Emma Xerri | May 10, 2022
Cover Art by Alexi O’Keefe
For a director whose films are known for centring on the mind-bending dilemmas and circumstances of white men, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar depicts a commendable, and rather feminist, version of masculinity.
Whilst I haven’t explored all of Nolan’s filmography, I have seen seven of his films— including Inception, The Dark Knight, and my personal favourite, The Prestige—a number I believe renders me informed enough to say that I’ve never had a negative experience as a female viewer watching his films. Yes, the men are often at the forefront in areas of bravery and praise with women being secondary characters, however, in unpacking the topic of feminism in film bro favourites, I must keep circling back to those initial questions: can women ever truly be depicted accurately on screen when they aren’t written by a woman? And likewise, are male characters written by men, healthy and positive portrayals of the gender?
With those questions in mind, I found that Nolan’s directorial decision to focus on men throughout his films shouldn’t be to his discredit. I believe it’s a wise choice, a self-awareness that his ability to accurately depict the human condition will be more effectively presented in male protagonists than in female, for that is what he knows.
And perhaps that is why I left my re-watch of Interstellar feeling so empowered. Moreover, I think my re-watch only heightened the positive feelings I’d fostered from my initial watch, having shut my laptop feeling rather badass, I’ll admit. For yes, Nolan’s protagonist is a heterosexual white male leading a mission through space and time, but his female characters don’t feel insignificant in comparison. Quite the opposite. Nolan has constructed a narrative entirely dependent on the actions of one woman and her intelligence, an importance Nolan establishes from the film’s outset where we hear a woman’s voice in a narration voiceover. This is an attempt to immediately establish a powerful female perspective and voice, and one I think works wonders.
Nolan’s attempts at portraying powerful, intelligent female characters are only heightened by the film’s male lead, Joseph Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), whose sensitivity and compassion underpin all his actions and motivations—a far cry from his painfully sexist role in The Wolf of Wall Street. He is unafraid to feel deeply and convey this emotion outwardly, both as a father and a man who feels he must bear the weight of the world’s future on his shoulders.
By constructing an emotionally empowered male lead, I believe Nolan has given the females of his (mildly depressing) futuristic world room to grow and be more than superficial presences. Thus, enabling them to be more nuanced, more human characters, rather than two-dimensional sidekicks in Cooper’s hero’s journey.
The character of Murph Cooper is a beautiful testament to Nolan’s attempt at accurately depicting women on screen. As the daughter of McConaughey’s Cooper, she is thrust into the world of space and science but does so with a keen curiosity and conviction that makes it her own. She is intelligent and fierce, but also deeply emotional and warm. She doesn’t abandon feminine qualities to be taken more seriously in her position at NASA, and nor does Nolan create a world in which she needs to. The academic prowess and influence of women in this film are presented as the social norm. Murph’s status as the person eventually leading the mission is never questioned, nor is Amelia Brand’s position on the venture, despite her sex and her father’s rank at NASA. Nolan doesn’t include women as a radical and vocal act of feminism, but rather he does so silently and in such a way that caused me to wonder why I expected there to be so much fuss. However, Brand is the only woman in the team, surrounded by 3 men, an unfortunate ratio for which I must ask: was this just a token gesture of feminism?
And yet, Brand’s character is so fleshed out that I find it difficult to diminish her character in such a way. Whilst her character’s introduction is one overwhelmed by girlboss sass and witty remarks, Nolan very quickly shifts to imbue her dialogue with greater complexity, a quality most evident and impactful in this scene:
“But maybe we’ve spent too long trying to figure all this out with theory… love isn’t something we invented, it’s observable, powerful. It has to mean something… love is the one thing we’re capable of perceiving that transcends dimensions of time and space… maybe we should trust that, even if we can’t understand it yet… yes, the tiniest possibility of seeing Wolf again excites me, that doesn’t mean I’m wrong.”
In this instance, Brand acts out of love and the hope of being reunited with the man she’s been without for a decade. Despite the typical association of femininity with ‘silly fantasies’ of love and happy endings, Brand remains sure of herself, unwilling to let her motivations be trivialised or viewed as something that makes her opinion inferior. These qualities extend to Murph, who is so sure of herself and her emotions that she unwaveringly defends what she trusts to be true, not losing these attributes in the typical pipeline of daring child to submissive woman.
Again, scenes like these are where Nolan’s depiction of masculinity are most astounding (even if Cooper can be said to be doing the bare minimum as a man). As a father, he nurtures his daughter’s curiosity and shares in her excitement. He works with her to make sense of the ‘ghost’—a supernatural presence that presents itself in Murph’s bookshelf through morse code and gravity—and he doesn’t punish his daughter for breaking school rules to explore her passions. Aside from the obvious abandonment issue, the relationship between Cooper and Murph was overwhelmingly positive, one in which a young girl was treated as an equal. In this way, all of Cooper’s work in the film is a partnership between him and his daughter.
In situations where Murph’s safety is put at risk, Cooper ensures her safety above his own, not in a way that feels driven by the masculine need to be heroic, but in a more gentle, caring, and maternal way. This lack of toxic masculinity forms what I believe is the foundation of Cooper’s character. Despite his undeniable intelligence and status in his field, I never felt as though his character translated as ‘cocky’ or arrogant, and most importantly, I never felt as though he was ‘mansplaining’. His reckless attempts don’t feel pseudo heroic or fuelled by testosterone, they feel justified and sensible, or as he says, “necessary”. He also possesses the self-awareness to recognise the flaws in his own self-importance, noting “I thought they chose me, but they didn’t choose me, they chose her.” With this realisation, he instantly forgoes a transformation in which he renders himself a man in need of saving, rather than a man who will do the saving.
Despite Cooper’s more gentle, self-aware masculinity, Nolan’s positive portrayal of manhood stops there as he (satisfyingly, I’ll admit) ensures the men are the villains in his story. As the film’s plot unfold, we see that it’s the men of the film, namely Professor Brand and Dr. Mann, who lie and deceive others, driven by their own selfishness and self-preservation. It is the men who in the face of grave existential crises are overcome by selfish thought and action. It is the men who abandon altruistic plans to protect their own reputation and safety.
Thus, Nolan’s Interstellar sheds light on the moral fallibility of men as well as the capacity of men to live beyond the restrictive bounds established by hypermasculinity. They can cry a little or give their daughter a hug without being emasculated. Whilst male leadership is as the forefront of this film, I can’t help but maintain that the film isn’t one about male heroism, but one which emphasises how lost humanity would be without the dedication and tirelessness of women.
In this way the film is much like Cooper Station, as Cooper learns, “the station isn’t named after you sir, it’s named after your daughter.”