Katherine Heigl, Hollywood's double standards and "difficult" women

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Men in Hollywood are "pardoned" for abuse, racism and inciting violence. Katherine Heigl became "Hollywood's Most Hated" for calling out sexism. It's not good enough, says Daisy Buchanan

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By Daisy Buchanan on

Today’s Telegraph features a piece about how 2017 might be the comeback year for one of “Hollywood’s Most Hated” celebrities. Who do you think they are talking about? Mel Gibson, who has been filmed over the years delivering a series of increasingly hateful, hurtful sexist, racist and antisemitic outbursts, and who has a conviction for misdemenour battery against his ex-girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva? Bill Cosby, who has been accused of multiple charges of sexual assault spanning the duration of his career? Or director Bernardo Bertolucci, who recently admitted that the rape scene in Last Tango In Paris was filmed without the consent of actor Maria Schneider?

Nope. It’s Katherine Heigl.

Heigl is "hated" because she had the audacity to criticise her 2008 hit film Knocked Up, “because it paints the women as shrews, as humourless and uptight, and it paints the men as lovable, goofy, fun-loving guys”. For years, Heigl starred on medical drama Grey’s Anatomy, and said she found it difficult to fit filming the series around promotional work for the films she was appearing in. She was vilified for these comments, despite apologising for them multiple times – and she’s not appeared in a major feature film in four years. However, something seems to be shifting. Heigl stars in Unforgettable opposite Rosario Dawson, opening next year, as well as a brand new CBS drama with Laverne Cox of Orange Is The New Black. 

Let me put it this way. Studios fall over themselves to hire director David O’Russell, a man who once challenged George Clooney to a fight. On set. At work.  Heigl can’t get hired because she’s “guilty” of what is at worst, a light grumble – and it’s not really a grumble. It’s the words of a talented woman making a living in one of the most sexist industries in the world, and calling it as she sees it. She calls bullshit – but it’s easier to brand her “difficult” than to listen to her.

The most successful, intelligent women are expected to carry their talents and attributes as though they’re heavy, burdensome packages that they don’t have the strength to lift on their own

I’ve been a fan of Heigl for years, and I think she’s dazzlingly talented and very versatile. She’s a gifted comic actor and brings intelligence to everything she does. Following Knocked Up, there was a fashion for calling Heigl “ungrateful” – she was lucky to work with Seth Rogen and Judd Apatow! They are some of the most beloved people in the industry! How dare she be anything less than prostrate with thankfulness for the opportunity to work with Hollywood’s most hilarious! It was weird that no-one suggested Apatow was lucky to hire an actor of Heigl’s calibre, and that it was up to him to write a script that was worthy of her interpretation. 

The most successful, intelligent women are expected to carry their talents and attributes as though they’re heavy, burdensome packages that they don’t have the strength to lift on their own. “Difficult” men are auteurs, visionaries who are permitted sole custody of their skills and the chance to behave in any they please in order to protect them. Women don’t get to be difficult – if we’re good at anything, we’re expected to share it graciously, apologise for it, pretend we’re not worthy of it and act as if it fell out of the sky and into our laps. 

However, there has been a small and welcome shift since Heigl was blacklisted for going off script. Jennifer Lawrence masterfully transitioned from being an awkward goof on the red carpet to making everyone else feel awkward and ashamed when she called out the studios for paying her less than her male co stars, and shamed the attackers who stole and leaked her nude photos. Comedian Amy Schumer has built a career on speaking about the realities of being a woman, calling out sexism and joking about subjects that Heigl was criticised for whispering about. SNL and Ghostbusters star Leslie Jones had one of the worst, sexist, racist Twitter users banned from the platform after he used it to abuse her extensively. No woman should be obliged to be an activist or support a cause, but the fact that we’re finally ready to listen to what these women have to say indicates that the movie goers of 2016 have started to catch up with Heigl’s 2008 words.

There’s plenty to worry about. It’s still a problem that we seem to require female talent to be full time politicians, diplomats and warriors as well as doing the work that they have trained so hard to do. It’s still unbelievable that we’re having conversations about whether the world is ready to “forgive” Heigl for her feminism, while wondering whether Casey Affleck might get an Oscar for Manchester By The Sea – even though he surrounded by serious allegations about sexual harassment and abuse, which go unmentioned. It’s maddening that in Hollywood, women are still celebrated for being likeable before they’re lauded for their actual talents, when monstrous men can command respect and massive salaries by claiming that, as artists, they can behave how they like. But Heigl’s return indicates a small, significant sea change. It’s not up to Hollywood to “forgive” her – but it’s imperative that we don’t forget the way she was treated all those years ago.


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