Watch the trailer for the forthcoming Jeff Bridges and Ryan Reynolds action movie R.I.P.D., and you’ll see the usual Hollywood tropes: The grizzled, irascible veteran detective; the fresh-faced rookie who must prove himself worthy of being his new ‘pardner. But take a closer look – especially on the heels of The Heat, the Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy comedy that’s melting down rival X-chromosome-buddy blockbusters like White House Down and The Lone Ranger – it becomes a little, well, dispiriting to watch R.I.P.D.’s visual yuks rely on such a Mad Men-era worldview.
For the unfamiliar, The Heat is essentially Lethal Weapon in Spanx, while R.I.P.D. is short for Rest In Peace Department: undead cops who police our world for deceased baddies whose evil spirits refuse to go to blazes and instead hide out among the living – a sort of Men in Black for the Afterlife. Although, instead of employing its trademark dark sunglasses and memory-erasing neuralyzers, the R.I.P.D. force relies on “avatars” to keep their true identities secret. Heaven can’t very well have the reanimated corpses of dead cops running about enforcing Divine law; all Hell would break lose.
But far more interesting than either The Heat or R.I.P.D.’s derivations are what they presume we think is funny about women.
Consider for a moment Bridges’ avatar in R.I.P.D.: a lissome high-heeled blonde (played by a real-life Victoria’s Secret model) who is repeatedly seen getting the tar beaten out of “her” – even though “she” is really Bridges’ Yosemite Sam-like man’s man underneath. In the R.I.P.D. trailer, we are offered, as a sight gag, a scene of this woman being violently thrown into the windshield of an oncoming bus. I’ve seen scores of these films and have grown pretty inured to violence, but even I was startled by the scene’s lurid misogyny.
Unsure if it was simply my reaction, I showed the trailer to a half a dozen thirty-something women, most of whom had far more interesting things to say about it than I ever could, because they go through life inhabiting actual women’s bodies, not avatars. And the messages the R.I.P.D. trailer seemed to send them were as illuminating as they were discouraging:
- “Beautiful blondes couldn’t possibly be brave law-enforcement officers,” observed one wryly, “So the fact that craggy Jeff Bridges is disguised as a lissome blonde is part of the joke. And then when she gets attacked, it’s ‘funny’ also because only big, muscular men bounce back from being hit by a bus in the movies.”
- “Why do they choose the moment of [Bridges] getting smashed into a windshield to cut to the image of the woman whose body he inhabits?” asked another, answering her own question, “I think a lot of men who can’t get that woman love to hate such women and love to see them humiliated.”
- “I think the problem actually starts before the violence itself,” observed a third woman, “He’s ‘lucky’ to be a sexy blonde woman (as opposed to an older, Asian man, who is, it is at the very least implied, inherently emasculated and ignorable), because she (he) can manipulate men with her body. Her beauty and sexiness is an asset, because it presupposes the presence of men to be both beguiled and manipulated by it. But in our culture, in general, a woman who has and uses those wiles is both desired and suspect. And a woman who is suspect is, again by the power of transference our culture allows, deserving of being brought down. In those instances, violence is one of the ways, maybe even the primary method, to make sure she doesn’t, in fact, wield any power.”
(If you had any doubts about this, an exhaustive national survey of over 16,500 adults made by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in 2011 found that nearly one in five women surveyed said they had been raped or had experienced an attempted rape, and one in four reported having been beaten by an intimate partner.)
Many in Hollywood might dismiss their complaints about how women are portrayed (when they are portrayed at all) in action movies as silly or irrelevant given that they’re not the target demographic of an action-comedy blockbuster. But that is to miss the nearly $100 million lesson of The Heat: Women absolutely can be the target demographic of action-comedies. Two-thirds of The Heat‘s opening weekend audience was female, and almost 60 percent of those women were over 35; traditionally, the hardest demographic to get out of the house and into a movie theater.
Of The Heat, a critic at The Seattle Times’ recently opined: “There’s a discussion to be had about why this is the only major movie this summer with two women in the lead roles — but it’s hard to have a serious discussion when you’re laughing.”
Well, can we have that chat now? Because women reliably show up to female comedies — on the rare occasions when Hollywood makes them: The Devil Wears Prada grossed $325 million in 2006. Sex and the City (2008) grossed $415 million worldwide. Its sequel grossed $288 million in 2010, as did Bridesmaids in 2011. So why do women get them only every two years or so? And when will women earn more than one slot in the summer?
For that matter, as one of our panelists aptly observes, “there are almost no women in action pictures, and they are not really women when they are.”
Except, of course, in The Heat: Watching a real woman like Melissa McCarthy excelling at a “man’s” job only serves to make Jeff Bridges’ “fake” woman doing that same job in R.I.P.D. seem that much more ridiculously out of place.
But even The Heat falls depressingly short on this front, too. I like a bawdy laugh as much as anybody, but what’s amusing us here? That in order to succeed, women must behave with even greater virility than their male counterparts? Why, after Bridesmaids let us overhear how real women really think and act to such great hilarity, are we forcing them to stop there?
Meanwhile, lest we forget, it’s the sturdy competence of Sandra Bullock’s FBI agent in The Heat that makes her a pariah: She’s not respected because she’s “not a team player” and is told by her boss “none of the other agents like you.” (Yet if a no-nonsense male agent closed more cases than anyone else in his field office, he’d be more than a “solid agent” — he’d be Elliott Ness in The Untouchables.)
Hollywood might argue it needs to rely on stereotypically frat boy-centric, beer-commercial depictions of women as a simple economic necessity – except for the fact that interest in R.I.P.D. is tracking below par with males, and even more poorly with females: Audience polling conducted by Nielsen Media’s National Research Group leaked to TIME shows that with just two weeks before its release, almost two out of three people surveyed were aware of R.I.P.D., but only one in three had any definite interest in seeing it.
Filter R.I.P.D.’s prospects through the prism of gender, and it only gets worse: It’s probably not shocking that only 3 out of ten women over 25 expressed “definite interest” in seeing R.I.P.D., but its target audience – males under 25 – isn’t that jazzed, either: Just over 4 out of ten of them expressed “definite interest.”
It hasn’t always been this way. The 1982 comedy Tootsie became the second-highest grossing film of the year, largely because of Dustin Hoffman’s desire to show what a real woman was really like.
In a recent interview with the American Film Institute commemorating its 3oth anniversary, Hoffman recounted that when he first saw himself in full ‘Dorothy Michaels’ make-up on screen, “I was shocked I wasn’t more attractive,” and he immediately demanded of his make-up artists and costumers, “Now, make me a beautiful woman.”
Their response: This is as good as it gets, Charlie.
At this, Hoffman went home to his wife and broke down in tears, explaining he now had to make Tootsie, because “I think I’m an interesting woman when I look at myself on screen, and if I met myself at a party, I would never talk to that character, because she doesn’t fulfill, physically, the demands that we’re brought up to think women have to have in order for us to ask them out. There are too many interesting women who I have not had the experience to know in this life because I have been brainwashed.” Visibly tearing up three decades later, Hoffman finished his AFI interview choking out that Tootsie “was never a comedy for me.”
Indeed, it might be time for Hollywood to hear Dorothy Michaels’ famous Tootsie ultimatum once more: “Oh, I know what y’all really want is some gross, caricature of a woman to prove some idiotic point that power makes a woman masculine, or masculine women are ugly,” Dorothy thunders to her director on the soap-opera set, “Well, shame on you for letting a man do that, or any man that does that. Shame on you, you macho shithead!”