A farewell to David Letterman and late night sexism

Amy Schumer has gained a cult following with her whip-smart humour and critique of gender stereotypes.

Amy Schumer has gained a cult following with her whip-smart humour and critique of gender stereotypes.

David Letterman's last episode of Late Show has gone to air, bringing the veteran host's 33 year career in late night television to an end. His show ran for an astonishing 4,000 episodes, and had pretty much every famous person you've ever heard of as a guest. Letterman was an almost peerless American institution, changing the face of comedy with his irreverent approach to hosting and opening the door for a sharper, less traditional kind of humour than had been seen in the mainstream before.

He was also notoriously sexist, and his exit from TV heralds the end of him being permitted to demean, humiliate and mock his young female guests.

Gawker put together a YouTube supercut of Funny Dave's Funny Banter with the women who appeared on his show: it's five and a half minutes long, and makes for an excruciating viewing experience made all the more unbelievable by how little Letterman's tone changes from decade to decade.

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There he is in 2005 murmuring to Nicole Kidman how beautiful she looks – as she squirms visibly; and there he is with Jennifer Aniston in 2013, commenting on her "lovely legs" before the camera captures a close-up in case anyone was confused. Over a period of 25 years he tells Cher, Janet Jackson, Angelina Jolie, Beyonce and Taylor Swift that they smell good. Lindsay Lohan shrieks and covers her face when, in 2006, Letterman insinuates that he's sexually fantasising about her. "That's so inappropriate!" she says. At the time, Lohan was only 19 years old; in the same interview he tells her that he finds Jane Fonda attractive, but he "can't afford her". In 2009 while interviewing then-19-year-old Harry Potter star Emma Watson, he produces a picture of her mid-wardrobe malfunction with her undies on display.

And so on, and so on, and so on.

That Letterman made come-ons to female actors in the 80s and got away with it is unsurprising, but it's astonishing that he continued to be given a free pass despite having acted like a pig until the very end of his show. His defenders use the usual litany of excuses: it's harmless banter; his guests were active participants; he's a genius; you just hate him because he's a white man, etc.

It's true that some of his guests didn't appear fazed, but many did. In Gawker's video, Taylor Swift sticks out as particularly embarrassed by Letterman telling her that she smells "like expensive wood". He sat next to these women for thirty years, making dirty jokes at their expense and objectifying them to earn applause from his audience.

The unequal power dynamic between Letterman and young female guests is what gives his behaviour that sharp edge of real creepiness. He is older and far more established than they are, and he has something they want: exposure. Appearing on Letterman was a sure sign that you'd made it in Hollywood, and in this sense his show occupied a gatekeeping role that should have conferred some measure of responsibility. People in high-status roles are supposed to treat their professional inferiors graciously; but far from assuming the role of mentor, even just for on-screen purposes, he gives the women on his show an opportunity to experience some of the sexism that Hollywood is famous for. That's a lesson of sorts, but not a very constructive one.

The interpersonal dynamics of his interviews, his guests' cringing and his own failure to empathise with their clear discomfort, are disturbing, but it's even worse to consider how much, and in what ways, he influenced both his audience and his contemporaries. When feminists talk about how sexist norms are disseminated through media, this is what we mean. That fans and colleagues are so quick to minimise Letterman's behaviour proves the point: Letterman did it, so it's acceptable.

Comedy is a notoriously hostile environment for women. How much of the blame for that can be laid at his feet, for getting out on stage over 33 years, proving again and again that if you're witty enough, it's okay to treat women as though they're a collection of body parts instead of people?

If it seems unfair to pick on one specific individual for a systemic issue, consider that none of the fans eulogising his show miss an opportunity to praise Letterman for the changes he single-handedly wrought in the tone of contemporary comedy.

The man was a pop culture behemoth who held an enormous amount of power to influence the entertainment industry – power that he could've exercised in a positive way simply by keeping it in his pants while he talked to his female guests. Instead he let it all hang out, never missing an opportunity to demonstrate how easy it is to be casually sexist when you're a rich white man with a TV show. Discussions of Letterman's legacy that exclude his misogyny are quietly and disingenuously reinforcing this dynamic.