As women struggle in Hollywood, Melissa McCarthy’s Spy believes in better

Melissa McCarthy at Academy Awards 2012, Mingle Media TV

If you buy a ticket to Spy you’re raising the finger to Hollywood studios who’ve been too lazy for too long when it comes to developing female heroes.

This film comes at an important juncture, following the embarrassing anti-feminist boycott of Mad Max: Fury Road, as well as a climate of internet hate aimed at the Marvel Cinematic Universe because of problematic female characters in Avengers: Age of Ultron.

In the starring role is Melissa McCarthy, who plays the chunky leading lady Susan Cooper forced by events to take on the role of a CIA agent. Among Hollywood’s gender-marketed tales, such a film sends a message that bigger and therefore not “conventionally screen-friendly” actors can carry a franchise too.

Spoiler alert: McCarthy kicks arse and breaks bones in this movie, in scenes deftly using the kind of over-the-top violence that has become a signature of Tarantino (Pulp Fiction) and Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass).

There’s a visceral visual metaphor at work here too – as McCarthy snaps ankles and impales terrorists, you can feel her and director Paul Feig hacking at the limbs of cinematic sexism.

Indeed such is the skill of Feig’s script that McCarthy is allowed to inhabit traditionally masculine and feminine traits without signposting. Cooper’s struggles as a character are refreshingly subversive: She isn’t squeamish about dispatching people because she has lady bits, but she’s reluctant to kill because she has a conscience.

As such, Spy adds weight to burgeoning arguments that Hollywood has managed to go backwards in a West striving to move forwards on equality. Despite the heartening evidence of equality movements such as those that passed gay marriage in Ireland recently, the biggest franchises are still drowning in misogyny – look no further than the Transformers series for proof.

Admittedly there are some slip ups in the film. Though Peter Serafinowicz plays his informer role well, the way his molesting male character is written feels dated. This too is true of Rose Byrne’s villain – the spoilt, shallow “bitch” archetype seems lazy in an otherwise clever satire.

The plot also fails to hold together at times, with one or two twists simply not paying off as punchlines. In a script that manages to land so many jokes successfully, it’s very noticeable that the narrative itself isn’t quite as funny as it thinks it is – the plot isn’t as carefully crafted as the lines.

But these criticisms are almost unimportant when you consider what the price of admission could buy you. By supporting Spy, Mad Max: Fury Road, the impending Suffragette and even 2017’s Wonder Woman you’re helping to send a message. With any luck, the whole idea of “strong female characters” in movies will be relegated to the antiquated concept it has long deserved to be.

Header Image – Melissa McCarthy at Academy Awards 2012 by Mingle Media TV

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