Depictions of Women in STEM: Dr. Ryan Stone

July 04, 2017

Written by: Vanessa Reich-Shackelford

This post includes spoilers for the plot of the movie Gravity.
Source: Daily Mail

When I first saw Gravity, it was in theatres. It was breathtaking - literally. Between the intense music that went deep into my core, the dizzying special effects and CGI, and Sandra Bullock's performance, my heart stayed lodged in my throat the whole 1.5 hours, while my hands clutched my armrests until my knuckles turned white. Upon re-watching recently, I came to realize that writers Alfonso (also director) and Jonás Cuarón had created one of the most positive representation of a woman in STEM on screen so far.

In the film, Dr. Ryan Stone, a biomedical engineer and space mission specialist who specializes in medical X-ray imaging devices, has been sent to space for a week by NASA to install a scanning device on the Hubble Telescope. As she and her crew mates, including veteran astronaut Dr. Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), are on a space walk working on an installation on the (fictional) Explorer shuttle, they receive word that a Russian satellite has self-destructed, causing the Kessler effect, or collisional cascading. Mission Control back on Earth orders them to abort the installation and return to their craft, but it is too late. Space debris traveling at over 50,000mph strikes the Explorer Satellite, and Dr. Stone and Kowalski become detached from the craft. The rest is a race against dwindling oxygen supplies, and un-tethered spacewalks from space station to space station as Dr. Stone tries to stay alive and get back to Earth.

First, let's come back down and look at the film landscape of 2013. According to Olivia Collette, writing for, the 10 highest-grossing films of 2013 featured 5 love interests and 2 mothers among female leads. As we've seen again and again throughout this series covering depictions of women in STEM in media, the struggle to balance being the love interest with having their work taken seriously is real.

But Dr. Ryan Stone is, at the time the film takes place, not a mother, nor a love interest. She once was a mother, but her daughter passed away tragically at a very young age. She may have been once married, but this fact is not stated explicitly. In this movie, the latter doesn't matter, and the former seems to encourage Dr. Stone, to spur her on to survival.

Dr. Stone installs her scanning device. Source: Roger Ebert

Strangely, Collette reveals in her article that the marketing for the film was mostly focused on George Clooney, omitting the fact that Sandra Bullock is the lead - "as if," she writes, "they didn't trust the audience to make the leap on their own, because, all told, there is a leap." Dr. Stone is not a stereotypically sexy woman character - she wears a space suit instead of a bathing suit and has a brilliant mind.

Dr. Stone's profession sets her up as the central figure of this film. Without her expertise, the mission would not exist. She invented technology that NASA believes is valuable enough to put into space, and she mentions she is grateful that NASA continues to fund her research. She's had six months of astronaut training and is spending a week in space to install her technology. These facts are revealed in the first five minutes of the film. We hear men's voices first, but the first person we see is Dr. Stone. Finally, a woman character who is not set up adjacent to anyone else.

The Cuaróns make other interesting choices, in the dialogue and timeline. There is not enough time to set up a love interest in the story, as the action begins within the first fifteen minutes of the film. But, the astronaut Kowalski makes a comment to Dr. Stone about her "pretty blue eyes," in a voice that drips with charm. She deflects simply with, "Well, my eyes are brown." The viewer does not find out that Dr. Stone had a daughter until about 26 minutes into the film. Kowalski, in an attempt to calm down Dr. Stone after the initial debris collision, also asks why her name is Ryan if she's a woman. She replies, "Dad wanted a boy." This one short answer reveals a few possibilities as to the character's background, implying perhaps that she - as many other women in STEM - has had to fight for her place in her industry.

Dr. Ryan Stone uses her knowledge and wits to get herself back to Earth. Source: "My Old Film Reviews" blog

In terms of depicting a woman in STEM, the film does not leave much room for character development, as the dialogue is limited and the film is mostly action sequences. Had there been more room for characters engaging in conversation and emotional growth (as opposed to just the physical need to survive), we might have started to see a more problematic depiction of a woman in STEM. It begs the question: What does it say when a character who is a woman in STEM is depicted almost flawlessly because in 1.5 hours, she only says a handful of lines and has barely anyone else to talk to?

That being said, there are some nuances to her character that make her more well-rounded. The viewer finds out that Dr. Stone's daughter died at a young age. She admits that she has never prayed, but then later is willing to entertain the possibility that her daughter may be in a heaven-like place as she talks out loud to the deceased Kowalski and asks him to speak to her daughter for her. She is flawed - she has intimacy issues, she's still grieving the loss of her daughter, she has no one to go home to, she excels professionally but this pacifies her emotional turmoil...As pointed out by Collette in her article, "There's nothing wrong with any of these things; they're just terrifically normal, something many female movie characters are not given permission to be."

Does Gravity meet the goals set out by the White House for better representation of women in STEM fields?

The former Obama Administration's White House fact sheet lists 3 goals for fictional representation of women in STEM. We are noticing a trend in the movies and television shows we have reviewed - they meet some of the following goals better than others. But Gravity does exceptionally well meeting these three goals:

1.  Include diverse STEM role models (past and present): The main character is not just a woman, she is a woman in STEM, and not just a woman in STEM, but a highly successful one who is allowed to go to space to install her own invention. Gravity pretty much wins on this point.

2. Highlight the breadth of STEM careers and social impacts: Social impacts are not an obvious theme in this film, however, the film is very successful at highlighting that women can be successful, smart, courageous scientists and astronauts.

3.  Debunk STEM stigmas and misconceptions: Again, there is not much to work with, as the film is mostly action-based, however, because the setting is space and Dr. Stone is the only character present through most of the movie, there is no room to introduce stigmas and misconceptions, though they are hinted at through her limited dialogue with the astronaut Matt Kowalski. Dr. Stone literally (and figuratively) exists in a vacuum for the majority of the film, making it easy for the film to meet this goal.

Fun fact: Astronaut Cady Coleman unofficially gave Sandra Bullock advice on being an astronaut while on a 5-month mission aboard the International Space Station. Why unofficially? It was a chance meeting between Bullock and Coleman's families.
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