After writing my last post, I went and saw “Gravity” starring Sandra Bullock, which was beautifully serendipitous, for it is a story of how a woman becomes a heroine.
Bullock plays a medical researcher, Ryan Stone, who has apparently developed some imaging software or hardware that has been repurposed for the Hubble Telescope, and she gets sent into space to install it. But disaster strikes and Ryan is sent spinning into space.
We learn that Ryan was already lost when she climbed aboard the shuttle. She is not just cut off from Earth; she has been cut off from her own self, her identity. Her name is Ryan because “my father wanted a boy” and we assume from what we know of her that she has followed the masculine pathway to success as a brilliant doctor — in a field that allows her to hide in the basement of a hospital and not interact with people. We learn that she had a daughter who was killed, but if she was ever married, the husband is out of the picture. We learn that she spent most of her time working and, when not working, would get in her car and drive aimlessly. She has nothing that roots her to Earth or to other people. She has nothing that roots her to herself.
I talked in my last blog about how men can “step up” from their ordinary lives to being heroes in one step, but women have to “step up” first to being a self-directed individual. Ryan has done that; she is in control of her life. She is not defined, as so many women are, by her relationships to others. She has lost the only role that defined her, that of mother.
And now she is in space. She is in the liminal zone, the area between here and there, before and after. She has undergone the ritual of being divested of her old clothing and status and marked as an initiate into the mysteries of the secret brotherhood, NASA. She has been trained in those mysteries and sent out into the wild to be tested. Her test will be a much severer trial than her teachers can know.
She is, like all heroes, accompanied for a while by an older, wiser man (George Clooney) who shares his wisdom with her. But as always happens, this older wise man disappears before the critical moment and Ryan is on her own.
What is crucial is not that Ryan remembers her training and demonstrates that she has the intelligence and strength — moral and physical — to pass the trials. The critical moment comes when she chooses to make the return, to cross the threshold again. to leave the liminal space and re-engage with life in a totally new way. She very nearly doesn’t, and this is something that writers about the heroic quest often forget: not everyone makes it back! But Ryan does. She undergoes a double baptism, by fire and by water. As she plummets through the atmosphere, we sense that all the residue of her old life, her old self, is being burned away in the alchemical fire. When she sheds — as she must — the uniform of the initiate in the lake, she is freed to cross the beach, the littoral that is the other threshold, and stand up as her new self: a heroine.