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The Heat: A Feminist Triumph or Business as Usual?

This is a guest post by Joanne Gilbert and Chih-Ping Chen. Joanne Gilbert is the Charles A. Dana Professor and Chair of the Communication and New Media Studies Department at Alma College. She is the author of Performing Marginality: Humor, Gender, and Cultural Critique (Wayne State UP, 2004). Chih-Ping Chen is an Associate Professor of English and Director of Women’s and Gender Studies at Alma College where she specializes in 19th Century British and 20th century ethnic American Literature.

So far, the blogosphere has been busy extolling the big box office blockbuster The Heat, a film starring Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy that netted $40 million its opening weekend. Hailed as both a comic vehicle for its two superstars and a trailblazing movie that “breaks the mold” of the male “buddy-cop-action-comedy” genre, The Heat has garnered great reviews from critics appreciative of its girl power message (e.g., Laura Shamas’ July 1 review in The Huffington Post). No doubt, the film succeeds as a comedy, trading in running gags and clever parody sustained by the talents of Bullock and McCarthy. But is The Heat truly a feminist triumph? If so, what kind and at whose expense? Looking beyond the laughter, how does the film depict women’s ability to succeed in a male dominated profession? And does using this genre really “break the mold?”

As feminist rhetorical critics, it seems to us that The Heat features both seemingly radical (Shannon Mullins, played by McCarthy) and liberal (Sara Ashburn, played by Bullock) feminist characters whose only way to combat institutional patriarchy is to use its tools, both rhetorical and material. Although several others have raised concerns about the film’s mixed messages (e.g., Andrew O’Hehir’s June 28 review in Salon), we have yet to see discussion of this particular conundrum. And unlike the critics who laud The Heat as sheer empowerment, we believe that the merit of this film is not in its glorification of female “Lethal Weapons” or “Bad Boys,” but in its parodic critique of the male buddy genre–a critique rendered subversive through its use of humor.

The beginning of the film explicitly highlights the “advantages” of radical feminism: Whereas Mullins, who adopts a classic masculine rhetorical style, is simultaneously admired and feared by her male colleagues for her tough, confrontational tactics, Ashburn, who adopts a feminine rhetorical style as she attempts to work within the parameters of the justice system, is condemned as arrogant. Although both are loners within their institutional hierarchies, only Mullins appears comfortable with her maverick reputation. Ashburn, on the other hand, exemplifies discomfort as she tries to fit into a male-defined context and is consistently rejected.

Adhering to the generic formula of male cop-buddy films, Mullins and Ashburn become reluctant partners in an attempt to catch a notorious drug kingpin. As A. O. Scott’s June 27 review in The New York Times points out, such partnership usually leads to a middle ground. This time, however, the audience is invited to identify with Mullins and laugh at Ashburn’s conservatism and insecurity. By mocking Ashburn’s business suit, tuxedo pajamas, body image, and anxiety about rule breaking in general, Mullins provides an acerbic cultural critique of liberal feminism, suggesting that women who work within the system to enact change are doomed to fail—that in fact, only “the master’s tools” will ever dismantle institutional patriarchy. The solution? Mullins attempts to radicalize Ashburn by giving her both a physical and rhetorical makeover. Though the comedy is deftly played, the club restroom scene is almost painful to watch as Mullins “breaks down” Ashburn’s insecure body image and “liberates” Ashburn into a seductive femme fatale in order to trap the clubbing drug dealer. Indeed, embodying her namesake, “Ashburn” is reborn as the archetypal phoenix, one which now possesses the necessary tools to make men squirm.

Yet, as the clichéd Bostonian-Irish loner cop, Mullins’ radical feminist character seems unable to assert her unruly girl power without borrowing male maverick images and the tools of male dominance usually problematized under the radical feminist lens. Mullins uses physical aggression and profane language to intimidate her peers into submission. Her always-unkempt hair, large size, and baggy clothes make her indistinguishable from a drunken male pub patron in a similar outfit. Mullins is the “one-night stand” bad girl who leaves men wanting; interestingly, the men attracted to her are by no means attractive to the audience, so perhaps the last laugh in this context is on her.

Ashburn’s embodiment of “feminine” norms and liberal feminist practice are no less problematic. The fact that her career ambition ends her marriage and her only significant other is a secretly borrowed neighbor’s cat invokes familiar laughs at career woman and old maid stereotypes. Her “ugly duckling” lack of attractiveness in cut-board business suits and hairpins repels even Mullins. Once radicalized, however, Ashburn becomes a Mullins-like maverick who uses profane language, defends Mullins against male agents/officers, and arms herself with Mullins’ high-powered weapons, cementing their partnership in a two-woman rebellious mission to catch the bad guy.

The “triumph” of these female buddies, in the final warehouse and hospital scenes, is laced with physical comedy that successfully satirizes the cliché of male buddy heroism. Bordering on slapstick, but still playing to Bullock’s comedic strengths, gags such as Ashburn’s thigh stabbings, wheelchair fumbling, and commando-crawling through the hospital hallway evoke audience laughter through recognition of the clowning tradition made famous by male buddy film stars such as Mel Gibson, Danny Glover, Will Smith, and Martin Lawrence. Unlike male buddy films, however, The Heat culminates with Ashburn’s shooting “below the belt,” echoing a threat Mullins issues to her boss at the beginning of the movie. Clearly representing radical feminism, the two female (s)heroes only achieve glory by quite literally destroying the master’s “tool,” and hence, speaking truth to patriarchal power.

It is only at the end that The Heat breaks the male buddy film mold, though not in the empowering way some critics suggest. Unlike many male buddy comedies, The Heat does not end with its protagonists finding romance or universal recognition. Rather, a made over Mullins receives an award–wearing a suit with her hair in a tight bun–appearing to mock institutionally endorsed heroism as a cliché when she turns the occasion into a comic glamour shot photo-opp. Indeed, the final moments of the film which indicate a permanent bond between Mullins and Ashburn suggest that the real reward for women struggling in a male-dominated world is sisterhood– that true power is drawn not from accolades in the public sphere, but within close relationships. Is this a feminist message or one that foregrounds a classic feminine trope? Is The Heat yet another failed attempt at portraying female success as anything other than male-defined, or an incisive comic critique of patriarchal power? Clearly, the film succeeds as a comedy by entertaining audiences, but its most significant accomplishment is its skillful use of the male buddy formula as a way to critique precisely that genre. If The Heat is a feminist triumph, it is because humor is a feminist “tool.”


27 thoughts on The Heat: A Feminist Triumph or Business as Usual?

  1. I don’t think their friendship is a feminine trope. Too often, the only way to succeed using “the master’s tools” is by stepping over the heads of other women to receive the praise of men for being The Exceptional Woman. I think it’s radical to eschew that status in favor of women building each other up.

    1. For the most part that’s just an awful and ridiculous stereotype. And unfortunately many people still buy into that.

  2. Mmm, I thought the trailer was pretty cringeworthy. Couldn’t hang with the Big Laffs of dangling that dude from the balcony and dropping him.

  3. Mullins’ radical feminist character

    I’d be very curious to learn how the authors of this piece define “radical feminism.” Because they use it in a way that doesn’t seem clear to me, and doesn’t bear much resemblance either to how I interpret that term, or to how I’ve seen women who identify as radical feminists do so. I’ve always understood it as being far more complicated than simply the dichotomy between “using the master’s tools” to dismantle patriarchy, and not doing so.

    And perhaps in academia the authors are able to ignore the extremely problematic aspects of radical feminism that have been so closely associated with that movement for the last 40+ years, but I’m not. I think there’s a certain amount of obliviousness involved (not to mention ciscentrism) when anyone blithely uses “radical feminism” as an unadulterated positive, and seemingly assumes that their audience will see it the same way.

    1. I’d be very curious to learn how the authors of this piece define “radical feminism.” Because they use it in a way that doesn’t seem clear to me, and doesn’t bear much resemblance either to how I interpret that term, or to how I’ve seen women who identify as radical feminists do so. I’ve always understood it as being far more complicated than simply the dichotomy between “using the master’s tools” to dismantle patriarchy, and not doing so.

      And perhaps in academia the authors are able to ignore the extremely problematic aspects of radical feminism that have been so closely associated with that movement for the last 40+ years, but I’m not. I think there’s a certain amount of obliviousness involved (not to mention ciscentrism) when anyone blithely uses “radical feminism” as an unadulterated positive, and seemingly assumes that their audience will see it the same way.

      I agree. from what I’ve seen on the internet described as “radical feminism.” However, acknowledging that problematic term, I would respectfully throw the question back at you: What term would you use for this character?

      1. I have no idea — particularly since I haven’t seen the movie — and don’t really care enough to try to think of a single term to describe the character. Something I’m not in the habit of doing anyway, since I find it somewhat reductive.

    2. I was thinking the same thing. I seriously doubt a mainstream movie would actually have a portrayal of a radical feminist. In almost seems as though “radical feminist” in this article just means “feminist.” Or not even that, “non-conforming to gender roles”, perhaps.

    3. There seems to be a serious disconnect when it comes to the usage of the term radical feminism outside of certain feminist and and academic circles and that of the average person on the street. Academics and active feminists reserve the term for actual radical feminists a la Andrea Dworkin et al, while the average person I think considers any sort of “out there” feminist-ish thought to be radical feminism (you know, because it’s so radical.). Anyone else remember Rick Santorum railing against radical feminism during his campaign? Because it was painfully clear at the time that he was using the term to refer to any feminist thought that led to women not wanting to be under the thumb of men and religion.

      Add in there the recent efforts of a certain well-known Internet feminist to declare traditional radical feminism dead so that she can reclaim it for her preferred useage, and the waters become increasingly muddy.

      I would be perfectly happy to see most of radical feminism go away, because of its gender essentialism and transphobia. But I doubt that’s going to happen any time soon.

      1. But this piece was written by academics, so I assume they used the term deliberately, as a term of art, rather than in the standard right-wing journalistic way (namely, that anyone who actually believes that misogyny and institutionalized sexism still exist, and that men in general hold a more privileged position in society than women in general, is a “radical feminist”).

      1. Many different academic terms are used without explanation or explicit connection to the concrete characteristic assumed to imply these classifications.

        The academic classifications of Ashburn’s character are:
        is a liberal feminist
        has a feminine rhetorical style
        attempts to work within the parameters of the justice system
        exemplifies discomfort
        tries to fit into a male-defined context
        insecure body image
        is reborn as the archetypal phoenix

        The concrete evidence assumed to imply these classifications:
        has a business suit, tuxedo pajamas, body image, and anxiety about rule breaking in general
        gets transformed into a seductive femme fatale
        her career ambition ends her marriage and her only significant other is a secretly borrowed neighbor’s cat
        becomes a Mullins-like maverick who uses profane language, defends Mullins against male agents/officers, and arms herself with Mullins’ high-powered weapons
        shoots “below the belt”

        Even the more concrete descriptions include academic classifications without explicit referents or explanation

      2. Yeah, that struck me too. The moment I saw “The Heat features… radical… feminist characters”, I knew there was no way the authors were talking about radical feminists in the everyday sense of the word. I’m sure the above statement is as correct as writing, “Ann Coulter is a liberal democrat” — it might be true, but for less academic feminists, a little explanation would go a long way…

  4. Mullins is the “one-night stand” bad girl who leaves men wanting; interestingly, the men attracted to her are by no means attractive to the audience, so perhaps the last laugh in this context is on her.

    So, I wonder if “attractive to the audience” means that the men are physically unattractive or just generally not the “type” of man heterosexual women would be attracted to, as if that exists. Because A) why should we laugh at unattractive people having sex anyway? How is that “feminist?” and B) if it’s the latter, what’s wrong having lower standards for someone you are just going to sleep with rather than have a relationship with? If the gender roles were reversed here, would we laugh at a man who had sex with someone he didn’t much like but enjoyed sleeping with?

  5. I like how it is clearly shown that succeeding as a woman in “a man’s world” is hard not because women are less than (both are highly competent), but because of the folks in that world choosing to be bigoted and undermining eg if the misogynist cop had worked with them instead of dismissing them specifically because of misogyny, deaths would be avoided and the villain stopped quicker. It’s not so much about the feminine or otherwise styles of the two cops. I’d argue Ashburn is clearly not traditionally feminine, in that she doesn’t shave her legs, she doesn’t defer, she’s not perky and “girly”, she doesn’t dress prettily (she is no Elle Woods). What is awesome about these 2 characters is that ‘lady cop’ is something other people project onto them. For them, their individual skills and personalities are what matters, whereas (some/many) other characters insist on seeing them as women first and cops/individuals later. We get two fairly radical messages delivered quite lightly: that this is foolish of those folks, and that these two women are people first and women second, which shouldn’t be radical, but it is.

  6. I don’t really understand the authors’ take on this movie, to the point where I wonder if we watched different films. Like others, I’m particularly confused by the use of “radical feminist” to describe Melissa McCarthy’s character, when as far as I can tell she had approximately the same personal and professional views about women that Sandra Bullock’s character did. The primary differences were in their approach to policing (by the books vs. do whatever works, generally as angrily as possible) and personal presentation (put together vs. sloppy), but I didn’t see anything suggesting they subscribed to different models of feminism.

    Other parts of this seem to misconstrue the movie as well. Like the idea that Bullock’s character is transformed into a “femme fatale” that is “reborn as the archetypal phoenix, one which now possesses the necessary tools to make men squirm.” That scene was entirely played for laughs — Bullock does get a quick bathroom makeover from McCarthy to try to get close to a male suspect in a club, but she ends up looking ridiculous in torn-off pants, doesn’t know how to “sexy dance”, and only gets the guy’s attention when McCarthy physically knocks other women out of the way to give her a clear shot at the guy. It was a satirical riff on the traditional makeover/femme fatale transformation, and Bullock promptly goes back to wearing pantsuits and looking as she did before. Similarly, I think the authors really misread the running gag about McCarthy’s character’s one-night stands — most of them are quite attractive (and the least attractive is probably the one played by McCarthy’s real-life husband, so I doubt they put him in there as a joke about only ugly dudes liking her), and all of them are super into her but she’s just not interested in them. That’s awfully progressive compared to most movies, subverting two kinds of expectations (it portrays the men as needy and desperate for a relationship while the woman is happy with casual sex, and it portrays generally more attractive men as very interested in a less attractive woman who isn’t into them).

    This review also, for reasons I don’t understand, leaves out what is probably the most important scene for analyzing The Heat’s feminism — the one where the two leads bond at a bar, talking about how difficult it can be as a woman to be taken seriously in their male-dominated careers, and how they are okay with having prioritized their career over having a family but still feel lonely sometimes. I thought that brief scene was one of the better, more honest takes on women with demanding careers that I’ve seen in a movie.

    The Heat wasn’t a spectacular movie, but I thought it was a solid comedy and very enjoyable because of its feminism. The women are the active characters, solving the crimes and kicking ass, and their most important relationship and character development is with one another. They’re both fully-clothed (with the exception of the club scene I discussed) throughout the movie (and more than that, appropriately dressed for policing — pantsuits and combat gear, not the sexy-cop wear that so many TV shows and movies put women in). And the movie addresses the challenges for women in male-dominated fields, including insinuating that Bullock’s co-workers’ resentment for her is attributable in part to the fact that she’s a woman who’s too good at her job.

  7. “This review also, for reasons I don’t understand, leaves out what is probably the most important scene for analyzing The Heat’s feminism — the one where the two leads bond at a bar, talking about how difficult it can be as a woman to be taken seriously in their male-dominated careers, and how they are okay with having prioritized their career over having a family but still feel lonely sometimes. I thought that brief scene was one of the better, more honest takes on women with demanding careers that I’ve seen in a movie.”

    I’m glad Esti brought up the point about the scenes such as the bar scene which really helped me to identify with the protagonists. My reaction to the film was that I walked out wishing I had been born as one of the protagonists. They were heroines and caught the villian in the face of great odds. I guess what surprised me about some of McCarthy’s more angry and confrontrational scenes is that they didn’t come across as mean spirited. I think it is a sign of progress that women are the protagonists of the movie and their motives are courageous.

  8. Cagney and Lacey was the first show of its kind, awesomely groundbreaking, and really well-written and -acted.

      1. It was on Netflix for awhile, and the fam & I were working our way through it, when suddenly it was gone! Sigh. No catering to geezers, I guess. 🙂

  9. Mullins doesn’t work outside the system. She may not adhere to all of its rules, but she’s still working (literally) within the law.

    I thought this movie had its funny moments, but I wouldn’t watch it again because its take on race is really problematic. Scene after scene of white women law enforcement doing things like hanging a young black man over a fire escape makes it pretty clear that this is a story for white women.

  10. Her always-unkempt hair, large size, and baggy clothes make her indistinguishable from a drunken male pub patron in a similar outfit.

    The bolded is mine. I don’t appreciate the authors’ citing Mullins’ size as a masculine trait. Fatness isn’t inherently masculine or unattractive (which the authors also seem to be implying).

    1. Neither are an unkempt personal appearance or baggy clothes, any more than jewelry and makeup are necessarily feminine. They’re certainly coded that way culturally, though, which is much more relevant to the author’s point.

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