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'Gravity' director defends casting Sandra Bullock after pressure for a male lead

'Gravity' director defends casting Sandra Bullock after pressure for a male lead


Barriers still high for women in science fiction films

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You don't usually see a woman in the lead role in a science fiction film. Sandra Bullock's lead role as a medical engineer on her first space shuttle mission in the space thriller Gravity is a rare departure from the norm. Not everyone involved with the movie was happy with the decision, writer-director Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men) said during a press conference at Comic-Con yesterday, especially since Bullock's character is floating alone in space for the majority of the movie.

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

Women are usually cast as love interests or supporting characters

The traditional Hollywood mindset holds that science fiction is a male-dominated genre, with a male audience that wants to relate to a male lead. Women are usually cast as love interests or supporting characters with sex appeal. The prime exception is Ellen Ripley in Alien, a strong female lead who is smart, tough, and displays other features of a real person rather than a sex object. Sarah Connor in Terminator, Princess Leia in Star Wars, and Dana Scully on The X-Files are also frequently cited as strong female leads, although Connor and Leia are secondary to male main characters, and Scully shares equal screen time with a male partner.

"Making this character female was hugely brave," Bullock said at the press conference. "It's not that you're going, 'oh, here's a woman in space.' It's just a person. But the situations, I think, will feel fresh in a way that you haven't experienced before."

Hollywood thinks science fiction is for boys

Gravity looks set to be an unconventional film in many ways. There are only two characters, and the movie is all set in low Earth orbit. Bullock's character, Dr. Ryan Stone, is alone on the shuttle with veteran astronaut Matt Kowalsky, played by George Clooney. Disaster strikes on a routine space walk and the shuttle is destroyed, sending the pair spiraling helplessly with no connection to Earth and no hope for rescue. In addition to having an unorthodox plot, the film was shot on an ad-hoc system in which the actors were suspended while the set spun around them to give the appearance of zero gravity.

While the film still doesn't pass the Bechdel test, perhaps it will set a precedent for women in science fiction. "The elephant in the room is that roles or women haven’t been as vast and many as the men have," Bullock said. "But I do feel that there is a definite shift that has happened. In the end it's about making money, and if studios see that a female can bring in audiences, they're going to make movies with that person, and hopefully that will become the norm."