Girls on Film: The Heat breaks new ground by not being groundbreaking
"What is the point of making a movie that's just like the dopiest, broadest, and most reductive grade of guy-oriented comedy, except with women?"
That's the question at the heart of Salon critic Andrew O'Hehir's review of last week's Sandra Bullock/Melissa McCarthy buddy cop comedy The Heat — a movie he derides for its depiction of "women who have internalized the vicious, macho culture of police work." He questions the way Ashburn (Sandra Bullock) and Mullins (Melissa McCarthy) use physical threats on their quest to bring down an elusive drug dealer, and wishes that the movie had more "dramatic weight." He says that "gross misconduct" by police officers shouldn't be framed as funny, and thinks the film's "high body count" should "mean something."
Though his review frames these aspects of the film as negatives, O'Hehir's aggrieved response to The Heat is exactly the point of The Heat: Combating the idea that having a vagina requires an entirely distinct set of behaviors and expectations than having a penis.
The Heat was made to give women the opportunity to act in a completely male-dominated genre — and, in doing so, to show the genre's universality. Though the buddy cop genre has seen many interracial partnerships (Beverly Hills Cop, Lethal Weapon, 48 Hours) and even a few team-ups between men and animals (Turner & Hooch), Hollywood had never offered a buddy cop movie starring two women. The Heat isn't trying to reimagine an old genre trope with a new social consciousness like, say, Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy. From the film's title sequence full of classic beats and retro fonts, director Paul Feig and Co. explicitly frame the comedy as a deeply traditional buddy cop film — but one that happens to star two women.
The Heat strives to level the playing field and abolish the notion that women are so different than men — which makes it a window to an audience still applying gendered expectations to women behind and on the screen. O'Hehir's discontent is not a critique of the buddy cop genre altogether; it's the result of his expectations about how women should act within what he describes as "guy-oriented comedy." He describes the screenplay as something "driven by a confused machismo," and is ultimately unhappy with a film that shows evidence "that women on the screen, and behind the camera, and in the audience can be just as morally reckless as men."
The many critiques leveled at The Heat are similar to the backlash received by director Paul Feig's last big-buzz, female-dominated comedy, Bridesmaids. The film's food poisoning scene not only evoked questions (handily rounded up by Vulture) about whether women should partake in the same comedy as men, but questions about whether women could be gross at all — as if women who experience food poisoning go to the toilet to pass roses and rainbows. "Guys and gross make a better fit," asserted Peter Travers in Rolling Stone. "Who needs to see bridesmaids puking up lunch and shitting their pants?" In the New York Post, Lou Lumenick questioned the idea that "women among themselves behave every bit as grossly as men. Maybe it's just the romantic in me, but I'd sure like to think this is not really true." (He must've read that old issue of Cosmo in which Kim Kardashian joked that she's never "gone #2 or passed gas.")
Feig directly addressed questions about women "acting like men" during an interview with Grantland. "It drives me crazy when people say that!" he exclaimed. "Both movies are vetted by women, written by women. I think it's the fact that women are treated one way in most movies — you know, this is what women are like, and they do this and they do that. But this is based on what women I know actually do."
The Heat questions the idea that a female version of a buddy cop film must be different than a man's, just as Bridesmaids questioned the notion that women wouldn't be felled by explosive bowels. Both comedies battle with and expand typical portrayals of women on the big screen, and act as a reminder that male and female experiences aren't diametrically opposed. The Heat also challenges the assumption that women are inherently attracted to different genres and themes than men. The Heat's almost $40 million box office was made of 65 percent women, who gave it an A- Cinema Score. We can't forget that women generally have the same cinematic upbringing as men — raised to watch life overwhelmingly through the view of male protagonists and male creatives.
The Heat and Bridesmaids also contend with the problematic link between feminism and cinema — one that goes beyond our discussion of the "female filmmaker" label. In a world where Geena Davis predicts that it will take a whopping 700 years for gender roles to reach parity, feminism is needed to both speak to the imbalance and fight to change it. But it also comes with an unfair expectation of activism. For some, it's not enough for a film like The Heat to treat and display women equally; it must also infuse its story with added social responsibility — even though many actresses struggle to find speaking roles, let alone good characters, in Hollywood. In one fell swoop, a movie like The Heat is expected to transcend its genre, be a feminist icon, right other imbalances, and fix any perceived thematic weaknesses of the past.
Why isn't it enough that Bullock and McCarthy easily slipped into roles that have almost universally been held by men, expanded cinema's narrow portrayal of female cops, and turned The Heat into a financial success — all of which are significant wins for feminist filmmaking? (For a more detailed breakdown of the film's trope-busting, read Ashley Fetters' "The Heat's Subtly Radical Portrayal of Policewomen" at The Atlantic.)
Women are expected to do what men are not. Mainstream cinema is overflowing with massive destruction that rarely shows the consequences, and O'Hehir mentions such moments in his reviews of both Star Trek Into Darkness and Man of Steel. He does not, however, ask for dramatic weight to balance the lack of "moral cost and consequence," and violence without "real acknowledgement of death or suffering." Those films offer far more potential for serious dramatic weight than a conventional buddy cop comedy, but there is "absolutely nothing wrong with Star Trek Into Darkness — once you understand it as a generic comic-book-style summer flick."
Cinematic equality is not just a matter of numbers — it's a matter of attitude. It's 2013, and it's time to stop expecting that women be paragons of etiquette, rising above the bawdy boys on the playground. Let's hope we can learn that lesson before Feig releases his next groundbreaking female-centric action spin — the James Bond-inspired Susan Cooper.