Originally published at Bitch Flicks.
I was extremely excited to see The Heat. Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy, both of whom I love, headlining a comedy? As a huge fan of Bridesmaids, seeing self-proclaimed feminist Paul Feig direct another lady-centric comedy got me giddy with excitement. AND with Bullock and McCarthy??? Yes, please! I don’t care what anyone says, Sandra Bullock is a fantastic actor, even in shitty films. And McCarthy is hilarious.
I purposely saw it the weekend it opened to support women in film. Seeing films opening weekend sends a message to Hollywood which films matter to audiences. In this case, that female-centric films do sell, that they do matter.
Both FBI Special Agent Sarah Ashburn (Sandra Bullock) and Detective Shannon Mullins (Melissa McCarthy) excel at their jobs. Ashburn is in the FBI and while the men don’t respect her, she thinks they’re intimidated by her (which she’s probably right), she gets shit done. Mullins, a Boston cop, is feared by everyone at her precinct, including the chief of police. But she too gets shit done. Both women are top-notch at their jobs. And they clash when they first meet. Not because of catty bullshit pitting the women against one another, a common trope in way too many movies and TV shows. But because they both want to succeed at their jobs and they don’t want anyone getting in their ways.
But I have to be honest. I didn’t really like The Heat that much. After talking to quite a few feminists, I feel like the only feminist who didn’t love it.
I adore Bullock and McCarthy, and I loved seeing them on-screen together. They possessed an effortless chemistry. It was great seeing a film focusing on female friendship between two career-driven, successful women. And there were some funny parts. Don’t think that I didn’t laugh. I did. But for me, the movie suffered from weak dialogue and a weak plot. Can we finally please for-the-love-of-all-that-is-fucking-holy stop having debates as to whether or not women are funny?? Please??? To me this was a case of funny ladies in a not-so-funny movie.
What really tainted the movie for me was its preponderance of ableist, racist and transphobic humor. I was horrified when I saw these jokes continually occur one after another. Fuck that noise.
When we’re introduced to Mullins, she’s staking out drug dealing suspect Terrell Rojas. There’s something extremely bothersome in the first 15 minutes of the movie about a white cop driving after a black man running on foot set to upbeat music as if this is supposed to be funny. Then there are watermelon jokes (naturally). When Ashburn and Mullins run into Rojas later on, they end up holding him upside down by his feet over the railing of a fire escape. And then drop him. While the audience around me roared with laughter, I didn’t find it funny. At all. As Sarah Jackson said on Twitter, “celebrating police brutality and unfunny race jokes,” just isn’t funny.
But the racism doesn’t stop there. While it’s great that there were people of color in the film, having a white woman, refer to a Latino character as Puss in Boots, alluding to the Antonio Banderas voiced character in Shrek (ugh, fuck no), undermines diversity with racism. Oh, but wait. I forgot it’s all okay because at one point in the film, Mullins says, “9 out of 10 guys I fuck are black.” Oh, the Lisa Lampanelli argument. You can do all sorts of racist shit and say horrific racist things but you CANNOT be a racist if you have sex with black men or have black friends. Riiiight.
Then there’s the extremely offensive transphobia. When Ashburn meets Mullins’ family, they ask her if she’s really a woman. When she tells them yes, they retort, “From the get-go? No operation?” and “How do you get such a close shave?” Oh ha ha ha, trans people are SO FUNNY. No, just no. Now I know people will say but Ashburn isn’t trans so it’s not a slight. Yes, it is most definitely a transphobic joke. Here the “joke” is that a woman looks masculine or androgynous. Her androgyny, her lack of conformity to stereotypical beauty norms automatically means she’s transgressing traditional gender roles, so that must make her transgender. Trans women and trans men are continually mocked, belittled and dehumanized in media and our society.
And there’s Mullins’ five-minute (supposedly humorous) tirade on the size of her boss’ balls. How his balls are little “girl balls.” That’s right, let’s insult a guy by insulting the size of his testicles. Only “real” men have balls. Wait no, only “real” men have big balls. Newsflash, masculinity isn’t tied to scrotum size. And trans men may not have balls at all. They’re still men.
Oh and we have to make fun of accents too. Hey, why not? Ashburn has a difficult time understanding Mullins’ brother saying the word “nark” because of his Boston accent. Oh accents are soooo funny!! Maybe I’m particularly annoyed by this because I live in Boston. And apparently all Bostonians have ties to crime, if I’ve learned anything from watching movies.
Then of course there’s DEA Agent Craig, aka The Albino. Did anyone else cringe at this??? God I hope so. Albinism is a disability. So now we’re making fun of people with disabilities for “looking like evil henchmen” and calling them “Snowcone??” Make it stop.
With all the offensive “jokes,” I was expecting fat-shaming jokes too. I loved that Melissa McCarthy’s weight was never an issue in the film. No jokes were made about her weight. Oh wait, I take that back. DEA Agent Craig tells her she looks “like the Campbell soup kid all grown up.” Really? We see Mullins as a sexually confident, assertive woman and we can’t get away without some fat-shaming snark? There is however an epic take-down of the horrors and toxicity of beauty culture in the form of Spanx. Yes, I’ve worn them, yes they are a demonic torture device. This was especially awesome considering the hideously disgusting fat-shaming vitriol Rex Reed spewed at McCarthy.
But I have to say that while part of me is delighted to see different depictions of gender presentation, particularly non-stereotypical depictions of beauty (not every woman wants to wear dresses and lots of make-up), does Melissa McCarthy always have to be in slovenly clothes or ridiculous costumes in every movie I see her in?? She’s a beautiful woman. But it’s as if the films she’s in don’t believe that a plus-size woman can be. Why can’t we see a plus-size woman looking different? Or for that matter, why can’t we see more women of all sizes on-screen??
I did love Bullock and McCarthy’s camaraderie and watching their friendship unfold. And it’s fantastic to see two women over the age of 40 headlining a blockbuster movie. Especially when Hollywood abhors aging women and suffers from massive amounts of ageism. And you could tell they had a fucking blast making this movie. It was also awesome to not have a romance in the film, an aspect that delighted Feig as well. While there were flirtations, no romance upstaged the film. The ladies’ sisterhood took center stage.
Part of me was highly annoyed the film didn’t transcend the trappings of a buddy-cop comedy. Although Monika Bartyzel at Girls On Film asserts that critics have missed the point as The Heat breaks new ground by not being groundbreaking. And I get what she’s saying. But there’s something to be said for just showing women in film rather than having to analyze patriarchal oppressions.While there’s very little commentary on gender and sexism, and an ass load of misogyny spewed by DEA Agent Craig — Sidebar, is that why it’s okay to make fun of his disability, because he’s a douchebag?? No, no, no — Ashburn and Mullins kind of “blow off misogynistic bullshit.” But thankfully there’s a very brief and subtle commentary on sexism in the workplace amidst a conversation between Ashburn and Mullins at a bar about how hard it is to be a woman in this line of work.
But did it have to follow in the shadow of buddy-cop movies by also containing transphobic, ableist and racist jokes? Couldn’t it have done without that??
Sadly I wasn’t a huge fan of The Heat. I wish I had been. But I just couldn’t get past the extremely problematic humor. Sigh. I wish it hadn’t been so racist, ableist or transphobic. I wanted to like this, especially because it was written by Katie Dippold, a writer and producer of my fave feminist TV show Parks and Rec. But feminism isn’t just about gender equality and putting more women in film. Although that’s a huge start. It’s about combating all forms of institutional discrimination and oppression. And not perpetuating prejudice.
Despite its flaws, I wholeheartedly believe we need more female-centric films. Way more. And you know what? I’d rather have a female-centric movie I’m not a big fan of rather than none at all.
I’ve read that author (and very funny tweeter) Jennifer Weiner doesn’t like to criticize or speak negatively about books by other female writers because she knows how difficult it is for women to get published. And then when they do, male authors get reviewed more often, and typically by male critics, since gender disparity exists in the critic world too.
And I totally get why she does this. Sisterhood and solidarity can be extremely powerful. There’s a dearth of female film directors, female-fronted films, female screenwriters, female film critics. So I always feel guilty when I don’t lavish a female-centric/penned/directed film. But here’s the thing. I really shouldn’t have to worry about whether or not my critique is going to derail other female filmmakers. Not that I’m saying my words carry as much weight as say NY Times’ Manohla Dargis or anything. But I don’t want to add to the din of voices hyper-scrutinizing women-led films.
Like my Bitch Flicks colleague Leigh Kolb, I too “want theaters to be packed with genre films with women at the helm — in character, with the writing credits, as directors.” I want to get to a point when we have an abundance of women in films — women of all races, ethnicities, sexualities, classes, abilities, etc. — in front of and behind the camera. Wouldn’t that be awesome?? Of course it would. Diversity and equality are good for all.
Then I can critique a film to my heart’s content without worrying that some asshat in Hollywood thinks they shouldn’t greenlight more women-centric films. Hollywood never thinks to stop making movies with male protagonists. One shitty dude-centric movie? Bring on more dude films. A shitty women-centric movie?? All lady movies must suck.
Gender shouldn’t be blamed for a film’s failure. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want my humor to be hilarious as well as feminist and intersectional. Trust me, I do. So here’s a tip, filmmakers. You want to make a truly feminist film? Don’t muck it up with prejudicial bullshit. Feminism isn’t about women standing on the backs of other oppressed people in order to get ahead. I want to root for ladies on-screen without cringing the entire time I’m watching. Is that really too much to ask?
This film had many problems and while I appreciate your point of view I don’t think it is even necessary to precisely identify examples of every ‘ism’ portrayed within to critique it when broader terms would suffice. I mean the characters are all so flawed I don’t understand how anyone could like any of them. What stood out to me when watching the film was the glorification of a total lack of police ethics and many examples of Police brutality from the very characters we are expected to consider ‘the good guys’. This is against a backdrop of supposed scumbag Police officers whose various crimes in addition to begin male appear to be general weakness of character (the Chief and character played by Wayans), mediocrity (all officers who cannot keep up with Bullocks character), misogynistic (implied in several scenes by colleagues and specifically the albino officer) or a lead crime figure. All other male characters are criminals of varying degrees. I agree with your sentiments. Nobody wins with a the zero-sum approach to feminism (or any ism for that matter). Having females emasculating and otherwise denigrating men does not bolster women. It puzzles me that seeing female characters who are unethical, violent, unhappy loners provokes women to think yeah! girl power!