Friday, September 18, 2009

Sexism and the Outspoken Actress [Guest Post]

Today's guest post comes from my friend Joe, a writer living in Los Angeles. He has worked as post coordinator for a variety of shows on MTV, VH1 and TruTV and is currently working as a post prod assistant on two new Adult Swim shows from the makers of Robot Chicken. He blogs about entertainment on his blog Your Daily Joe, and tweets with the same name.

In his review of The Ugly Truth, Roger Ebert -- the best film critic working today -- said, "Amazing that this raunchy screenplay was written by three women." Later, a reader wrote in to ask him, "So what? Women are not allowed to write raunchy screenplays, when they are the gold standard for successful men's comedies these days?" To which Ebert responded:

Women screenwriters should certainly have all the latitude of men. It's just that The Ugly Truth is so outspokenly vulgar it surprised me, and I don't usually associate that sort of screenplay with women.
This gave me pause. Mild though it may be, this is clearly a sexist notion on par with, "I don't usually associate funny standup comedy with women," or "I don't usually associate good driving abilities with women." Things that, outside of a humorous context, I wouldn't want to go on the record as having said.

What's particularly galling to me about Ebert bringing sexism into the discussion of The Ugly Truth is this: I don't like Katherine Heigl, the star of that movie. Granted, I've never met Katherine Heigl; maybe she's a super lady. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say: I don't like most of the things I've heard or seen about Katherine Heigl over the last few years. Heigl has managed to position herself as a mouthpiece for various issues, one of which is sexism in popular culture. So, in disliking Katherine Heigl's public persona, I've had to confront possible sexism in myself -- in my reactions to her, and in my perception of women in general. Is my inclination toward disliking her the very example of the sexism she speaks out against? Do her actions make me uncomfortable because she's not behaving the way I expect, the way a good little starlet is supposed to?

Before October of 2006, I'd never really been aware of Katherine Heigl. Despite a longtime affinity for stories about aliens and conspiracy theories, I'd never watched "Roswell." And I never had any interest in the whole "Grey's Anatomy" phenomenon. But it was that autumn when the Isaiah Washington controversy erupted. For those of you who may not know, Washington, one of the stars of "Grey's Anatomy," was accused of calling co-star T.R. Knight a "faggot" on the set (an accusation Washington denied). Knight was forced to publicly come out, and Washington was eventually fired when it became clear that the viewers demanded it.

During that incident, Heigl passionately defended Knight in the press. "T.R. is my best friend," she said. "I will throw down for that kid." She added, rightly so, that Washington's use of a homophobic slur was "not okay."

The public stand she took on the Isaiah Washington controversy was the beginning of the reputation she would soon have about her. For now, most people agreed that her outspokenness was appropriate. She stuck up for a friend, and took a stand against homophobia. This was all very admirable.

Just as that whole controversy was beginning to subside, the press blitz began for Knocked Up, Heigl's biggest feature film appearance since her breakout status on "Grey's." I'd been a huge fan of The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and was looking forward to this Judd Apatow/Seth Rogen follow-up. The movie was enjoyable enough (not as good as Virgin, in my opinion), and Heigl did a perfectly fine job. Then she gave an interview to Vanity Fair where she said:
[Knocked Up is] a little sexist. It paints women as shrews, as humorless and uptight, and it paints the men as lovable, goofy, fun-loving guys. It exaggerated the characters, and I had a hard time with it on some days. I'm playing such a bitch; why is she being such a killjoy? Why is this how you're portraying women? Ninety-eight percent of the time, it was an amazing experience, but it was hard for me to love the movie.
After her defense of T.R. Knight and then this, the cultural conversation about Heigl was underway. Was she right that Knocked Up was sexist? If so, why did she agree to be in the movie? She had to know, going in, how the female characters were going to come off. If that wasn't cool with her, then she shouldn't have done it; after all, she was already on a hit TV show. Seems like a cynical move -- be in a movie that's going to raise your profile (and, not coincidentally, your paycheck) even though you have ethical objections to ideas the movie is propagating.

The other side of the argument is that she may have been locked into a situation that wasn't worth trying to get out of. Maybe she didn't see eye-to-eye creatively with the filmmakers, and her role developed into something that was different than what she thought it was going to be. A common occurrence. So when the interviewer later asked how she felt about the movie, she did nothing more than to give her honest answer. She spoke her mind, and more power to her! She's real; not another one of these Hollywood puppets reciting the publicist's line.

Her anti-Knocked Up interview wasn't enough to make me dislike her, but it did leave a bad taste in my mouth. It's a clear-cut case of biting the hand that feeds. Knocked Up was a movie that was predestined to be a hit. The Judd Apatow juggernaut was running at full steam. Anybody involved in that movie was going to reap huge benefits. And she did. So perhaps it would have been the more politically wise move -- or at least the more polite move -- to keep such opinions between herself and close, trusted confidantes.

Then came the 2008 Emmy controversy. Heigl made a rather loud public moment out of her decision to withdraw from the competition. She would refuse a nomination because, she said, "I did not feel I was given the material this season to warrant an Emmy nomination and in an effort to maintain the integrity of the academy organization, I decided against competing. ... I did not want to potentially take away an opportunity from an actress who was given such material."

Translation: The writers of my show aren't catering to me and making me look as awesome as I should look.

This is where she lost me. What a completely unacceptable thing to do! I mean, seriously, how dare she! Everything she has in her career she owes to the writers of all the various projects she's acted in over the years. The Emmy she'd already won the previous year, the money, the fame, the (I'm presuming) creative fulfillment of making a living through the self-expression of acting! That's all thanks to the writers. Yes, yes, the writers need good actors to perform their material, just as well as actors need good writers to give them decent material. But that's the point! It's a team effort. That very same writers had guided her to an Emmy win the previous year, and here she was throwing it back in their faces.

Interesting that she went so public with her grievances about her lack of good material, considering her previous comment that the Isaiah Washington controversy should be kept "very much in house." If she was unhappy with the material she was being given or the direction her character was taking, the appropriate people to discuss this with are right there in the production office and on the set.

Heigl was obviously making a power play. She had flexed her feature film might in Knocked Up, so now she was stoking the flames at "Grey's Anatomy" in order to either get more money and accommodations out of that production, or else get let out of her TV contract early so that she could make more money doing features. That led to a storyline in the following season of "Grey's Anatomy" where her character had a death scare. (And no, I wasn't actually watching the show; I was just aware of the storyline.) Ultimately, Heigl and the producers were able to reach some (undisclosed) terms, so her character survived and remains on the show.

Which leads to the latest Heigl incident - her 7/20/09 interview on David Letterman. Guns blazing, Heigl is no more than a minute into the interview when she takes the opportunity to "embarrass" (her word) the producers by telling the Letterman audience about a 17-hour workday she'd just suffered through, which she said she thinks "is cruel and mean."

Well, folks, not only is a 17-hour workday routine for below-the-line crew members... not only are 17-hour days a frequent occurrence for TV writers pounding out those last-minute script revisions that Heigl finds so unworthy... not only do actors spend the vast majority of any shooting day in downtime while other people do the heavy lifting... but, as veteran TV writer/producer Ken Levine puts it:
What [Heigl] neglected to add was ... this "cruel" shooting schedule was only to accommodate HER and her needs. The producers graciously shuffled things around so she could go off and do promotion for her new film. Also, with union rules, the producers had to pay a ton of overtime and penalties to make this happen. The thanks they get is Katherine Heigl going on national television hoping to embarrass them.
So budgets were exceeded and all cast and crew members were subjected to an unnecessarily long shooting schedule so that Heigl could go on Letterman and promote her shitty movie The Ugly Truth. What. A. BITCH!

Ah, but there it is. THAT word. Symptom one of the misogynist. "Bitch." What is it that compels me to use that word here?

I recently read this blog post, which outlined various "unacceptable" female behavior, and labeled such behavior with the form of "bitch" with which it's frequently associated. A woman who steps outside of the socially accepted ideal of female behavior may be called, "mean bitch, crazy bitch, stuck-up bitch, angry bitch, bitch with daddy issues, dyke bitch, shrill bitch, frigid bitch," etc. In my weaker moments, I might be tempted to call Katherine Heigl a stuck-up bitch, and a shrill bitch, and I'd probably throw in an inconsiderate bitch and a selfish bitch for good measure. But what am I really trying to say here? She's brash, discourteous, and a loudmouth. These are characteristics we find in men every bit as frequently as we do in women. What does it add to the discussion to top off the description with "bitch"?

"Bitch" is a gendered word. As any second grader will giddily inform you, it's actually in the dictionary! A female canine. (Marge Simpson: "Well I'm going to write the dictionary people and have that checked. Feels like a mistake to me.") To use the word derogatorily suggests that there's something inherently wrong with the female gender. The very act of applying that word does, indeed, paint me as a sexist, and weakens my argument.

I don't believe my opinions of Katherine Heigl have anything to do with her being a woman, or anything to do with me being sexist - which I do not believe myself to be. If a man were behaving the same way Katherine Heigl does, I'd have just as much of a problem with him. And I probably wouldn't think to call him a "bitch." I'd call him a reckless idiot, an ingrate, an asshole... characteristics men and women can share in equally.

I don't hate Katherine Heigl as a woman, I hate her as a person. I'm a dick that way.

Additional Reading:
T.R. Knight Leaves Grey's Anatomy
Katherine Heigl takes leave of absence

Related posts:

Action Movies: You're Doing It Wrong
Futurama Shows Polyamory Is Heaven

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Mom said...

You're too funny!

JJSKCK said...

Also hilarious is that she complained about her character in Knocked Up, then immediately jumped in to play an even more detestable character in The Ugly Truth. I get the distinct feeling she'll be a footnote by 2011.

Dan said...

Thanks for having the balls to post this.