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One for the Controversy: What the Failure of Katherine Heigl's Career Says About Women in Hollywood

Heigl is good at talking the talk -- speaking out about the inherent sexism in the movie industry -- but she seems almost willfully against challenging the norms of gender in cinema that she criticizes.
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Hollywood is not a nice place for actresses, something even a passing glimpse into the career trajectories of Thora Birch, Jessica Alba or Janeane Garofalo will indicate. If you're a woman in Tinseltown, the industry is not a space that's run by you or for you -- and any success you have is seen as ancillary, a tie-over to summer tentpole season. When a movie you're in does well, like Oscar nominees The Help or Bridesmaids, people won't stop talking about what a huge surprise it was, and if your movie tanks, studio heads will threaten not to cast women as leads anymore. Unless you are Meryl Streep, Judi Dench or Helen Mirren -- women known more for being "thespians" than "entertainers" -- this treatment intensifies as you get older. Even one time box-office darlings Julia Roberts and Reese Witherspoon can't open a movie these days; Witherspoon's new film, This Means War, counts her third disappointment in a row, and Roberts' highest-grossing recent film as a lead, Eat Pray Love, failed to come even close to the $100 million success mark -- starkly underperforming especially when considering its star power and mega best-selling source material.

However, some actresses and performers are their own worst enemies, women who use their fame and success to do almost everything in their power to derail their own careers. The best examples of this are Whitney Houston, Lindsay Lohan and Sean Young -- known more for their unreliability, tabloid dramas, drug problems and outlandish public appearances than their talent. Although many of their problems can be blamed on their fraught personal histories, Young and Lohan must, at the end of the day, blame themselves for the mess they made of their enormous potential. With Houston, little more can be said about the incredible tragedy that became her career, a woman who built her acting and singing careers on empowering women of all colors and became a harrowing cautionary tale on the perils of fame and fortune.

This brings us to Katherine Heigl, a woman who went from being the great white hope of women at the box office to not being able to outgross $50 million or even make back her budget. Much has been said, including by me, about how Heigl herself has created the fiasco that has become her career -- her alleged difficult behavior on set, her unpopular public statements about the projects she's involved in, her perceived irritability -- but this has more to do with media gender bias than Heigl herself. For instance, Daniel Craig and Matt Damon have recently taken to making increasingly brash public statements about projects they've worked on, their personal politics and views on modern society -- and no one has criticized them, questioned their box-office viability or used their gender to explain their remarks. Like Sean Penn, they're men in an industry dominated by men -- and unless they're saying something overtly racist, they can say just about whatever they like, and in the case of Charlie Sheen, they might even be applauded for it.

In fact, I would argue that the male-dominated public backlash about Katherine Heigl's statements on Knocked Up -- in which she called the film "a little sexist" -- proved her own point on the film's sexism. I like most of Judd Apatow's films, but I don't think even Apatow would call himself a writer who understands women -- as the women in films like Knocked Up are generally mothering figures or unsympathetic -- brittle, shallow or unstable. If women are seen as being "cool," it's because they're like "one of the guys." In Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Funny People, which were, respectively, produced and directed by Apatow, it's the laid-back, dude-like qualities of the female leads, Mila Kunis and Aubrey Plaza, that attract their male counterparts. When he does create sympathetic women, it's because he's leaving the writing of women up to women, as in the case of Bridesmaids, or because he's writing for a man -- but with boobs.

Although I think that Hollywood needs more tomboys in film -- more women who subvert the gender binary -- that doesn't make what Apatow is specifically doing much better, as his films don't exactly problematize traditional gender roles, nor does it make Heigl wrong for criticizing it.

However, the problem with Heigl herself is that she's good at talking the talk -- speaking out about the inherent sexism in the movie industry -- but terrible stepping out and doing anything about it, and she seems almost willfully against challenging the norms of gender in cinema that she criticizes. In an interview conducted shortly after Knocked Up made her a star, Heigl criticized the fact that every up-and-coming actress is touted to be the "next Julia Roberts" but mentioned, "There's not another woman I look at and think, 'That's it. That's whose career I want to have.'" Similar statements on the subject and her subsequent career choices show Heigl doesn't care about awards; she wants to be a rom-com queen, a genre not exactly known for empowering women. However, what Heigl doesn't get is that rom-com stars like Roberts got to their A-list positions by taking chances within those genres and pushing the boundaries of what women are allowed to be. Although Pretty Woman wasn't doing much for equality, Julia Roberts' best vehicles, My Best Friend's Wedding and Erin Brockovich, show the lead achieving happiness by not ending up with the guy. Roberts finds herself through her career, getting involved with her community, helping others and becoming a better friend to those around her. She does not need to find a man or become more male to be powerful, and in Erin Brockovich, her femininity is the source of her strength.

In the case of Heigl, it's her less-than-progressive scripts that present the problem -- ones that, as a producer, she has a strong hand in picking for herself. Her best post-Grey's Anatomy film, 27 Dresses, was penned by The Devil Wears Prada scribe Aline Brosh McKenna and revels in the exact kind of light-hearted fun that Heigl should be having. 27 Dresses doesn't push boundaries, but it's a great role to showcase her talents, allowing her to be the magnetic mixture of sassy and sweet that made her Grey's character so likeable and relatable; however, vehicles like The Ugly Truth, Killers, New Years' Eve, and One for the Money don't portray her as spunky and fun; they make her, well, ugly.

All of these films have been some of the bigger critical and commercial flops of their respective years, movies that almost everyone stayed away from. Although each is each horrendous in its own special way, One for the Money and The Ugly Truth, in particular, share an interesting vision of a woman's place in the world and means of achieving happiness, an image that -- as someone who cares about sexism in cinema -- Heigl should be trying to subvert. In The Ugly Truth, Heigl's character is a TV morning show producer forced to work, against her will, with a cynical, narcissistic chauvinist, played by Gerard Butler, one that the script calls for her to fall in love with. He's a relationship counselor with unorthodox recommendations, advice that Heigl uses to help her court a man she's interested in. Throughout a makeover process that alters her into a hyper-sexualized fembot, Butler mostly insults and degrades her, telling her that her identity is not what a man wants in a woman and not what her date will desire, and during her date, Butler tells her what to do through a receiver implanted in her ear. Thus, she is not only transformed by the male gaze; she is controlled by it and, eventually, falls in love with it.

Interestingly, what this does is actually uphold the Apatowian view of the world, of women achieving happiness by embracing masculinity, and promotes the very sexism that Heigl made her image in speaking out against. Her newest film, One for the Money, shows her doing more of the exact same thing. Her character -- the luckless, loud-mouthed Stephanie Plum -- finds herself out of her lingerie store job and weasels her way into being a bounty hunter for a bail bond agency. Because her background is in work that is stereotypically female, Plum is initially pathologically unfit for the job; however, she improves in her work by letting her male co-workers show her the ropes, teach her to fire a gun and help her chase down bad guys. As the other women in the film are nagging housewives, airhead secretaries or uncouth prostitutes, the film shows that Plum's femininity is not what empowers her, as femininity is undesirable. Only by embracing hegemonic masculinity can she become whole, and at the end, she winds up with a near-carbon copy of the Gerard Butler's Ugly Truth character.

What's equally interesting about the movie is not how bad it is or how bad Heigl is in it, but how poorly it's doing in the theatres and why. At the end of it's run, One for the Money, based off the popularly beloved Janet Evanovich series and intended to be a franchise for Heigl, will finish with around $25 million in theatres, a sum not much more than the hefty $15 million she earned for the film, one far lower than any of her other major releases. Although the law of diminishing returns affects many name actresses in Hollywood, this one is a more pointed specific backlash against Heigl, her public persona and what her films say about women. As a producer on her own films, Heigl has a great deal of input about what films she makes and what they do for women in Hollywood. Heigl is a terrific actress, when given a role worthy of her and a director who knows how to use her talents. It would be a shame to see her become as "washed up" as industry analysts project her to be, used up and discarded in the way that far too many actresses are, because the ladies of Hollywood and America deserve better. Women, LGBT persons and people of color deserve representation that better speaks to the diversity of their identities, to enjoy a cinema that challenges the limiting ways in which women and minorities are constructed, and in Heigl's case, that change needs to start with her. As an executive, she has the ability to affect change; all she has to do is put her money where her mouth is.

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