‘The Heat’ challenges hypermasculinity in buddy-cop films

Paul Feig aims to redefine comedy and shed gender divisions

Amanda Burke/Staff

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The buddy-cop film is a long-established genre, with a pretty rigid and uninspiring formula: Two cops with extremely different personalities take an immediate dislike to each other but are forced to work together to solve a particularly difficult case — something they can only achieve by first bonding and becoming friends. The two incompatible characters are almost always played by men. However, in “The Heat,” directed by Paul Feig and written by Katie Dippold, the mismatched cops are played by two women, Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy.
In an interview with The Daily Californian, Feig explained, “Katie’s whole motivation on this was that she was tired of all those movies being with guys.” Originally titled “The Untitled Female Buddy Cop Comedy,” Feig’s directorial follow-up to 2011’s “Bridesmaids” reworks the traditionally male-led genre by opening it up to female actresses. Feig explained, “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, and 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.”

Feig has come to be known as somewhat of a pioneer in female-driven comedy, a role that puts some amount of pressure on him — if the film is a flop, it could be held up as some kind of proof of the failure of female-led action films and will contribute to the attitude that female leads won’t sell. However, “The Heat” opened to an estimated $40 million last weekend, the second highest after “Monsters University,” and, interestingly, much higher than its direct, in-genre competition, “White House Down,” a buddy action film of sorts with male leads, which had an opening of $25.7 million.

The film is particularly groundbreaking in that both lead actresses are over 40, suggesting that Hollywood’s harsh attitude toward female aging may be beginning to dissipate. Many have commented on McCarthy’s weight and how she is paving the way for larger women to be accepted for leading roles rather than minor comic characters. Another significant aspect of the film is that romantic plots are relegated to the background. Although Marlon Wayan’s Levy shows an interest in Bullock’s Ashburn, the film never suggests that their pairing will be the mark of a happy ending or that Ashburn “needs” a man to “fix” her. The major storyline focuses instead on the friendship between Ashburn and McCarthy’s Mullins. Feig was eager to avoid bitchiness or competition in their interactions. “I never wanted things to be mean-spirited as far as catfights or that kind of thing,” he said. “We did the same thing on ‘Bridesmaids’ — we really avoided that.” The incredible chemistry between the leads carries the film, offering moments of surprising warmth amid the coarse humor.

“The Heat” also addresses the systemic sexism many women face in the workplace, as we see both women dismissed or criticized by their male co-workers for the kinds of behaviors that would be praised if they were men. Ashburn is condemned for being “competitive” and has to suffer the obvious condescension and resentment of her colleagues, one of whom sneers, “No wonder she’s single,” after Ashburn locates concealed drugs and guns her male colleagues failed to find. Mullins’ brashness results in her colleagues avoiding and fearing her. Such “arrogance” and “obnoxiousness” are seen as negative and undesirable in women — on-screen, behind the camera, in the audience — whereas they are held up as powerful traits in a man. The film does a good job at leveling the playing field and demonstrating this inequality.

Feig is passionate about advancing gender equality in film. “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,’ 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.’ I feel like Melissa has been a great ambassador for that … it felt like Melissa was the one that could straddle those worlds the best.” One of the keys to this is breaking the gender stereotypes surrounding female comedy and whether women can be funny, while avoiding the “one-up-manship” so prevalent in “guy comedy.”

Feig is already working on a sequel to “The Heat” and is also preparing to tackle another traditionally male-dominated film genre, the spy film: “There’s a movie I wrote that’s basically like a female James Bond, and I’m hoping that’s gonna be the very next movie I make.” By breaking cultural gender stereotypes, Feig hopes to change attitudes toward having female comedy leads without slighting the reality of those characters — he doesn’t try to force women to conform to the hypermasculinity perpetuated by the male-dominated genre. Feig aims to break the barrier between “guy comedy” and “female comedy” to ultimately prove that funny people are funny people, regardless of gender.

Meadhbh McGrath is the arts editor. Contact her at [email protected]. Check her out on Twitter at @MeadhbhMcGrath.