The New York Times/Hulu’s Framing Britney Spears film has had an unexpected outcome: a mini-reckoning with how the media treats women celebrities, beyond its abuse of Spears. Mid-aughts media coverage, viewed retroactivity, is especially heinous: the recent resurfacing of a David Letterman interview with Lindsay Lohan drew decades-too-late, well-warranted criticism; he probed her about the details of rehab while mocking her partying behaviors, which she was made to retort with, “We didn’t discuss this in the pre-interview, just saying. To be honest, I’m the happiest when I’m working and the healthiest and I think this is an opportunity for me to focus on what I love in life, and I don’t think it’s a bad thing; I think it’s a blessing.”
Paris Hilton, too, was on the receiving end of Letterman’s bullying. During a 2007 interview, he greeted her and immediately asked her about jail—the food, the environment, if she lost weight, what she did to receive jail time, whether she still drinks alcohol. She responded with one-word answers for about four minutes, visibly uncomfortable, before finding an opening to say she’s moved on, and she’s there to talk about her movie, clothing line, and perfume. There’s nothing funny about it—despite the audience’s uproarious laughter—and Letterman refused to let up, doubling down on his line of inane and insensitive questioning, even suggesting that by answering his questions about prison, she could become “an exemplary role model for youngsters.” She responded with, “I’m going on to the next question, I’m over it,” yet he continued. It’s painful to watch, and it is not until she said he was upsetting her that he infantilized her, eventually switching gears to discuss her film and fragrance—in the last two minutes of the segment.
On Monday, Hilton told her sister Nicky Hilton about the event on her podcast, This Is Paris. “Letterman’s team kept calling my PR team to have me be on the show, and we kept saying no. And then, months later, I had a fragrance coming out, and his team called again, and basically my PR team made an agreement with them that [jail] was off-limits and he would not discuss it and we would only be there to promote the perfume and my other business ventures. I felt like it was a safe place because I’d been going on Letterman for so many years, and he’d always have fun with me and joke around, but I thought he would keep his word on this, and I was wrong,” she said, remembering that he “kept pushing me and pushing me” to talk about her jail stint, though “there was not supposed to be one question” about it.
“I was just getting so uncomfortable, and I was so upset,” she continued. It was like he was just purposely trying to humiliate me. And during commercial breaks, I would look at him like, ‘Please stop doing this. You promised me you wouldn’t talk about this, and that’s the only reason I agreed to come on the show. Please don’t bring it up again.’ And he’s like, ‘OK.’ And then [he did] again.”
It will be interesting to see if Letterman apologizes, but he’s an old man now and maybe he feels he’s past the statute of limitations on accountability. I mean, some of the most damning offenders are using the aftermath of Framing Britney Spears to apologize—Perez Hilton, anyone?—but who says the king of throwing cards on the ground during late-night television countdowns be inspired to do the same. At least the women who were made to sit silent and pretty are using this current cultural moment to speak up, and ideally, inspire empathy. You know, as long as they take responsibility for their own faults, too.