Gender Bullies at the Movies: From Apatow to Weinstein

April 23rd, 2019

In the wake of the HARVEY WEINSTEIN SCANDAL, we’re hearing alarming accounts of atrocious violations committed against women behind closed doors.

What is perhaps equally alarming is the dearth of coverage about the even more ubiquitous bullying against women that happens out in the open and contributes to a toxic environment that suggests disrespectful behavior is de rigeuer.

Lena Dunham, in her NY TIMES PIECE lambasting Weinstein and “the Men of Hollywood,” at one point refers to Judd Apatow as “Hollywood’s least sleazy guy.” I shuddered when I read that, thinking, “Crimony! I sure hope that’s not true.”

Relax, folks, I’m not here to condemn all things Apatow. The produce-director has made some undeniably important contributions to our culture, and a few of those, believe or not, are even FEMINIST-FRIENDLY (Freaks & Geeks, The Big Sick). But his public behavior has not been without reproach. And he owes at least one woman he’s worked with an apology: Katherine Heigl.

Haven’t heard THIS STORY? Let me fill you in:

In Apatow’s runaway hit KNOCKED UP, Katherine Heigl plays Alison, an attractive, successful career women who’s impregnated via a drunken one-night stand with Ben (Seth Rogen), an irresponsible, unemployed, beer-bellied, pothead slacker.

Author Carina Chocano, in her highly recommended book, YOU PLAY THE GIRL, sums up a major problem with this scenario with which many spectators, especially women, took issue:

“Alison is given all the attributes that signal power, agency, autonomy, status, popularity, and happiness, yet she is portrayed as a miserable, lonely and friendless wretch. Ben has none of Alison’s advantages, but he’s happy. He doesn’t need to be attractive, hardworking, smart, prepared or dedicated. It doesn’t matter how much time he’s wasted or how many brain cells he’s killed. When the baby comes all he has to do is decide to get his act together and the door flings open. The system is ready and waiting. All he has to do is walk through the door.”

As such, there was a fair amount of backlash from those identifying the film as sexist. So, when Heigl was interviewed in VANITY FAIR and the subject inevitably came up, she said she believed the film was indeed “a little sexist” and went on to say:

“It paints the 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.”

No matter that Heigl had not personally condemned Apatow or Rogen, or that she praises her experience working with them as “98-percent positive,” the men took her NOT UNUSUAL OPINION of the story as a personal attack.

But rather than launching into the specific details of what happened next, let’s consider a number of possible approaches Apatow and Rogen might have taken to address this (wrongly) perceived personal slight:

OPTION 1: Note that a female colleague, whom they purported to like and respect, has made an observation that’s been attributed repeatedly not only to this particular film, but to numerous previous works in their collective oeuvres BY MULTIPLE CRITICS, and use this opportunity to launch a much needed public discussion about sexism in the movies: what it means, its effects on our perceptions and behavior, and how we as a society of mixed genders can come to a better understanding of such issues to create a less hostile environment for everybody.

OPTION 2: Approach Heigl in private and ask why she made this claim, what she meant by it and then determine together an appropriate way to address it in public.

OPTION 3: Respond publicly to Heigl’s opinion, perhaps in an op-ed of their own interview with Vanity Fair, by demonstrating with specific, detailed examples how the film is in no way whatsoever even “a little sexist” and therefore, Heigl, and the many viewers who agree with her that it is, clearly misinterpreted the intent of the story.

OPTION 4: Ignore it. After all, anybody who reads Vanity Fair probably already agrees with Heigl, and nobody else will ever hear about it or give a crap.

OPTION 5: Assume it’s a personal attack, get angry and defensive, and then go on Howard Stern to make counter personal attacks on Heigl and tear apart her new movie because it’s not “uplifting to women” and doesn’t put them “on a pedestal,” evidently failing to realize that neither of those absurd objectives has anything whatsoever to do with countering sexism.

Spoiler alert: they opted for Option 5.

And for what again? Oh right, the woman dared to express an opinion about the depiction of a female character in a movie.

Sadly, this is NOT AN ISOLATED INCIDENT. This type of MEDIA BULLYING goes on all the time. To women anyway. As Chocano points out, “Nobody was scandalized when George Clooney called BATMAN AND ROBIN ‘a difficult film to be good in.”

Yet women like Katherine Heigl get labeled an “uptight bitch” and WATCH THEIR CAREERS SUFFER, while bullies get lauded as “Hollywood’s least sleazy guy.”

So, what to do about it?

Here’s a start. How about rather than get riled up and angry when confronted with the possibility that our work, or behavior, may be construed as insensitive to a particular individual or an entire demographic (whether intentional or not), we seize the opportunity to come together as a society and have a much needed open discussion where we can speak and be heard, listen and learn?

Crazy, I know, but it just might work.


Next up from me—Gender Discrimination Behind the Camera



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