Why Julia Roberts is the feminist icon you need right now

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Hannah-Rose Yee
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There’s never been a better time to revisit your love of the Nineties rom com queen. 

“I kind of love Julia,” my editor slacked me last week. We were discussing Roberts’ new television show Homecoming, streaming now on Amazon Prime, a series so buzzy it’s vibrating on its own frequency. “I know I shouldn’t because she’s basic,” my editor continued. “But she’s the best, and I am basic.”

I’ve never been so shocked by a message relayed over an instant messaging platform before, and I was once dumped on Twitter. Julia Roberts! Basic! Wash your mouth out with soap, I wanted to splutter-type back, but I didn’t. Instead, I did the next best thing. I pitched a story about her.

In order to arm myself with as much evidence as possible, I raked over her recent credits list and soon realised why she might have fallen out of favour. No one thinks that Mirror Mirror, or Money Monster, or a movie about a single day (Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day) is a gift to cinema, do they? You have to go all the way back to Eat Pray Love in 2010 to find a movie of hers that is loved, and even further back (2004, Ocean’s Twelve, the superior Ocean’s movie please don’t @ me) to find one that is beloved. 

Julia Roberts in Eat Pray Love

The Nineties was her era, really. It’s there that you find the impeccable run that begins in 1990 with Pretty Woman and ends with Erin Brockovich and an Oscar grasped in one hand in 2000. In the intervening decade it was as if a year couldn’t go by without a Julia Roberts mega-hit, dominated by her smile so big we could all see the state of her cavities (zero): Sleeping with the Enemy (1991), The Pelican Brief (1993), Ready to Wear (1994), My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997), Stepmom (1998) and then the double whammy of Notting Hill and Runaway Bride in the same year (1999).

That Julia Roberts starred in some of the biggest romantic comedies of all time is both her blessing and her curse. It means that she’s insanely famous and instantly recognisable, something she has skewered more than once onscreen, whether it’s by playing herself in Ocean’s Twelve or unpicking the seams of a mega-watt actress in Notting Hill, or satirising the very idea of being America’s sweetheart in, um, the movie America’s Sweethearts.

It also means that somehow the sum of her acting talent is reduced to its individual parts. Like the authors who write “chick lit”, the actresses who star in romantic comedies are often dismissed as being lesser than their peers who work in other, more ‘serious’ genres. That didn’t stop Julia from picking up a brace of awards recognition for her work in romantic comedies - her first Best Actress nomination was for Pretty Woman in 1991 – or rave reviews for her performances. But romantic comedies and the people who work in that genre just aren’t taken seriously. 

Despite the romance, Pretty Woman is still a film about prostitution

There is where Julia’s stealth feminism really comes into play. We should celebrate her for tirelessly championing a genre that is so often dismissed, centring female stories and remaining dedicated to exploring nothing more or less high stakes than the business of falling in love in so many of her films.

Her characters were often difficult or unlikeable. (Remember the appalling Julianne in My Best Friend’s Wedding?) Like Vivian in Pretty Woman or Tess in the Ocean’s movies or the titular Erin Brockovich, they were never damsels in distress. Just like Anna in Notting Hill, they were often in positions of power, but they were also women who were unafraid to admit that they were also just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to etc etc. 

That’s true of Julia behind-the-scenes, too. She was the first woman to command a $20 million salary (for Erin Brockovich in 2000, adjusted for inflation to a whopping $28.5 or £21.8 million). Three years later, for Mona Lisa Smile, she banked $25 million and became the highest paid actress of all time at that point. (Adjusted for inflation, she received $35.5 or £27.2 million. Not too shabby, Julia.)

This desire to be paid commensurate to her box office pull and her worth as an actress came decades before the movement to expose Hollywood’s gender pay gap. Julia Roberts walked so that Jennifer Lawrence could write an essay for Lenny Letter demanding equal pay

With Hugh Grant in Notting Hill

But nowhere is her stealth feminism more at work than on the red carpet. Cast your mind back to 1999 and the London premiere of Notting Hill. There Roberts was, resplendent in a salmon pink Dolce & Gabbana gown accessorised with hairy underarms. 

Speaking to Busy Philips on her chatshow Busy Tonight today, Roberts said that the move wasn’t a feminist statement per se, it was simply part of her DGAF life philosophy. 

“I just hadn’t really calculated my sleeve length and the waving and how those two things would go together and reveal personal things about me,” she said. “So it wasn’t so much a statement, as it’s just part of the statement I make as a human on the planet, for myself.” 

All hail Julia! 

And let’s not forget the statement she made at the Cannes Film Festival in 2016, when she arrived at the premiere of her film Money Monster and removed her high heels to walk the red carpet barefoot. It was an act of defiance to the festival’s organisers who, the previous year, had turned away a group of women who arrived at the red carpet in flats. (No-one would dare turn away Julia Roberts, shoes or no shoes.)

If you need any more convincing, follow her hilarious Instagram account, which is filled with thirst traps, throwback pictures and grainy selfies in which she frequently crops out the heads of the people she is pictured with and, also, herself. 

Watch her in Homecoming, a twist-y, turn-y, mystery box of a television show in which Julia is so inscrutable and unsettling it’s impossible to look away. Her character, therapist Heidi Bergman, is the culmination of all the anti-heroines Julia has played before. She has a bit of Erin’s sass, a touch of Tess’ melancholy, a little of Julianne’s prickliness, a hint of Vivian’s caution and all of Anna’s charm. It’s a powerhouse performance that will win several, if not all, of the awards next year. In fact, that Best Actress in a Drama Series Golden Globe is so forthcoming it should come with a man blowing a trumpet. 

Crow it from the rooftops, the knowledge that we all know and have always known and will know forever: Julia isn’t basic! She’s a stealth feminist icon, and there’s never been a better time to revisit her brilliance. 

Homecoming is streaming now on Amazon Prime Video

Images: Getty


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Hannah-Rose Yee

Hannah-Rose Yee is a writer based in London. You can find her on the internet talking about movies, television and Chris Pine.

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