Katherine Heigl showed me the ropes when it came to being a feminist

Katherine Heigl in ‘Firefly Lane’ (Netflix)
Katherine Heigl in ‘Firefly Lane’ (Netflix)

I’m a feminist because of Katherine Heigl. Wait, let me clarify. I’m a proud feminist because of women, like Katherine Heigl, who have fought tooth and nail for a seat at the table set by and for men. (Growing up the only daughter of a single mother also helped.)

Heigl has been in showbiz for decades, making her film debut at 14 years old as Kathryn, a dreamy, naive pre-teen in 1992 romance drama That Night. In 1994, she landed her first major supporting role as boundary-pushing teenager Nicole in romcom My Father the Hero, before starring in 1999 TV series Roswell as popular girl Isabel Evans.

It wasn’t until she got her six-season breakout role in 2005 as Dr Izzie Stevens on Shonda Rhimes’s award-winning medical drama Grey’s Anatomy that Heigl became a true Hollywood staple. Later, the abrupt nature of Heigl’s exit from the show in 2010 fuelled speculation that it was, in part, due to rumoured feuds between her and other co-stars. There’d also been drama in 2008 when she pulled herself out of the Emmy race because she didn’t feel that the material Rhimes had given her was worthy of an award nod.

In 2021, Heigl commented on her damaged reputation, telling The Washington Post: “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’.

“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.” More recently, Heigl addressed the false reports around her Grey’s exit, explaining the real reason she left the show was to spend more time with her newly adopted daughter at the time, Naleigh, who is now 13.

Perhaps it was because of her on-screen portrayals as career-focused “mouthy” women, in romcoms such as Knocked Up (2007), 27 Dresses (2008), The Ugly Truth (2009) and Life as We Know It (2010), that fans and audiences seemed readily accepting of this assessment. Although, whatever their reasoning, I have always believed this backlash was rooted in misogyny. Too often, successful female celebrities are called divas, an overtly sexist and lazy description of self-respecting and confident women. Meanwhile, men with the same qualities of said “divas” (cough, cough, Tom Cruise), are instead admired for their bravado.

Now, whether industry workers think Heigl is a difficult woman or not, there’s no denying she’s been a very busy one. Months after the actor’s Grey’s Anatomy run came to an end, she returned to the screen as recently single, overly cautious Jen in 2010 action comedy Killers, a role followed by strapped-for-cash bail-bond recovery agent Stephanie Plum in 2012’s One for the Money and badass female CIA-analyst Charleston Tucker in NBC’s 2014 one-season political drama State of Affairs.

Katherine Heigl in ‘Knocked Up’ (Universal Pictures)
Katherine Heigl in ‘Knocked Up’ (Universal Pictures)

Luckily, Heigl’s Hollywood fallout (which she later said forced her into therapy) hasn’t affected her choice of roles as “loud-mouthed” women. Take Firefly Lane. In Netflix’s adaptation of Kristin Hannah’s 2008 novel, she plays self-assured talk show host Tully, opposite Scrubs star Sarah Chalkes’s nerdy, goody-two-shoes housewife Kate.

Ahead of season two’s return, earlier this month, when Heigl was asked what she and Tully had in common, she answered: “We are both in the same industry... I am more Kate in real life.”

To me, her careful response seemed to be an act of self-preservation. I mean, after being branded a “difficult person”, why wouldn’t Heigl want to distance herself from brash and, at times, egotistical Tully? Yet, all of Tully’s more undesirable qualities aside, she’s also a fiercely impassioned and devoted friend, who only wants the best for her childhood pal Kate.

Plus, because men have constantly underestimated her from an early age, Tully has fought tirelessly to be seen for more than just her good looks. She’ll even turn down the highest career-saving job offer because the producer was foolish enough to call her “kiddo”. Never f***ing call me kiddo,” Tully tells her publicist in the episode “Papa Don’t Preach”.

So it seems to me that, beyond their shared industry, Heigl may have more in common with Tully than she’d care to admit. Which, in my opinion, is far from a bad thing. After all, they’re both women who aren’t afraid to speak truth to power, are exceptionally career-driven (though, in the end, will always choose family), and in the words of Tully, will demand “nothing less” than what they “are entitled to”.

Only Heigl can know who she truly is – not me, and certainly not those calling her “ungrateful”, “difficult” or “unprofessional”. But I want to send her a heartfelt thank you, for showing me the ropes.

‘Firefly Lane’ season two part one is on Netflix now, with part two premiering on 8 June 2023