A clip of an interview David Letterman conducted with Lindsay Lohan in 2013 has resurfaced on the heels of the release of Framing Britney Spears, the New York Times doc that seems to have sparked a mini-reckoning with how the media treats women celebrities.
Some of the people who come off looking the worst in Framing Britney are the journalists and media personalities who slut-shamed Britney Spears as a teen pop icon, demonized her as a mother, and used her apparent struggles with mental health—which seem to be partly the result of this relentless scrutiny—as fodder for cruel jokes and tabloid covers.
Letterman seems to deploy this last trope in his interview with Lohan, asking Lohan blithe questions about her time in rehab and her struggles with substance abuse. “Aren’t you supposed to be in rehab?” he asks Lohan abruptly, after joking together about some of the sensational headlines that had been written about her. Letterman then goes on to ask Lohan how long she spent in rehab, and how many times she’s been: Lohan answers both of these briefly (“Three months”; “several.”). “What are they rehabbing?” Letterman presses. “What is on their list? What are they going to work on when you walk through the door?”
Lohan teases Letterman good-naturedly at some points, and it’s worth noting that she had been candid and self-deprecating about her stints in rehab during other television appearances around this time. Still, Lohan appears to be genuinely uncomfortable with this portion of the interview. As Letterman continues his line of questioning, she turns her gaze onto the audience, which has begun to burst into laughter. “We didn’t discuss this in the pre-interview, just saying,” she says. “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.”
This answer could have been the obvious point at which to change the subject, but nevertheless Letterman carries on. “Now do you have addiction problems? Is it like, alcohol? Do you drink too much?”
And so on. The clip is illuminating because it’s from 2013, not the late ‘90s or the aughts, when some of the worst treatment of Spears occurred—a period of time that is easy to treat as the historical past, sharing few qualities with the present. We’ve grown so much more aware of mental health. More of us call ourselves feminists now. But 2013 wasn’t so long ago, and also all of this—misogyny—is happening all of the time. Once you know what you’re looking for it’s easy to see it everywhere. Viewed in the context of the Spears documentary, Letterman’s questions about Lohan’s substance abuse seem undeniably mean and insensitive, even if Lohan was in on the joke.
Much like the response to Framing Britney, the response to the Lohan-Letterman interview has included demands that “we” apologize to Lohan and other famous women who have been mistreated by the media. But while we all have a role in shaping the culture we live in, we don’t play an equal part: Figures like Letterman or Diane Sawyer have large, influential platforms, and those platforms are part of an even larger entertainment industry that is still eager to profit from making women into punchlines. Performative apologies don’t help anyway.