The Importance of The Heat
4:15 pm, July 10th | by Michelle Alerte and Colette McIntyre
There’s The Other Guys starring Will Ferrel and Mark Walberg, Cop Out, Starsky & Hutch (both a TV series and a movie), Lethal Weapon, Running Scared…the list goes on and on. The buddy-cop movie is a long-established genre, steeped in hypermasculinity, testosterone, and the historic appeal of watching two bro-dudes kick butt and take names. Yet with the incredible success of Bridesmaids and the explosion of Melissa McCarthy’s career, Hollywood is finally beginning to sing another tune. Enter The Heat, a buddy-cop movie that disrupts the traditional paradigm by featuring two female leads.
The Heat sets out to conquer two stereotypes: that female action heroes aren’t interesting and that women can’t be funny. Christopher Hitchens wasn’t — and, unfortunately, still isn’t — when he argued in a now-infamous Vanity Fair article that “for men, it is a tragedy that the two things they prize the most — women and humor — should be so antithetical.” Statistics show that since the ’80s, fewer than ten female buddy-comedies have been released, even though those ten films were solid hits. One example, 1987’s Outrageous Fortune, starring Bette Midler and Shelley Long, generated $52.8 million in the box office, over $3 million more than Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, the Steve Martin-John Candy vehicle. Even though the numbers proved that female buddy-comedies were financially viable, the genre continued to be male-dominated, with releases like Dumb and Dumber, and Men in Black. It wasn’t until 1997 that another female-led buddy-comedy was released: Mira Sorvino and Lisa Kudrow’s Romy & Michelle’s High School Reunion.
While there have been a few female buddy-comedies, none included action. Originally titled “The Untitled Female Buddy Cop Comedy,” The Heat sought to change that. “I feel like women go to these male-dominated comedies and, you know, they laugh, but I feel like they’re not relating quite as much,” director Paul Fieg explained to The Daily Californian. “To find that thing that you’re like, ‘Oh! That’s me, that’s my friends, I really get it!’ That to me is kind of comedy nirvana.”
Instead of goofing on Bullock’s and McCarthy’s gender, The Heat plays the buddy-cop setup by the book, relying on the implicit humor of two mismatched partners trying to work together to save the day. ““One of my goals in my career is to break down the wall so it’s not a ‘chick flick,’ it’s not a ‘guy comedy,’” Fieg said. “It’s just a comedy — this one just happens to star women, this one just happens to star men — so that men will stop reacting like, ‘Oh, it’s a chick flick, I don’t want to see that.’” Let’s face it, in less masterful/feminist hands, The Heat could have easily veered toward gender stereotypes: Sandra Bullock picking her way across a dirty alley, grumbling while the perp gets away; seeing Melissa McCarthy getting all dolled up in order to catch the eye of Hunk X.
The beauty of The Heat (well, one of its many beauties) is that it doesn’t imply that McCarthy’s Boston detective or Bullock’s FBI agent need men to make them whole or fix them. In a recent interview with The Wrap, Jenno Topping, President of Films at Chernin Entertainment and a producer on The Heat, spoke about the filmmakers’ decision to defy the studio’s urging and not include love interests for McCarthy and Bullock. Toppings felt that the lack of romance is key to movie’s appeal: “Male figures aren’t relevant one way or the other to Sandy and Melissa’s journey in this film,” she said. “This decision was considered a risk. It was believed men wouldn’t want to see a movie about two women being cops and women wouldn’t want to see women playing cops and not being cute or sexy.”
It’s rare that a film with strong and aggressive female characters doesn’t try to temper their “masculinity” by introducing romance. Take Bullock’s last police comedy, Miss Congeniality, for example. While Bullock played a tough, no-nonsense FBI agent Gracie Hart, she had to be turned into a sexy bombshell in order to turn her coworkers’ heads and demonstrate her worth. It is implied that viewers should be repulsed and amused by Hart pre-transformation; she is sad, crude, and just not doing “it” (read: her gender) right. Nevermind the fact that she is strong and smart and can kick a man’s ass — she isn’t pretty and that’s a problem. It is only after Hart is plucked, tucked, and made over that we begin to like her. A woman playing an action hero can only be tolerated if she is feminine-looking and scores a man.
The Heat showcases McCarthy and Bullock in an appropriately non-glamorous light. These ladies aren’t concerned with vanity: on screen, Bullock and McCarthy jump over fences, throw punches, and get messy drunk. They aren’t aggressively chasing down a criminal in one scene only to be batting their eyelashes in the next. Naturally, we aren’t advocating for the removal of all traces of femininity; rather we just want to see complex female characters, like those in The Heat.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that The Heat shatters gender stereotypes — I mean, it was written by a woman. Previous to The Heat, Katie Dippold produced and wrote several Parks and Recreation episodes and wrote several episodes of MADtv. Perhaps Hollywood’s willingness to produce atypical female-led movies is due to the fact that tired gender stereotypes about a “women’s place” no longer have any reference: more women are the primary wage-earners in their households; an increasing amount of women are working in male-dominated fields. It’s taken until 2013, but maybe the film industry finally understands that times are a-changin’. The days of June Cleaver are decidedly over, in as much as every woman feels she must strive to be her. The success of movies like Bridesmaids and The Heat asserts that today’s woman isn’t averse to seeing herself reflected on-screen in all her multi-faceted glory.
While the success of The Heat (and it was incredibly successful, opening to an estimated $40 million) isn’t a harbinger of The Year of The Female-Led Comedy, it is a step in the right direction. The Heat certainly paved the way for more female buddy-cop comedies where the women aren’t relegated to love interests and can be seen holding their own in a traditionally male workplace.