Is It Wrong to Be Charmed by Reese Witherspoon's Drunk-Driving Tirade?

A chat about sympathizing with out-of-line celebrities
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reese mugshot 650.jpg
Witerspoon's and husband James Toth's booking photos (AP/City of Atlanta Department of Corrections)

The video of Reese Witherspoon's arrest for disorderly conduct hit the Internet last night, and it's something. In it, the Walk the Line and Legally Blonde star screamed at a policeman who had stopped her and her husband for suspected drunk driving, saying that she's "an American citizen," that he's "about to find out who I am," and—falsely—that she's pregnant. Below is the edited transcript of a gchat conversation between TheAtlantic.com's sexes editor Eleanor Barkhorn and entertainment editor Spencer Kornhaber about why it's strangely endearing to see this particular celebrity misbehave so spectacularly.


Eleanor: :( http://www.vulture.com/2013/05/watch-clips-from-reese-witherspoons-arrest.html :(

Spencer: This is amazing. No, "this is BEYOND." It's like a movie scene. "Reese," the boyfriend says. "Relax."

Eleanor: (husband)

Spencer: Oh, yeah. You're kind of obsessed with Reese, right? You wrote that thing about her. What's it like to watch this?

Eleanor: First of all, her Southern accent comes out strong when she's drunk. I find that endearing. But more substantively, it is helpful to see this through the lens of PANIC. She told Good Morning America, "I saw him arresting my husband and I literally panicked."

Spencer: But most people when they're panicked can't play the "do you know who I am?" card. I've never seen a more vivid example of the ugly things that happen when a celebrity is forced to meet reality than this video.

Eleanor: I actually think it's interesting how she doesn't really dwell on the celebrity thing. It's one of many different justifications she throws out there, along with I'm an American Citizen and I'm Pregnant. It's like she's going through all the ways she think she can get out of it, and the celebrity card is just one of them.

Spencer: Yeah, I get that. Thinking back to times when I or people I know have been in trouble or on the verge of it, lying seems like an almost instinctual thing to do when you're trying to wheedle out of a situation.

Thinking more, yeah, hmm. Maybe it's unfair to see this through a celebrity lense. She's just drunk and being idiotic.

Eleanor: That's how I see it. And I also think when you get into trouble you suddenly try to remember all the advice you've gotten in life for how to get out of being in trouble.

I was once reprimanded by a police officer for using a student Metro Card in the NYC subway when I was on vacation. As he was writing the ticket, I was like, "How can I get out of this? How can I get out of this?" and I remembered how someone told me if you cry in front of a police officer, you're less likely to get a ticket. So I started crying. It didn't work. I bet if I were an important person I would have pulled the important person card, but I was a 16-yr-old kid.

Spencer: YES. I've heard multiple women say they can get out of tickets by crying so they cry! I've considered using the wife-is-about-to-give-birth line. Though I don't think anyone would believe it, for a lot of reasons.

But Reese is a celeb, like it or not... so is she going to pay more or less than someone else would?

Eleanor: Well, in the scheme of celebrity meltdowns caught on camera or on tape, this is far from the worst. This is not Mel Gibson, or Kramer, or Lindsay Lohan.

Spencer: That's true. But Reese had such a... squeaky clean? Nice human being? Is that the right term?... reputation. Or am I just projecting my love of Legally Blonde?

Eleanor: No, it's right. She's an America's Sweetheart type

So that's why I think her emphasizing that she's a WIFE who was trying to protect her HUSBAND is a smart move. Mama Grizzly or whatever. She's Miss Nice Gal...until you mess with her man

Spencer: But isn't the new archetype for American Sweetheart, like, doing the Jennifer Lawrence letting-it-all-hang-out-and-say-strange-and-hilarious-things thing? Maybe this puts her closer to that?

Eleanor: Yeah, there's also that. There's an opening-scene-of-the-Mindy-Project vibe to this.

Spencer: So maybe good for her career? Does she have a career right now? I know you hated that secret-agent romcom she was in last year.

"There's an opening-scene-of-the-Mindy-Project vibe to this."

Eleanor: I think it's good in that it reminds people that she's funny, that she has an edge, that she isn't as bland as her recent movies have made her out to be. Also, in that This Means War piece I wondered if part of why her recent movies have been so bad is because her personal life as been so rosy lately. New husband, new baby. Maybe this will be a kick in the pants to put a bit more work into her career.

Spencer: She is doing the image rehab tour already. What did you think of her on Good Morning America?

Eleanor: Yeah, it was good. It hits all the important things: admission of what she did wrong, promise not to do it again, emphasizing embarrassment. And of course reminding people she's a wife and mother, and how this became a teachable moment for her kids. But really most importantly, she is funny. Watching it, it's like, "oh, yeah, this is why I like her"

Spencer: I love her saying she's played a lawyer so many times that she had started to think she actually was one. It gets at how out of touch and privileged she seemed in the videos.

So... it seems like we're coming around to sympathy. But still, she was driving drunk, which is really not cool in any circumstance, and totally awful to a policeman who was just doing his job.

Eleanor: But isn't that the American way? Everyone resents traffic cops. She'll be fine.

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Eleanor Barkhorn & Spencer Kornhaber

Eleanor Barkhorn and Spencer Kornhaber are senior associate editors at The Atlantic.

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