The Heat's Subtly Radical Portrayal of Policewomen

Reading the scholarly literature on Hollywood's weirdly narrow ideas about female cops
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20th Century Fox

TO THE NAKED EYE, IT MAY APPEAR THAT: Paul Feig's Bridesmaids follow-up The Heat, out today, puts a twist on the buddy-cop comedy formula by making the lineup all-women. It features two polar-opposite female police officers (Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy) forced to work as a team to bring down an inner-city drug lord, which results in both some explosively funny moments and some actual explosions.

BUT ACCORDING TO SOMEONE WHO THOUGHT REALLY, REALLY HARD ABOUT THIS: The Heat blows up more than just cars, warehouses, and the rule that buddy-cop movies are for dudes. It also blasts some tired Hollywood tropes about female police officers.

In 2008, Virginia Tech professor Neal King published a paper in the academic journal Gender and Society on the patterns he found in portrayals of policewomen in the 291 cop-action feature films released between 1973 (starting with Cleopatra Jones) and 2008. Of those 291 cop movies, King found that 24 feature female police officers as main protagonists—among them thrillers like The Silence of the Lambs as well as comedies like Bullock's Miss Congeniality films.

The law-enforcement films of the last 40 years, King discovered, present a narrow, distinct vision of onscreen lady cops with regard to their status on the force, the types of cases assigned to them, their skill sets, and their version of a happy ending (hint: it involves getting the guy). Below are four common tropes of policewomen in the movies—and four ways The Heat bucks them.

Female cops are the newest, least experienced officers on the force.
In the cop-action genre, King writes, female police officers are more than four times as likely as men to be rookies; 42 percent of the women cops in the 291 cop films were rookies, vs. 10 percent of the men. And even though women's employment in real-life police and sheriff's departments rose from somewhere between 2 and 4 percent in the 1970s to almost 13 percent by 2006, the frequency of portrayals of women as newcomers hasn't declined accordingly.

The Heat, however, stars two veteran police officers near the top of their game. Sarah Ashburn (Bullock) is an ace FBI special agent who's first seen onscreen singlehandedly orchestrating a drug bust while her male colleagues watch sheepishly. Shannon Mullins (McCarthy) is a weathered detective regarded by her colleagues as more familiar with the streets of Boston than any other officer on the force.

Female cops are detectives who hunt serial killers—and they do it from a distance, or undercover.
"Many analysts," King writes, "observe that women tend to work as detectives, in line with a large genre of pulp." Men, meanwhile, "pursue the full range of cases in the genre, from investigations of government and police corruption to destruction of terrorist networks." Women are more than three times as likely to hunt serial killers than men (50 percent vs. 19 percent of the men), and almost three times as likely to work undercover (38 percent vs. 13 percent).

Additionally: "Women never work cases that mainly require such approaches as interrogation, surveillance, witness protection, or repeated confrontation and sabotage of criminals. As trackers of serial killers, women focus on detection (half of the women and just more than one-third of the men) rather than comb."

Again, not so much in The Heat.

While both Mullins and Ashburn are detectives, their roles aren't limited to behind-the-scenes work: The two women join forces when they're both assigned to investigate a murder within a drug-trafficking ring (no serial killers here), and they're the officers tasked with confronting and questioning the suspects and taking them into custody. The Heat sees Mullins and Ashburn interrogating prostitutes and drug dealers, intimidating suspects (sometimes with unorthodox, highly physical methods, like dangling a suspect by his feet over a balcony and playing Russian roulette with a pistol pointed at a suspect's crotch) and getting in standoffs at gunpoint with drug lords.

Female cops don't use violence.
In the cop-action films of the last few decades, King writes, "Women are relatively uninvolved in combat. The average numbers of people whom they incapacitate or kill are less than half those hurt by men." In King's findings, policewomen killed or incapacitated, on average, 3.46 criminals in a movie—while the average for a policeman was 7.19. The genre also features women in relatively few foot chases or fistfights, King adds.

With The Heat, first-time feature-film writer Katie Dippold kicked a hole in that notion. Ashburn and Mullins rack up a considerable body count. Plus, Special Agent Ashburn headbutts a criminal and shoots a drug lord in the crotch, Detective Mullins tackles several suspects and pursues a dealer on foot through the back streets of Boston, and together, the two women drop a suspect from a second-story balcony down onto the hood of a car. The New York Times critic A.O. Scott found The Heat's level of violence "a bit jarring"—and, for better or for worse, it's not often that a comedy with two female lead gets points deducted for that.

Female cops just wanna be loved.
According to King, approximately 50 percent of male cop heroes are single at the start of the film, but more than 80 percent of the women are single at the beginning. "The proportions who take new lovers during the stories are nearly reversed, however; women are about twice as likely as men to do so—71 percent vs. 35 percent.

"This suggests," King writes, "that on-screen heterosexual accomplishment might be more important for women than for men in cop action."

"On-screen heterosexual accomplishment might be more important for women than for men in cop action," King writes—but the happy ending of 'The Heat' comes in the form of a friendship between two women who have never had friends.

To be fair, the two unlovable and unloved cops at the center of The Heat are both single and both in search of a little affection. But the involvement of male company is limited to an unreciprocated office flirtation for Ashburn and gags about a few past hookups for Mullins. The real happy ending of The Heat—here's a spoiler that's not really spoiling anything—comes in the form of safer streets, justice being served, and a close friendship between two women who have never had friends.

AND THUS, WE CAN CONCLUDE THAT: The Heat doesn't just radicalize buddy-cop films by replacing male cops with female ones; it also talks back to other works in the same genre by breaking out of the Hollywood mold for female cops. The typical cinematic policewoman, King notes, fights crime in constrained, nonviolent ways, often without a teammate working in solidarity, and stays "far from the crucible in which men forge and break bonds of state power." That is, until now.

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Ashley Fetters is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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