These are some expanded thoughts that stem from our review of The Heat in Episode 73. Written by Andy.
I think everything is open to being made fun of. But there is a difference between “laughing at” and “laughing with.”
How you frame the joke and who is in on the joke makes a difference.
Too often, The Heat chooses to laugh at people who are different as a means of creating an easy joke, rather than working a little harder to make fun of stereotypes and the people who use them. Example:
Our hero is making fun of another character who happens to be albino, disabled, or minority. This character is played by someone who is not actually a part of this community* and is portrayed as a jerk, calling our hero offensive names.
In retort, our hero calls this character offensive names as well.
The joke comes purely from the offensive names, relying on stereotypes and insults (based purely on how someone looks) for humor.
They keep this up through the whole movie.
There is no resolution to this joke. There is no payoff. (In fact, our supporting character ends up being killed for being “annoying”)
Our hero encounters the supporting character (albino, disabled, minority, etc.). The actor playing this character is actually part of this community. This is the first step of them being IN on the joke.
Our hero (or better yet, the villain) says something stereotypical or offensive to the character. “Hey snowcone! You look like some kind of demon.”
Our character embraces the insult and flips the tables on our hero (or villain). “That’s right. I am a snowcone. I am made out of snow. I’m actually one of the X-Men.”
Our hero realizes she was being insensitive and rights her behavior. Or, the villain, realizing their insults aren’t working, ups the ante with worse and worse insults as our character embraces them all in funnier and funnier ways.
Now the humor comes from how silly the stereotypes look and how useless the insults are. The supporting character is empowered by what makes them different, not belittled by the hero because of it.
I care less when someone from a privileged position is mocked: they can fall back on their money or position of power in society when the joke is over. I care more when it is someone from a disadvantaged position that is the object of cheap jokes.
Now, my expectations are probably way too high at this point. After all, this is just a Hollywood movie with a budget of $43 million, not some kid’s YouTube video. Come to think of it, I’ve seen 6-second Vines with more social commentary than what we find in The Heat.
I love funny names as much as the next guy, but context matters. Are you insulting a minority with a stereotype just for the sake of the stereotype? Or are you trying to bring light to the stereotype and make fun of people who rely on it as an insult?
It is possible to make a successful politically incorrect movie where you laugh at stereotypes in spite of yourself (Blazing Saddles, Team America, Tropic Thunder), but The Heat ain’t it.
*I don’t think characters always need to be played by an actor who belongs to that community or group. You pick the best actor for the job. But I don’t like the whitewashing of movie roles (See The Last Airbender). It’s lazy and propagates a very bland popular culture.