In her recent entertainment column for The Atlantic, Ashley Fetters cites my study of gender dynamics in cop action movies, the ways in which the genre presents women’s and men’s heroism differently, and then shows how the new movie The Heat breaks some of those rules. I want to steer this conversation toward the rarity of feminism in action cinema.
For decades, Hollywood has presented the women among the ranks of its cop-action heroes as almost always young, single, and new to police work; and as focused on serial killer cases where they do little violence, or on work undercover where they do not look like cops at all. Movie fans have seen these heroes played by Sandra Bullock (Miss Congeniality, Murder By Numbers), Angelina Jolie (The Bone Collector, Taking Lives), Jennifer Lopez (The Cell, Out of Sight), and most famously by Jodie Foster in The Silence of the Lambs. They appear as rookies in law enforcement, who track mad killers but never battle systemic corruption. They settle cases with little combat and rarely form ranks with other cops, much less other women. In such stories, there’s little room for feminism.
By contrast, since the formation of cop action as a genre in the late 1960s, such stars as Clint Eastwood, Chuck Norris, Steven Seagal, and Denzel Washington have played veteran heroes who wade through several fights per film, mowing down crowds of bad guys in brotherly struggles against criminal networks and abuses of state power. Male buddies overcome their suspicions and make themselves relevant to governance as well as to street crime. These are big guys, taking on institutional issues with big bombs and guns. Women figure in their stories mainly as threatened girlfriends and wives, who beg heroes to stay home and who cower when threatened. The sexism of this genre is thick, apparent in everything from the crowds of women (never men) who scream in terror during holdups, to the near absence of women over fifty from the screen.
This history of sexism brings us to The Heat, released in late June. Its two female heroes (played by Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy) are well into their careers, have no problem doing mass violence, and shoot a corrupt cop in his testicles in order to shut down a drug ring. We’ve seen a little bit of this before: Copycat (1995) paired two middle age cops (Sigourney Weaver and Holly Hunter), and Miss Congeniality 2 paired two women in the FBI. Those movies focused their pairs on a cute male colleague and a set of silly costumes, respectively; and both pairs took on small-scale crimes (a lone killer and a pair of loan sharks). What makes this new movie subversive is that it sends two women after big-time crime and otherwise trains their attention on the pleasures of working together as women. In a pivotal scene, Bullock’s character catches her male peers laughing at a photo of the McCarthy character, jeering at the idea of having to work with such a person. This hero sees a comrade being demeaned and stands up to the guys, denouncing them with a comic but deeply felt stream of profanity for not taking a woman seriously. These two heroes learn not merely they need to shoot more men in order to see justice done (though that helps) but also that they gain as professionals, in a male-dominated occupation, by supporting each other in what the movie explicitly labels “sister”-hood. When was the last time you saw that in a Hollywood movie?
Feminism onscreen is rare, especially in mainstream film. Charlize Theron has portrayed the violence that women face and their courage in trying to survive it (Monster, North Country); Angelina Jolie has starred in accounts of girls’ rebellions against the boys and men around them (Foxfire, Girl, Interrupted); and screenwriters Karen McCullah and Kirsten Smith have worked empowerment through sisterhood into their scripts for frothy comedies (She’s the Man, 10 Things I Hate About You, Legally Blond, and The House Bunny). But such track records in Hollywood are so few that we hardly ever see girls or women stand together against the threats that they face as girls and women. Two decades later, a triumph like Thelma and Louise looks all the more remarkable for the absence on screen of what Martha McCaughey calls “the fighting spirit”.* Generic action movies, for all of their silly fantasies, can be great when they focus on injustice and get pulses pounding as we watch the visceral righting of wrongs. Many of us would thrill to see more women armed and ready to take on the systems, legal and otherwise, which narrow their options and threaten their lives. The Heat is a minor step, notable mainly for how long it took such sisterhood to appear in this genre, which has been around for as long as feminism’s second wave. Research on decision-making in Hollywood suggests that that many more women will have to climb higher rungs in corporate studios, before a critical mass of feminist authors gain the discretion to get their stories told.
McCaughey, Martha. 1998. “The Fighting Spirit: Women’s Self-Defense Training and the Discourse of Sexed Embodiment.” Gender & Society 12:277-300.
Neal King is Associate Professor of Sociology at Virginia Tech. He is the author of Heroes in Hard Times and The Passion of the Christ (Palgrave Controversies series), and co-editor of Reel Knockouts: Violent women in the movies. He has published articles on gender, class, age and culture in such journals as Gender & Society, the Journal of Film and Video, Postmodern Culture, and the New Review of Film and Television Studies. Research interests include controversies over media violence, aging, masculinity, and social theories of agency and empowerment.