In defense of Katherine Heigl

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Image Credit: Michael Caulfield/Getty Images

Katherine Heigl is coming back to our TV screens — which really means that tweets and articles complaining about Katherine Heigl are coming back to our computer screens.

On Tuesday, NBC announced that it had ordered the political drama State of Affairs — starring Heigl as a top CIA analyst. This marks Heigl’s first return to TV after leaving Grey’s Anatomy in 2010. That era cemented Heigl’s bad reputation — one that isn’t totally merited.

Let’s go over her offenses: In 2007, after headlining Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up and rocketing from TV actress to film star, Heigl told Vanity Fair that the movie is “a little sexist.” “It paints the women as shrews, as humorless and uptight, and it paints the men as lovable, goofy, fun-loving guys,” Heigl said. “Why is this how you’re portraying woman?”

One year later, Heigl withdrew her name from the 2008 Emmy race, saying she felt like Grey’s hadn’t given her good enough material to warrant an award. This sparked a slew of Grey’s-related drama, including Heigl’s eventual — and abrupt — departure from the show in 2010.

Slagging on Grey’s was not the smoothest move. Understandably, it turned some people off — though what Heigl did was hardly toxic enough to justify the backlash she generated. Although Heigl made a major dig at the Grey’s writers, her honesty was also refreshing. (Also? The George/Izzie stuff in season 4 was kind of awful.) Sure, you could interpret Heigl as a jerk — but she might also just be a person with high standards. (Or both.)

Heigl’s comments blew up because some fans don’t want to accept that actors are real people with real thoughts and real opinions. It’s easy to think that every star is who they seem to be in interviews. But, because these stars are humans, it’s possible — it’s inevitable — that some of them aren’t always as sweet as they come off. So when someone like Heigl comes along and speaks her mind bluntly instead of sticking to a promotional script, everyone is startled. And it’s not her fault — it’s ours. In a 2010 New York Times story, Heigl addressed her reputation, saying, “Do they want a fierce woman or milquetoast? Should I be me, or should I pretend to be something I think people want?” That’s the thing: She shouldn’t have to pretend.

It’s only natural to want to love the people who play the characters we love. But idealizing celebrities shouldn’t mean rejecting them when they go off of some preconceived script. True, Heigl could just be a diva — and that’s probably what Heigl-haters want to believe. But even if she is, she’s not trying to hide it. And that in itself — that refusal to sugarcoat herself — is worth respect, especially in an industry where so few stars ever say what they really think. We punish Heigl for calling a movie she was in “a little bit sexist” — which implies that sexism shouldn’t be pointed out. Essentially, we promote silence by wishing Heigl stayed silent.

And, no matter what she says offscreen, it’s undeniable that Heigl is talented. She won an Emmy in 2007 for her work on Grey’s and turned Izzie into one of the show’s most interesting characters — back in the days when the show was full of them. Though her focus has been on movies more recently, Heigl’s years-long Grey’s run was her most powerful role to date, proving that TV may be where she belongs — and meaning State of Affairs could be the project that brings Heigl back in favor.

Heigl may not have Jennifer Lawrence’s lovable quirkiness; she may not have Lupita Nyong’o’s gracious decorum. But she does have the stones to say what’s on her mind, even if what’s on her mind isn’t promoting her latest movie. That’s something to appreciate — and it’s reason enough to be excited about her return to TV.

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