Turning Up the Heat on Ageism in Hollywood
Here’s an article I wrote that was published in The Huffington Post today – 7/25/13
I went to see The Heat last week, not because I’m a fan of buddy cop movies, but because I was intrigued that the two stars were women, in a classically male-dominated genre. Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy were both very funny, and even though the script had some character development issues, I wasn’t disappointed — The Heat is definitely gender blind and doesn’t sway from the buddy cop formula because there are women in the leads. However, I was disheartened to see that the film perpetuates a double standard for men and women about age and attractiveness.
There is no doubt that The Heat succeeds in being un-self conscious about having female leads. In fact, with women in the lead roles the film has the advantage of fresh, original humor as Bullock and McCarthy deliver their arsenal of ‘vagina’ jokes that would be off-putting if they were uttered by male lips. (Yup. Pun intended).
1988’s Feds starring Rebecca De Mornay and Mary Gross was another attempt at two female leads in a buddy cop film. The poster’s tag line: “Sleep Tight America. These Women Carry Guns” screams, “HELLO! WOMEN’S COP MOVIE, HERE!” In contrast, The Heatposter’s tag line: “Good Cop Mad Cop” is gender generic, despite its hot pink background. But hey, Rome wasn’t built in a day. With any luck, the poster for the sequel The Heat 2, will be drawn in a gender-neutral color, like chartreuse perhaps.
What troubled me about The Heat was the overt age-consciousness. In a scene at a nightclub, Bullock has to distract a drug dealer, to steal his cell phone, so McCarthy can plant a bug in it. Bullock shows off her cleavage, legs, and midriff in an effort to seduce him. Despite her comedic approach, 48-year-old Bullock looks amazing and unarguably sexy, yet in the middle of the seduction, the drug dealer looks at her and says: “You’re the first woman over 40 who has given me a boner.” Clearly this was meant to make us laugh, but instead, I could feel the entire audience pause, and Bullock’s on-screen reaction was similar, with a look of “How am I supposed to take that exactly”? Instead of being funny, it was slightly painful as the rug is pulled out from under her. Not exactly the reaction the writers most likely intended.
On one hand, I’m relieved that the film doesn’t pretend that Bullock is younger (although she looks it). But on the other hand it’s conflicting to me that the film even points her age out at all, in the context of sexual attractiveness. In countless other buddy cop and action movies, men well into their 40s and even 50s have sex with a plethora of gorgeous 20-somethings and there’s never any reference to their age. The rules are simply different for men than they are for women.
Case in Point: Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp, Gerard Butler, Robert Downey Jr., Will Smith, Daniel Craig, Liam Neeson, George Clooney, Denzel Washington, Viggo Mortensen, Dylan McDermott, Javier Bardem… I could go on, but that’s just my own personal over-40 hottie list.
Please don’t get me wrong, I can TOTALLY laugh at age jokes. One of the funniest scenes ever was in Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up when a club bouncer played by Craig Robinson tells Leslie Mann that she can’t get in to the happening nightclub because she’s “as old as dirt.” It was hysterically funny! Maybe the difference is she wasn’t trying to seduce some asshole for what felt like an eternity before the joke. Or maybe, it was just really funny.
The other difference is, if Bruce Willis was starring in The Heat at age 48 (he’s 58 now) no one would write a joke about his seduction of a 30-year-old woman. It would be just another day at the office. The fact that The Heat is self-conscious about an over-40 woman still being sexually attractive highlights the fact that in this culture we carry an age prejudice towards women but not men.
We have come a long way with gender blindness in cinema, but we still have a long way to go to accept women over 40 as able to pull off the leads in action and cop films, with everything that job entails. When movies portray women in the middle/prime of their lives as rugged, fierce, deep, in charge, heroic and sexy BECAUSE they are that way, not just in spite of their age, that’s when we’ll know we’ve truly evolved.