Opinion: Katherine Heigl was right all along

Editor’s Note: Sara Stewart is a film and culture writer who lives in western Pennsylvania. The views expressed here are her own. View more opinion on CNN.

It’s time Katherine Heigl got a little justice.

The “Grey’s Anatomy” star, who turned up at the Emmys recently after a decade largely out of the red-carpet spotlight, is more well-known for her long-ago public critiques of her industry than most of her roles. And the thing is, the stuff she said back then was right. That should be her legacy, not the enduring and condescending label of supposedly being “difficult.”

Sara Stewart - Todd Thompson
Sara Stewart - Todd Thompson

Heigl’s been on my mind since last Sunday, when she made an appearance alongside other “Grey’s” cast members in one of the TV awards show’s many nostalgic cast reunions, which also included “Cheers,” “Martin,” “Ally McBeal” and “All in the Family.” Seeing Heigl felt different than most of those star appearances, because she’s become such an icon of a particular, gross exercise we do with some female stars: never-ending punishment for being tarred as hard to work with or just outspoken.

I will confess to never having been a “Grey’s” viewer, but even as a non-fan I couldn’t escape the uproar around Heigl starting in 2008. That year, she withdrew her name from Emmys consideration owing to what she suggested was sub-par writing for her character. “I did not feel that I was given the material this season to warrant an Emmy nomination,” she said at the time. “In addition, I did not want to potentially take away an opportunity from an actress who was given such materials.” Many saw Heigl’s actions as unnecessarily hurtful or embarrassing to “Grey’s” creator Shonda Rhimes, when Heigl could easily have told producers privately not to submit her name. However one might feel about the public forum Heigl chose to raise this point, the moment was a turning point in her career.

The same year, she starred in the Judd Apatow/Seth Rogen comedy “Knocked Up,” and in a Vanity Fair interview mildly criticized the movie for being “a little sexist” in depicting her character as a humorless scold alongside the merry boys club that made up most of the cast (Rogen, Paul Rudd, Jason Segel, Martin Starr, Jonah Hill, Jay Baruchel). To be fair, any actor – male or female – who makes a negative public comment about a feature film they’re starring in should expect some form of Hollywood punishment. That said, being a woman guarantees a much fiercer backlash for speaking up.

The following year, she called out “Grey’s” for its 17-hour workdays, telling David Letterman the practice was “cruel and mean.”  An ABC executive responded at the time, “I think it’s unfortunate. […] There are so many people who work so hard on Grey’s, and all of our shows, without any notoriety, and those are the ones I’d be concerned about, people who feel like they’re being criticized or looked down upon.”

The backlash to all of this was, perhaps, predictable. Heigl was branded as the kind of scold she’d complained about playing in Apatow’s film; in a 2009 interview, the New York Daily News quoted Apatow saying, “You would think at some point I’d get a call saying [Heigl] was sorry, that she was tired, and then the call never comes.”

She was portrayed as ungrateful for her comments about her show. And when she took roles in a string of middling rom-coms (some of which she participated in as a producer as well), she became pigeonholed, which she’s since commented on. “Maybe I overloaded my audience.” She’s since moved to live mostly in rural Utah, while continuing to work mostly on the small screen; a 2021 review of her show “Firefly Lane” considered that Heigl never really got her due for her service as a mid-aughts rom-com queen.

Did she just never apologize enough to fully resurrect herself in the business? How many apologies would that require? Infinity?

In an interview last January, she explored that question. “I kept apologizing, which I now realize just kept giving the whole thing a heartbeat. I thought self-flagellation in front of everybody would make them happy, but actually it made me weaker in people’s eyes and made me feel weak. I now think that one apology was enough.” And in a Washington Post interview a couple of years earlier, she opened up about her anger as she looked back on how she was treated for speaking her mind. “I may have said a couple of things you didn’t like, but then that escalated to ‘she’s ungrateful,’ then that escalated to ‘she’s difficult,’ and that escalated to ‘she’s unprofessional,’” she said. “What is your definition of difficult? Somebody with an opinion that you don’t like? Now, I’m 42, and that s— pisses me off.”

I’m not suggesting Heigl was always a dream to work with. Or that she’s the best actress in the world. But both of those considerations are beside the point. Yes, everyone should try to be respectful of their colleagues no matter what your industry is. But in entertainment, being an a-hole just seems to go with the territory…for some people.

Thinking about Heigl’s trajectory, I couldn’t help recalling the chorus to Taylor Swift’s song “The Man” — “I’m so sick of them coming at me again / ‘Cause if I was a man, then I’d be the man.” When I started compiling a list of men in the entertainment industry with reputations for being terrible to colleagues or fans, or a lot worse, it wasn’t difficult. But all of the men are still working and welcome in the business.

Compare that to women who’ve been cast in the same light. Sean Young’s story has always struck me as a particularly gross example of misogynist backlash. In some of the most appalling examples, convicted rapist Harvey Weinstein singlehandedly blacklisted women (including Mira Sorvino, Annabella Sciorra and Ashley Judd) who crossed him.

In other cases, it seems to have been merely the fact of being opinionated while female. In Anne Hathaway’s case, it was simply being seen as too much of a people-pleaser. For actresses, shedding the “difficult” label is a much trickier prospect than it is for men, whose tantrums are likely to be written off as the byproduct of artistic genius.

There’s a long history of famous women being torn down for sport. That narrative seems to be changing for the better, in recent years. But Heigl never got much of a redemption arc. And to me, those incidents in her past bear revisiting, because they really do foreshadow conversations that became much bigger in the years afterward.

In the case of “Knocked Up,” Heigl opened my eyes to looking at the film in a different way. Much like Slate’s Meghan O’Rourke, I found the movie hilarious at the time — and was taken aback by Heigl’s pointing out that most of the female characters are humorless and shrewish (to be honest, I found more in common with the slacker played by Charlyne Yi — who has since made her own series of accusations about misogynist and racist encounters in the industry).

If “Knocked Up” came out today, we’d be having a very different discussion about it, I think; more likely, its portrayal of women would be at least a little more nuanced. As for Heigl speaking out about her brutal work schedule on “Grey’s,” co-star Ellen Pompeo has gone on record saying her co-star was “ahead of her time” and “100% right” in saying it.

Heigl herself referenced the comments while weighing in on Instagram on a 2021 actors’ strike, saying “…[O]ver ten years ago I was very vocal about the absurdity of the working hours crews and actors were being forced into by production…I very publicly and for many…years after got my a** kicked for speaking up.” (It’s worth noting that Heigl’s comments came during a tumultuous early period for the long-running show, with multiple stars grappling with surges in fame and issues distracting the set. In 2009, one journalist suggested that Heigl herself could have been to blame for some of the long hours, which by 2015, then-star Patrick Demspey, himself reportedly no stranger to on-set difficultytold Entertainment Weekly had diminished somewhat.)

So here’s hoping that the conversation around Heigl going forward might include more recognition that she was making some good and prescient points. Besides, she starred in Garry Marshall’s unwatchable “New Year’s Eve” — hasn’t she suffered enough?

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