Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton: Why people are cringe-watching old interviews

Elise Solé
·5 min read
After the Feb. 5 documentary
After the Feb. 5 documentary "Framing Britney Spears," social media is second-guessing the treatment of female celebrities. (Photo: C Flanigan/FilmMagic)

Inspired by Framing Britney Spears, people are re-watching old celebrity interviews to call out poor treatment of women.

The Feb. 5 docuseries by The New York Times Presents aired Britney Spears's troubled past — her 2007 mental health breakdown, her conservatorship and the #FreeBritney movement — as cast by the media. The doc revisits a "no holds barred" 2003 Primetime interview with Diane Sawyer, who prodded a 22-year-old Spears about her rumored infidelity to Justin Timberlake (underscoring his public account of the couple's breakup) and questioning her sex appeal, which she said "upset" mothers. Sawyer even showed the pop star a quote from former first lady of Maryland Kendel Ehrlich who said, "Really, if I had the opportunity to shoot Britney Spears, I think I would." (Ehrlich later dismissed her statement as ”an inadvertent figure of speech" regarding female role models).

The demand for Sawyer and Timberlake to apologize mounted and while the journalist has not publicly responded, Timberlake Instagrammed an apology to both Spears and Janet Jackson, after similarities were drawn to his 2004 Super Bowl half-time performance with Jackson and that "wardrobe malfunction," the consequences of which he largely dodged.

The call for celebrity retribution continued when the meme account Literally.Iconic posted a 2007 David Letterman interview with 26-year-old Paris Hilton, during which he grilled the heiress over her three-week jail sentence for violating probation following a traffic offense. "She came there to promote her newest fragrance but he thought this bullying and character assassination would be better for his show," account founder Costa captioned his post, while followers slammed the late-night television host for unprofessionalism and praised Hilton for her composure. "Painful to watch," wrote one.

And a 2013 clip of Letterman interviewing Lindsay Lohan before her three-month rehab stint (which she served in exchange for avoiding jail time on charges related to reckless driving), resurfaced. Although the actress, then 26, was promoting her film Scary Movie 5, she was aggressively pressed by Letterman about her drug use and related legal battles. "We didn't discuss this in the pre-interview," responded an uncomfortable Lohan.

With documented sexism spanning decades, why are people viewing it with fresh eyes? "The death of George Floyd, election-related extremism, the Me Too movement and economic disparities highlighted [by the pandemic] have forced us to say, 'Wait there are privileged groups that have engaged in micro-aggressions' and it's harder to ignore," Anita Thomas, a psychologist and the executive vice president and provost at St. Catherine University, tells Yahoo Life. She adds, "There is a new perspective that oppression has been around but not recognized...it's always been wrong, but easy to minimize. That's the stretch of oppression."

She adds, "Young girls and preteens are often sexualized and objectified with no connection to their humanity." For example, Framing Britney includes a 1992 clip of 10-year-old Spears competing on the talent show Star Search. “I noticed last week, you have the most adorable, pretty eyes,” host Ed McMahon, then 69, told Spears. “Do you have a boyfriend?” When Spears responded that boys are "mean," McMahon replied, “I’m not mean, how about me?”

Thomas compares a new awareness to "walking around in a fog that's lifted." Monica Lewinsky, a treasured target of late-night television in the '90s for her affair with President Bill Clinton, alluded to this in a 2018 Vanity Fair essay, while crediting the Me Too movement with clarifying the role of power dynamics. "And yet I don’t believe I would have felt so isolated had it all happened today," she wrote. "One of the most inspiring aspects of this newly energized movement is the sheer number of women who have spoken up in support of one another. And the volume in numbers has translated into volume of public voice. Historically, he who shapes the story (and it is so often a he) creates 'the truth.' But this collective rise in decibel level has provided a resonance for women’s narratives."

Los Angeles-based therapist Bethany Marshall says media treatment of women can also be attributed to herd mentality, the instinct to conform to group behavior, especially when older white men, such as in media, have decided cultural norms. "Asking the 'tough questions' became a power trip and a rationalization for humiliating people for ratings," she tells Yahoo Life. "But now you have people on social media with a voice." She adds that Me Too has better identified predatory behavior by "breaking our collective denial."

And that's the message. As Framing Britney director Samantha Stark told Irish podcast The Hard Shoulder, "I think that this story is about how we treat women in our society. We spend a fair amount of the film looking back on media coverage of Britney from the early 2000s and we see how this teenage girl was asked questions like 'Are you a virgin?' 'We're all going to talk about your breasts now.'"

Stark added, "She was shamed a lot for her sexuality back then — it seems appalling to watch it now. It hasn't been that long since that was happening. It's a story about Britney, but it's also a story about us."

Read more from Yahoo Life:

Lauren Burnham and Arie Luyendyk Jr. had sex for 18 days straight when trying to conceive. Is that the wrong approach

'Bachelorette' star Hannah Brown reveals she 'struggled with an eating disorder': 'I was so, so hungry'

Dan Levy’s mom calls out childhood bullies who 'made life miserable' ahead of his 'SNL' hosting gig

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