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Girl Firepower: "The Heat" hits the mark with its treatment of women

Posted by Scott Kearnan  June 28, 2013 04:00 AM

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What doesn't happen in a movie is often as important as what does. And there's a certain type of scene I was waiting for in The Heat.

It never came. And that was a great thing.

I'll explain. The Heat, opening today, comes from director Paul Feig (Bridesmaids) and filmed in Boston last summer. Its premise pairs an uptight, by-the-books FBI agent, Sarah, (Sandra Bullock) with a loudmouth, loose cannon Boston police detective, Shannon (Melissa McCarthy). Sarah wears her bulletproof vest over impeccably laundered suits; Shannon keeps a weeks-old sandwich in her fridge as a midnight snack. Sarah can recite legal procedure like the alphabet and owns the brain of a CSI script fact-checker; Shannon is pure passion and gut instinct, barking and strong arming her way around. And now they're going to have to work together? Why, these gals couldn't be more different! SHEEPISH FACEPALM!

So here's what I thought would happen. Sarah is yin and Shannon is yang, and in movies like this, there's supposed to be a telling scene where they stumble over their respective Achilles' heels: Shannon's rashness blows the big case and Sarah's rigidity inadvertently betrays a best friend or something. And in that expected moment, yin learns she needs a little more yang while yang learns she needs a little more yin. Then, ta-da! It's the Goldilocks Effect: they re-calibrate their personalities to be not too hot, not too cold, just right ladies! In female-focused movies, this is typically accompanied by some insinuated mansplaining about what it means to be a whole woman, not just some harpy careerist or disheveled oaf who doesn't even care 'bout lipgloss much.

But this scene never happens. The personal evolution is purely unidirectional. Sarah comes to realize she should crib more from Shannon's work style: hilariously badass, butch, and take-no-prisoners. (Unless it's to smack their forehead on the interrogation table and deliver an outstandingly funny, Katie Dippold-scripted insult.) Sure, Sarah is cool, collected, brilliant and eminently qualified for Everything: "the best," her boss reminds her. But she botches promotions and pushes away her FBI colleagues, who find her frustrating and unlikable. (Even her cat ran away.) It's obvious that she cares too much what others think of her, because every time she over-talks about her experience or diagrams her decisions like an intellectual autopsy, it comes across like an apology: It's not that I'm a natural, I just memorize a lot of things! It's a situation that may be relatable to a lot of professional women who have felt like they need to undermine their exceptionalness to be "likable," and rely strictly on patience and quiet competence to lift them to the top. (OW! Was that a glass ceiling?)

Shannon becomes an unlikely role model, in possession of the firepower Sarah needs. McCarthy's character rules the roost, or at least, her precinct. She storms around, makes demands, and in one exceptionally funny scene, brutally roasts her exasperated, emasculated police captain. (Mocking his manhood: "They're like really tiny, little girl balls, if little girls had balls.") It's ridiculous, of course, and wouldn't be nearly as endearing in real life. (Though McCarthy is so charming she could probably pull even that off, if she decides to change careers.) But her character is respected, a little feared, and most of all appreciated. And though she's borderline-boorish, traipsing around in drab, oversized rags with a head of hair that looks like something you'd pull out of the shower drain, the movie refuses to make her its MRS BG. (Man-Repelling Sexless Big Girl.) In fact, there's a running gag where Shannon keeps getting approached by (presumably masochistic) ex-boyfriends who still pine for her, only for her to give them the uncharacteristically gentle brush-off. Director Feig makes it clear that the humor is not in the fact that McCarthy's character is perceived as desirable, but in the audience's inevitable incredulity that, yeah, someone might actually dig a chick like this.

Alas, the marketing gurus behind The Heat were apparently unconvinced audiences would dig her - at least, not on sight alone. The movie posters gave McCarthy one of the worst, most transparent digital slim-downs in recent memory, prompting a wave of criticism. I interviewed Feig last week, and though he was quick to remind that he has very limited involvement with the film's marketing, he offered this about the poster controversy: "My only feeling is that I love Melissa exactly the way she is. I think she's a beautiful woman."

It would be too bad if that pre-release hubbub led viewers to expect a stereotypical Ladies-Doing-Slapstick! comedy that trades on sexism. Because while it's not a loud feminist manifesto (this is still a light, airy comedy after all), the ease with which The Heat treats its female leads, and the dynamic it portrays between these characters, is pretty progressive by summer Hollywood standards. Reviewers will inevitably encapsulate it as a "female buddy cop comedy." It's not. It's a buddy cop comedy. The stars happen to be women.

"I want to push us past seeing two women on a poster and saying, 'oh, it's a chick flick. It's for women,'" said Feig. "I'd rather, 'oh, those are two funny actors I really like.' That's my mission right now, to make movies with these strong female characters that have broad appeal."

He hopes successes like Bridesmaids (and maybe, we'll find this weekend, The Heat?) will encourage other directors to do the same.

"I know so many funny women, and they have traditionally not had the opportunities they should," said Feig. "But I don't want it to be that only when I'm making a movie do women get that chance to break out. I can't do enough movies to house all these great women. All these other filmmakers should be doing it, and be unafraid of pushing it to that level."

Turn up the heat, Hollywood.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About this blog

Scott Kearnan (@thewritestuffSK) is a Boston-based writer, editor, and communications consultant focusing on lifestyle and Arts & Entertainment. He's also a part-time smart aleck and buffalo wing connoisseur. "Media Remix" is where couch potatoes meet pop culture criticism. More »

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