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'The Heat' is hot, but in Hollywood, women still are not

July 01, 2013|By Alexandra Le Tellier
  • FBI Special Agent Sarah Ashburn (Sandra Bullock), left, and Boston Detective Shannon Mullins (Melissa McCarthy) sit in shock after an unexpected setback in "The Heat."
FBI Special Agent Sarah Ashburn (Sandra Bullock), left, and Boston Detective… (Handout / MCT )

The buddy-cop comedy “The Heat,” starring Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock, pulled in $40 million at the weekend box office. Not only did it beat out considerable competition, like “White House Down,” but it also proved again that women can open up a comedy during the summer blockbuster season.     

BREAKING: Women Are Hilarious And People Love To Watch Their Movies,” went BuzzFeed’s snarky headline Sunday afternoon. “Duh,” went Entertainment Weekly’s PopWatch.

Unfortunately, comedies starring women are still a novelty in Hollywood. In an interview with Kurt Andersen, director Paul Feig lamented that his favorite comedic actresses are usually depicted as buzz-kills in comedies starring men. “It’s such a little boy’s view of how women are and how they ruin a good time,” Feig said. Just as bad? “Of studio releases, we’re the only movie this summer to star women.”

This weekend’s success helps prove to Hollywood, as Feig’s “Bridesmaids” did two years ago, that female-driven comedies can draw large audiences -- of both genders. A failure at the box office, on the other hand, could have reinforced the notion that men are turned off by women -- at least at the movies. Feig worried: “If we underperform, [executives] will say ‘You can’t open a movie with women in the summer.’ Then you’ll just keep getting all these guy movies.”

So, is the success of “The Heat” a sign of a burgeoning female comedy renaissance? Unfortunately, we’re not there yet.  

“The talk of renaissance is a bit of a misnomer,” argues The Times’ Steven Zeitchik.  “It's not as if there's been a ton of such films put on the fast track since ‘Bridesmaids’ achieved blockbuster status two years ago. Besides, female-led comedies, though admittedly rare, aren't exactly new either, with a trajectory that goes from ‘Desperately Seeking Susan’ to ‘Sister Act’ to ‘Miss Congeniality.’”

For Zeitchik, our “breathlessness” is comparable to “the clueless reaction many of us in the media had when Tyler Perry was on a Madea-enabled hot streak a few years back. A new movie comes out and turns into a hit, and we express surprise and say we never saw it coming. Then a year later, another movie comes out and we do it all over again.”

In fact, women are still marginalized in film, according to a study conducted by USC Annenberg.

Across five years (2007, 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2012), 500 top-grossing films at the U.S. box office, and over 21,000 speaking characters, a new study by USC Annenberg found that females represented less than one-third (28.4%) of all speaking characters in 2012 films. When they are on screen, 31% of women in 2012 were shown with at least some exposed skin, and 31.6% were depicted wearing sexually revealing clothing. 

Even worse? “There has been no meaningful change in the prevalence of women on screen across the five years studied. In fact, 2012 features the lowest percentage of females in the five years covered in this report,” said communication professor Stacy L. Smith, the principal investigator. “The last few years have seen a wealth of great advocacy for more women on screen. Unfortunately, that investment has not yet paid off with an increase in female characters or a decrease in their hypersexualization.”

Still, movies like “The Heat” give hope to actors and audiences alike. They break down gender barriers, not just by casting women as the lead but by appealing to coed audiences. So, while the average filmgoer may not give too much thought as to whether a popcorn flick like “The Heat” could change the trajectory for women in film -- because they’ll be too busy laughing, trust me -- it is entirely possible that it could eventually transcend the novelty niche and help pave the way toward gender equality on the big screen.

As Feig told Andersen: “Women on a poster is like poison to men because they go, ‘Ugh, it’s going to be one of those movies.’ I’d just like to get that out of the way so when you see two women you go, ‘Oh, they’re funny’; you just go see it because you know it’ll be funny.”

It seems so obvious, doesn’t it?

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Follow Alexandra Le Tellier on Twitter @alexletellier

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