The Heat's Subtly Radical Portrayal of Policewomen

Reading the scholarly literature on Hollywood's weirdly narrow ideas about female cops
The-Heat banner bullock mccarthy.jpg
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.

Presented by

Ashley Fetters is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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