fails the Bechdel Test, but Ryan’s character development hinges on survival and triumph, not on finally falling in love.

Although I will always be more interested in work that passes the Bechdel Test, it’d be nice to see the myriad of things that fail it fail the way Gravity does. By nature, some stories just don’t have many characters and therefore they can’t cover all the bases of representation. That being said, Gravity is a small step in the right direction. Ten years ago, this movie would’ve been about two men. However, even though this film has good female representation, it kills off its only obvious PoC (Shariff) and if the space debris hadn’t arrived at just the right time, it would’ve ventured into some homophobic and transphobic territory. Consequently, I didn’t feel bad when Kowalski untethered himself.

The main lesson here is that even stories with a small cast of characters can still provide good representation of different minorities. Gravity is far from perfect in this regard, but it does show that stories about women can also be thrilling, lonely survival stories.


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