The epitome of Millennial Feminism in Hollywood
Summer, a time of soaring temperatures and July 4th festivity, has definitely come to an end, but not to worry, Katie Dippold’s action-comedy, The Heat, is around to revive it! Sandra Bullock stars as uptight FBI agent, Ashburn, while Melissa McCarthy plays her unruly yet street-smart associate as the gritty cop: Mullins. The film is a current tribute to the progress of women’s equality through its disobediently dynamic female representation on the big screen. It builds on Hollywood’s success of Kristen Wiig’s Bridesmaids (2011) in that it forwards women’s experience as an equally legitimate narrative to that of typically phallocentric accounts of reality. In Bridesmaids, for example, as opposed to focussing on the resolution between a heterosexual couple who happily marry, the film shows the highly sentimental nature of women’s friendships and explores that bond.
Dippold’s The Heat then emerges as the defiant feminine counterpart to testosterone-filled cop comedies such as Die Hard (1988) Bad Boys (1995) and The Other Guys (2010). Another comparable screenplay is Abbi Jacobson and Llana Glazer’s Broad City, written for TV’s Comedy Central, following the hijinks of two women in their early twenties trying to make it in New York after they graduate. Whether they relate to sexual, romantic or aspirational worlds, respective plots have started to sturdily place women at their centre. It helps that the writers behind the influential keyboards are increasingly women too! So, sporting guns, gore and an explicit gender commentary, The Heat is a particularly bold Feminist piece.
Not only are the protagonists two independent women, but also placed in the most masculine role possible within a civic context: physical protectors of the state. In one scene, a knife is plunged into agent Ashburn’s leg not once, but twice: unthinkable to the James Bonds of the past. No more is the damsel in distress or the admiring female accomplice. These archetypes have not so much left as been shot and buried beneath the building. The sexist convention of perceiving women as inferior is voiced by two disgruntled male colleagues throughout. They essentially espouse the mantra: ‘nothing gets done when we let women in.’ Of course, this only makes victory explosive when Ashburn and Mullins do end up showing ‘em what for. Held captive by a drug ring, the only way for the two female officers to escape in the aforementioned scene is to re-impale an instrument of torture as if it were never moved to eventually catch their attackers by surprise. They not only drive, but also contain the action, no matter how heated (oop) it gets. The relationship that the two women share is also telling. Ashburn pushes for that promotion while Mullin fights to save her brother from serving a second sentence in jail, but the two are more than just a female rendition of the typical brains and brawn pairing. The tension between their disjunctive characters portrays a timely shift in the fight for women’s equality. In 2014, female autonomy goes deeper than the achievement of professional parity in the workplace. Having proven the obvious truth that both genders are equally capable as different women thrive in a variety of sectors, the Feminist movement moves to a revisional new stage: claiming absolute personal freedom.
This is the height of Third Wave Feminism, setting the precedent for the Fourth. This we see reflected in the physical comfort of Mullins who promotes more than just a positive body image. Completely spatially free, she takes what is due to her socially and not just what is stipulated in the bureaucracy of legislation. She authorises herself outside of the need for hierarchal masculine validation altogether. This is to be truly emotionally unfettered. In her first scene, for example, she is shown in baggy casual clothes, nonchalantly strolling up to a man who is about to purchase sex to straightforwardly ask: “what’s happening here, huh?” Later, she dives through two parked cars in order to exit hers, shortly throwing open the door to her boss to announce to the office: “has anyone seen his balls?” As opposed to sitting back in sycophantic gratitude then, the movie relishes the raw zeal of First Wave Feminism which established the right of women to vote throughout the West. Indeed, by contrast Ashburn’s tightly kept femininity is a personification of the potential stagnation of the women’s cause if vocational power remained the ultimate main goal. She continues to play by the assumed rules of departmental etiquette, wearing the pant suits that a woman who takes her job seriously wears and follows procedure to the point of painful self-obstruction. Ashburn’s fellow male officers even laugh at her severity. The witty yet especially buoyant dialogue is an extension of this idea. As well as being flat-out funny, there is implicit advocacy of the importance of frank and candid self-expression to forward women’s autonomy.
Led by Mullins, the two law enforcement officials are shown bantering and opining in addition to the high-octane trajectory of the plot. The bit where Ashburn arrogantly asserts her authority, stating “I am a federal agent,” to an everyday barfly is a particular jewel: the rugged stranger unexpectedly shoots back: “Well I got news for you d***, I work for the postal service. That makes me a federal agent too.” In another memorable scene, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s Kaitlin Olson makes a hilariously vocal appearance as a drug supplier who happens to live in the same public housing as the mouthy Mullins. The two have a fizzingly entertaining exchange. Here, Dippold’s film further playfully accounts for the complexity of what defines women’s equality today. The depiction of a true womanhood never errs on simplistic. The proudly outspoken local, Mullins, heralds a modern intersectional Feminism, which cuts across class to fiercely champion inclusion.
In short, The Heat promotes the exercising of fully-fledged subjectivity to the utmost extent. When Ashburn finally does switch to the unorthodox tactics of her partner, surrendering to the cathartic chaos, swearing and going rogue on their big case, it is a consummate celebration of the core of contemporary Feminism: being fundamentally uninhibited not only makes individual women strong, but also brings them politically closer to the many different women that the movement is meant to represent as an organic result. As underscored by the loving message that Mullins mutually leaves for Ashburn at the end, the fight for gender equality is as much about the preservation of sisterhood as it is the realisation of distinct independence. A cause should never alienate the people it campaigns for. The emotional climax of the film shows Ashburn gleefully psychologically merging with Mullins to emerge new partners in ideological crime. She may not have accomplished the most senior respected status, but she has gained a valuable ally. Friendship prioritised; the two agents can even finish each other’s quips!
Conversely, the male police officers in the movie end up turning on each other because their cold egos are short-lived: a selfish concept of empowerment being inherently flawed. It is emphasised that narcissism is only a destructive reinforcement of institutional patriarchy. Finally, wider collaborative force is also advocated in the movie’s meeting of traditional femininity in the middle. In an early moment in the film, Mullins jokingly undresses, or mildly assaults, her dowdy partner to make her more presentable to the bar scene: “And what is this sh**?”, she asks Ashburn about her prudish hair clip. Being invested in one’s appearance can be elevating if it’s a pure expression of one’s personality over the unconscious performance of sexual subservience. Indeed, once toxically regulatory gender norms such as the realm of fashion have become a welcome part of women’s life in a philosophically emancipated context. Female identity has become more a choice over an imperative in recent years. Similarly, one can take pride in cultivating a career so long as basic social freedom is intact. Mullins is as much an expert as Ashburn, but on her own idiosyncratic terms. Indeed, when Ashburn pipes up that Mullins looks quite shoddy for someone so passionate about personal style, her partner tellingly responds: “I don’t need to worry: I put my sexuality out there through movement.”
There is the acknowledgement that the face of feminine strength can vary from person to person with a foundation of inner livelihood. Shouting its triumphant message through fiery exploits, The Heat is a commemorative capture of feminism in the advent of the new millennium. Appealing to both men and women, it galvanises the women’s movement through the universal medium of exciting cinema: it could be Rachel Talaley’s Tank Girl (1995) regenerated for the mainstream. With action-packed storytelling that’s also open-minded, you’ll not only be chuckling at a vibrant comedy, but also taking a significant stand.
Sunetra (Sunny) is an indie journalist, actress and short film writer. She is a popular columnist at a London weekly, and writes extensively on social democracy, Feminism and the psychological nuances of modern society. Her movies have been screened at the London Short Film Festival (LSFF) and Bristol Independent Short Film Festivals (BISFF).
Her progressive, perceptive writing cuts across film, current analysis and media. Known for its unerring emotional intelligence, the work focuses on the socio-politically urgent yet unseen. She enjoys combining arts, news and mindfulness to create a unique perspective, championing social change. In 2019, she was published in Oxford University’s journal, PHENOTYPE, investigating the relationship between apex dinosaurs and modern economy!
Sunetra specialises in the area of psycho-social evolution. To this end, her Sunshine Reviewing column salutes film, television and media that radiate a uniquely joyful message. Enjoy!