Television

The Strange Case Of Popular Punching Bag Katherine Heigl

When Katherine Heigl was on The Late Show With David Letterman in support of The Ugly Truth this week, he asked her about her return to Grey's Anatomy, and she told him (it's at about the 1:25 mark in this clip) that her very first day back was a seventeen-hour day. "Which I think is cruel and mean," she said with exaggerated somberness, before moving on to talk about how it was great to be back, she misses former co-star T.R. Knight, and so forth. If it were anyone else, mentioning that she thought seventeen hours was a rather long first day, it would have gotten no attention whatsoever.

But she is not anyone else. She is Katherine Heigl.

The big dogpile, after the jump...

Every time Heigl opens her mouth, the majority of the outlets that cover this sort of news gleefully write another story about what a horrible complainer and diva she is. (Two of those articles claim that she was on a "rant" and that she "railed at" producers. I challenge you to get "rant" or "rail" from that clip.)

It isn't clear to me what's unusual, when someone asks you how it's been going back to work, about mentioning that your first day back was 17 hours long, if in fact it was. I dare say...I would. I don't have especially strong feelings about Katherine Heigl one way or the other (except that I naturally find people who speak extemporaneously but truthfully in ways that get them in trouble to be naturally sympathetic), but my interpretation of the clip is that when she says "cruel and mean," it's obviously teasing hyperbole, and she is not actually attempting to create a scandal about her working conditions.

What makes this particularly amusing is that her Ugly Truth co-star, Gerard Butler, tried to warn her that this very line would be misinterpreted. While they were being interviewed another time recently and she was asked the same question about returning to work, this happened:

Heigl: I'm actually really mad at them right now because they worked me on Wednesday for 17 hours and I thought that was mean. Yup. That's right. I think we should all boycott Grey's Anatomy. I think we need to make a point. This can't continue. Is that even legal? Are they allowed to do that? [Laughs]

Butler: Don't say that! It doesn't work in print, remember? Do you know how many people are going to write this down now as a serious comment? "Katie Heigl said she thinks we should all boycott Grey's Anatomy now."

Heigl: Oh s—-. [Laughs] I was joking! It's exciting to be back because I've missed my friends, and it was really fun to see everybody.

The mistake they both made is that they believed it didn't work in print, because people would actually not know she was joking, and that was why it would be written up as if it were something other than what it was. Naturally, then, she thought it was okay to use that line on television, because it would be immediately obvious that she wasn't serious about the producers being "cruel" and "mean" — which, at least to me, it was.

What Butler got wrong is that people don't see scandal in everything she says because they legitimately don't understand when she's kidding. They do it because through a combination of her own tendency to stick her foot in her mouth and the sheer popularity of attacking her, she's probably our most popular pop-culture punching bag. And as long as people reliably flock to comment sections to talk about how much they hate her, there will be stories about what an awful person she is, no matter how she behaves.

People will tell you she got herself into this mess by insulting the Grey's Anatomy writers by pulling her name from Emmy consideration last year and blaming the quality of the material she was given. That move was, indeed, not diplomatic in the slightest, despite the fact that she was absolutely correct about both the writing in general and the writing for her particular character. (What was she supposed to do? Submit the episode where she saved the deer?) There is a certain "you don't trash your co-workers out loud" ethic that it would have been both wiser and kinder to embrace. (Although, of course, plenty of show "sources" haven't hesitated to dish equally about her, except that they do it anonymously and avoid the consequences.)

But the popularity of throwing water balloons at her is older than that anyway. Consider this Defamer item from January 2008, long before the Emmy controversy happened. "Long suffering feminist crusader and smokey treat enthusiast Katherine Heigl wants you to know that she can quit smoking any time she g— d—- well pleases," the site said. It went on to quote her as follows:

I can have just one (cigarette). I am not gonna get addicted. Then you start bumming. I'm bumming. I don't buy my own packs. I'm not addicted.

She was ridiculed for the obvious self-delusion of saying this while smoking.

Here's what she actually said:

It's so stupid...I started when I was like 22 or 23, and I had my first cigarette at a bar one night, and I was like mmm. ... I'll try this. I can have just one. I am not gonna get addicted. Then you start bumming. I'm bumming. I don't buy my own packs. I'm not addicted. Then you go through something that is hard or difficult or stressful and you buy your first pack and it's all over. And now it's all about how you're going to quit...I've tried everything...I've tried Wellbutrin, which made me really happy while I smoked. Tried the patch. Tried gum. I hate the gum. It burns my mouth. I think I have to quit the old-fashioned way.

In other words, she was saying the polar opposite of "I can quit any time I want." She was saying the polar opposite of "I'm not addicted." Nobody deserves that, no matter how frequently she says stupid things.

If she truly is as rotten as her detractors make her out to be — and maybe she is — then she ought to be able to keep the business of dumping on her afloat with the things she actually does wrong. Pretending she actually went on Letterman's show and "railed" at producers for being cruel with anything approaching diva-like seriousness only makes the pile-on look like it's being done for sport.

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