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Women talking to one another in movies, really

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What do Hannah Arendt, Sandra Bullock, Mary McCarthy and Melissa McCarthy have in common?

More than you might imagine.

For starters, they’re all in critically acclaimed summer films.

OK, so it’s the characters of German Jewish political theorist Hannah Arendt and American bestselling novelist Mary McCarthy, author of The Group, who appear in the film. The women themselves are now part of history and no longer have agents.

Arendt is best known for her controversial reporting for The New Yorker on the trial of Nazi Adolf Eichmann; most famously, she introduced the concept of "banality of evil." McCarthy, fiercely loyal, defended Arendt when she was under attack from critics. The lifelong friendship between these two indomitable women was grounded in intellectual respect and profound affection. The film Hannah Arendt, as a reviewer in The New York Times put it, is primarily concerned with the "fearsome cerebral power" of its title character.

Not so much with The Heat.

The Heat is not a movie primarily concerned with the fearsome cerebral power of its protagonists, and it’s very much Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy who appear on screen. You don’t really need to know the names of their characters (it’s Ashburn and Mullins).

What you do know right from the start is that Bullock’s character is supposed to be the "intellectually smart" Yale-educated FBI agent whereas McCarthy is a "street smart" Boston cop. Fine, except it’s Bullock’s character who attempts to perform an emergency tracheotomy at a Denny’s. This is not exactly a wise move and although it isn’t pretty, I thought it was hilarious. McCarthy is described as looking like "a Campbell Soup Kid who grew up and became an alcoholic."

Arendt and McCarthy (Mary) they’re not.

So what links these movies?

The Heat and Hannah Arendt share a bizarrely rare yet vital set of connections: They’re movies centered on the lives of women.

Not only that: The lives of the women on which they’re centered are not obsessed by romance or domestic life.

Such radical film plots rarely come to a theater near you.

Movies about men blowing up the White House, men saving the White House, men saving the world or the coastline or other planets, men facing the apocalypse armed with only one issue of Penthouse — these you can find in abundance.

Movies about women being wistfully unavailable but wearing lots of Tiffany diamonds, girls in romantic pursuit of the vampires and/or zombies they love, and a woman attempting to have a conversation with Superman you can also find.Of these, the ones about girls in romantic pursuit of vampires and/or zombies they love are the most realistic.

What distinguishes the breaking hearts of rom-coms (romantic comedies) and the chick flicks from the breaking landscapes of the "real" and "blockbuster" movies is one question: if the girl loves the boy, does he love her back?

At the heart of big Hollywood movies are these questions: Who is that mysterious, masked man (Gatsby, The Lone Ranger, Superman, James Franco), how many wide-eyed, vulnerable women will need rescue, and how many helicopters will explode?

Smarter people than I have drawn attention to the fact that for every woman on the screen there are two male actors: Ever heard of the Bechdel Test?

In 1985, cartoonist Alison Bechdel drew a now classic strip where one character says that she’ll watch a movie only if it meets the following criteria:

1. It has to have at least two women in it.

2. Who talk to each other.

3. About something besides a man.

You don’t think that’s an accomplishment? I bet you will once you realize that even non-testosterone fests such as The Social Network don’t pass the Bechdel test because none of the female characters talk to each other.

Women buy half of America’s movie tickets. Let’s get more women writing scripts where women have lead roles and, while we’re at it, let’s get more women into director’s chairs.

Both Hannah Arendt and The Heat pass the Bechdel Test. Other movies can, too.


Gina Barreca is an English professor at the University of Connecticut, a feminist scholar who has written eight books, and a columnist for the Hartford Courant.


—McClatchy Tribune Services

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