LLCU, USA: The Lindsay Lohan Cinematic Universe and Teen Girl Cults
Updated: Jan 17
The Lindsay Lohan Cinematic Universe or LLCU, for short. Lindsay Lohan has a prolific reign on the teen dramedy; she’s the model child actress, America’s Teen Sweetheart to Jennifer Garner’s America’s Sweetheart. LiLo (as she is known by her fans) has been crystallized in time; kids my age warm their hands with the thought of the pre-plastic surgery freckly redhead with an approachable body type. The LLCU can be analyzed paracinematically – in accordance to Sconce’s metaphor of taste as a parent, LiLo is the literal teen girl, and the paracinema of her movie-verse is the symbolic defiant child. Though the LLCU is an expansive group of media, movies where LiLo plays a heroine navigating teen life – specifically Freaky Friday (2003), Mean Girls (2004), and Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen (2004), serve as a roadmap to understanding the LLCU as an afront to Father Taste. While this defiance categorizes the aforementioned movies as cult films, there is also a loyal cult of LiLo fans who have given the early 2000’s denizen a new persona via social media. Alongside talented teen girl-wonders turned media whores like Britney Spears, and professionally famous counterpart like Paris Hilton, what comes of the LLCU’s resurrection as it pertains to the parasocial relationship towards Lindsay Lohan, the media figure? If we’re seeing a second coming of LiLo, how weren’t we aware of her media death in the face of career resurrections like those of Britney and Paris? Implicated through tabloids and inspired by blogger revolutionaries such as Perez Hilton, Lindsay Lohan and her Cinematic Universe represent an all-encompassing approach toward the cult: cult films as they relate to taste, cults of personality, and cults of rehabilitation.
Cinematic style and modes of cinema communication to audiences are crucial to beginning this archaeological dig into the LLCU. Writer Tom Bissell approaches these topics in writing about Tommy Wiseau’s The Room (2003), a film whose cult has elevated its status in an interesting melee of humor and merit. He poses the question: “What does it say about contemporary American culture that the Rocky Horror Picture of our time is not a winning exercise in leering camp and butt-shaking grooviness but an earnest melodrama distinguished by what it is unable to provide?” (Bissell, 62). Bissell’s question can be seen to implicate the shift in value systems between both films’ cult status as predictable with a shift in the dissemination of information, and how audiences process films as more of a social phenomenon. Where did the past go? “Is it the satisfaction of seeing the auteur myth cruelly exploded, of watching an artist reach for the stars and wind up with his hand around a urinal cake?” (Bissell, 62). This is an earnest way of asking – have we changed, and are we unaware of this cinematic shift as the most conspicuous signifier in understanding why we like movies such as The Room? While an apt and unanswerable question, another direction to take is an examination of the role of Americanness as a unique film style – not as an answer, but an ethnography of the echochamber that exists within cult films like The Room. “Wiseau cast himself in the film as the hunk of Johnny Americana, with no corresponding recognition of how absurdly ill-fitting this role actually is. “Wherever Johnny throws a football, you do not see Johnny. What you see is the ungainly shot put of an Eastern European who did not grow up throwing footballs. This is the most longingly human aspect of The Room and, not at all coincidentally, the hardest thing to laugh at,” (Bissell, 64). Along with the recent rise in popularity of the Red Scare podcast starring Dasha Nekrasova and Anna Khachiyan, the American style becomes a crucially intriguing aesthesis when contrasted by embodiment: American performance becomes important in its irony when you hear two Slavic women posing neo-conservative ideology at odds with dominant American liberal discourse like Wiseau as Johnny, as an American – what, then, becomes “America” when looking at it so specifically, in both examples? An effect is the pointed highlighting of the specifically-American obsession with emblems, as seen in the “All American Girl” style of teen dramas; the movies operate on innocence, while presenting a controlled fictive environment where young heroines can safely flirt with the teen experience. This is a style that the LLCU was born out of – Lindsay Lohan movies are distinctly American in this sense, where Lohan is the lone heroine posed against the dominant cultural enemy. More than the icon Lohan would later become, she’s an emblem of homegrown girls with equally corn-fed, tried-and-true values who can change the world.
Within the cinematic styles that can be applied to the cult of the LLCU, LiLo can also be interpreted as a punk figure when juxtaposed with the sensibilities of the American teen drama – she changes the world by saying “no!” Here, a difference between culture and hegemony becomes apparent. This is what cultural studies author Dick Hebdige cites as a shift from culture to hegemony, where culture operates as an ambiguous, time-tested concept. In this context, culture refers to both process and product (Hebdige, 5). Dually, culture has to do with subjects exposed to a rhetoric of common sense that becomes mythologized into typology, (Barthes as cited by Hebdige, 7). This process is an “anonymous ideology” that is all encompassing; it hides in plain sight, governing all relationships between humans and objects, as well as humans to other humans (Barthes as cited by Hebdige, 9). Hebdige turns to the Marxist idea of ideology as something that exists “beneath consciousness,” (Marx as cited by Hebdige, 9). Returning to the pervasiveness of culture, this Marxist definition of ideology hides in plain sight – normal common sense is ideology in that it cannot be defined apart from a subjective moral, that then. becomes weaponized as a natural law of existence within a society. The idea of “natural” is where hegemony becomes an important hand to proverbially smack when it comes to the role of cultural and ideological dissemination, where “natural” holds supreme power in its link to an objective truth. All things considered, what here becomes the function of subculture? Hebdige speaks about subculture as defined by specificity, using the example of tension between the British Labour and Conservative Parties as the lived class fragmentation that inspired punk as a subcultural movement. Punk as a subculture is an ideology of anti-ideology in a way, one spawned from antithetical relationships, of contrarianism. It was not an active, thought-out process – ideology still lives beneath the punk specificity, which was executed by a specific style. Why was style so important within punk, specifically? “As we have seen, a generational consciousness did emerge amongst the young in the post-war period, and even where experience was shared between parents and children this experience was likely to be differently interpreted, expressed and handled by the two groups. Thus, while obviously there are points where parent and adolescent ‘solutions’ converge and even overlap when dealing with the spectacular subculture we should not grant these an absolute ascendancy,” (Hebdige, 78). Punk stylings come out of an outward expression of anti-anything, a way of signifying pride in a chosen otherness, an act of specificity from the previous generation. This process is not as much an intellectualized dialectic that could be assumed: “these people understood Barthes and Marx and created these styles as ways of signifying!” as something born out of necessity with cultural implications as to why that necessity existed in the first place. LiLo is a punk figure in a dual sense, she is a clear American emblem of subversion allowed to exist within dominant culture; she’s the heroine because she’s the underdog, to be outlined later in this essay when analyzing a few choice films from the LLCU. In the teen movie sense, LiLo is a punk figure because she’s the vessel for the important lesson that this genre is founded upon. The “movies for teen girls” category is not given such critical/cultural readings because of their role as a cultural object, a tool if you will, designed to teach lessons as a means of reflecting a controlled society, in a Deleuzian sense. A film like Mean Girls (2004) would never win an Academy Award though its cult status elevate it to a similar level of power to those films that win such awards – there is iconography in its impact, in its specificity, as it related to subculture. These teen movies, especially those designed and marketed to young girls, belong to a paracinematic group of the cult film. The aforementioned metaphor of the parent-adolescent appears with a new salience within this category of movies in that they are literally made for adolescents, in addition to representing the parent-child to culture-subculture relationship. Can we look for these relationships, or do they just appear? Hebdige points out that “We should be hard pressed to find in the punk subculture, for instance, any symbolic attempts to ‘retried some of the socially cohesive elements destroyed in the parent culture,’(Cohen, 1972) beyond the simple fact of cohesion itself: the expression of a highly structured, visible, tightly bounded group identity,” (Hebdige, 79). This is a transferrable idea to examining LiLo’s role in American cultural staples, such as the LLCU, because “Now, the media play a crucial role in defining our experience for us. They provide us with the most available categories for classifying out the social world…It should hardly surprise us then, to discover that much of what finds itself encoded in subculture has already been subjected to a certain amount of prior handling by the media,” (Hebdige 83). How is LiLo handled, in terms of the American teen cinema and definitions of subculture, and what does it say about the genre as a whole?
The LLCU is an ideal collection to analyze as a glance into the genre of American teen girl dramas. The cinematic universe revolves around central figure Lindsay Lohan, whose roles in films from 2003-2005 reflect a new cult specificity. LiLo’s role in Freaky Friday (2003) is that of Anna Coleman, a young rocker who, upon body-switching with her mother Tess, embark on a quest to express selfless love to get their original bodies back. Anna has her best girlfriends Maddie and Peg who play with two fellow teens in a band called Pink Slip – the threesome is a tightknit group with a specific late-90’s rocker style, an alt trio in a sea of normies. Anna and her friends are contrasted against hot-blonde Stacey Hinkhouse and her two lackeys in a clear representation of alt girls v. the conventional popular girls. Stacey bullies Anna in true mean girl fashion, and during the body-switch, Tess-as-Anna even sabotages Stacey as vengeance for how mean she is to her daughter. This complicates the normie v. punk sentiment, in that Tess-as-Anna’s indiscretion against Stacey draws negative attention from Anna’s love interest, rocker hottie Jake. This is a prime example of Disney morals – Anna stands up to Stacey, but she loses Jake in the process because she stooped to her bully’s level. This is a scenario that only LiLo could represent – Anna’s rocker characterization fits with LiLo’s girl-next-door redhead look. Because LiLo isn’t a hot blonde mean girl, she is the perfect symbol for a girl learning a lesson; she stands up to Stacey Hinkhouse and her cult of normalcy, she becomes the new American girl. Additionally, the fact that Freaky Friday (2003) is a remake of the 1976 film by the same name reifies this idea of the new outsider v. popular discourse happing in the early 2000’s, the 2003 Freaky Friday shows a new parasocial relationships of the outsider v. popular girl trope using Disney moralization and LiLo as the conduit. Similarly, LiLo’s role as Mary (Lola) Step in Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen (2004) applies a girl-who-cried-wolf story in this coded Disney way. Lola is attention seeker, a “drama queen”; upon moving from New York City to Delwood, New Jersey, she lies about everything from her name to her father’s death in a charismatic way, as to distract everyone from her confabulation. After dragging new friend Ella Gerard on a less than perfect journey to see a farewell concert for their favorite band in NYC, Lola confesses to her lies, admitting to fabricating her life to her new Delwood peers because of the insecurity of becoming the “new girl” in her new home. Ella Gerard, played by Allison Pill, is a principal accompaniment to LiLo – Lola’s character befriends Ella after receiving an offer to kick it with cool girl Carla Santini and her two lackeys. Dubbed “Ella-never-had-a-fella” by Santini, Lola and Ella become another type of anti-normie duo; the thespian, and the normal New Jersey girl from the conservative suburbs who, regardless of their teen girl-types, are just being themselves. After a series of twists and turns, including Carla and her minions calling Lola out for her lies on the night of the NYC debacle, Lola ends up on top – she did tell the truth about what happened that night, catching Carla in a lie of her own. Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen (2004) ends as a story of outsider redemption, where LiLo’s nice-cool-girl archetype is established as a vehicle for a “the truth will set you free” cautionary tale for young girls. Even Mean Girls (2004) follows a similar pattern – LiLo’s Cady Heron, a 16-year-old girl who spent her entire adolescence in Africa, is an undeniable heroine because of her unfamiliarity of what she regards as “girl world” via voiceover throughout the movie. Cady is taken under the wing of Janice and Damian, two high school outsiders who use her innocence to take down The Plastics, a mean girl crew led by queen bee, Regina George. In her time as double agent between her new friends and The Plastics, Cady assimilates into the mean girls, ultimately taking sole responsibility for their “Burn Book” to atone for her own mean girl transformation. A key subplot in Mean Girls (2004) is Cady’s relationship with math – she pretends to fail calculus so love interest Aaron Samuels will talk to her, succumbing a part of herself to fully become a Plastic, only to end up winning a math competition for the North Shore High Mathlete outsider crew. The message here is that girl world can be tempting, but staying true to who you are is the most valuable lesson. Cady is able to fit into The Plastics and be liked by the outsiders, as opposed to Regina, of whom the outsiders fear – this is uniquely LiLo, her role in the cinematic universe is heavy characterization as the girl-next-door designed to be a role model for young girls to be kind, and stand up for the clearly coded Disney moral rolodex. This message is a part of the paracinematic relationships engendered by the LLCU, one that prioritizes individuality. Complications arise with LiLo’s cinematic universe, and this prioritization – the movies say “be yourself,” LiLo’s hold on teen girl dramas from this time period represents an exclusive flavor of “being yourself,” aka, embodying LiLo. This is a new way of relaying aphorisms to teen girls – if LiLo remains the perfect role model, she becomes the ideal marketing vessel for the dissemination of “appropriate” values in this controlled setting.
The LLCU extends beyond teen girl films, however – and, LiLo the person is the furthest thing away from Anna Coleman, Lola Step, or Cady Heron. In 2004, LiLo released a music project entitled Speak, which was initially regarded as merely a part of the larger trend of Disney teen actresses maintaining their relevance by becoming pop princesses. Speak is akin to similar projects from the pop girls of the early aughts, whose typification comes from Britney Spears’ prolific role as the original American pop princess – Ashlee Simpson, sister to model/actress Jessica Simpson and Tila Tequila are among this trend of hot girls using functional pop music for the publicity. There’s something unique about Speak; the featured track ‘Rumors’ refers to LiLo’s exhaustion with her media portrayal, exuding her desperation to be left alone by emerging bloggers of the time, most notably Perez Hilton. After her Disney phase, LiLo’s media reputation distanced her from the wholesome role model, transforming her into a debaucherous party girl known to tear up Hollywood’s sunset strip with fellow smeared starlets Paris Hilton and the aforementioned Britney Spears. LiLo’s transformation at the time was known as a double-life: by day she stars in films about acceptance and kindness, and by night, she’s collecting DUI’s and insisting that it’s “not my cocaine!” This double-life of LiLo functions alongside the LLCU as a double-think – considering the role of media in LiLo’s life as including her cinematic and press representations, both are equally constructed personas designed to portray LiLo as a product where consuming that product is equated to knowing who Lindsay Lohan, the person, is. The limited relationship here as it is mediated by mass media and the cult film developed a cult of personality surrounding LiLo that bestows her with an icon status that any audience can obtain by merely looking.
How exactly did LiLo’s double-life create the icon status as her persona has been given a second life in the contemporary age of 2020’s media? LiLo remains an acceptable other like the films analyzed in the LLCU establish her as. Her second wind, so to speak, is a meme that stands in sharp contrast to her bimbo counterparts, namely Paris Hilton and Britney Spears. Earlier this year, YouTube released an hour-long documentary about Paris Hilton entitled This Is Paris, based on her history as a party girl icon. Hilton reveals aspects of herself that her early aughts media portrayal ignored for the sake of her bimbo branding – her signature nasal valley girl voice is a fake, and she actually is a victim of abuse. There’s a noble feminist notion attached to these new ideas of Paris Hilton as This Is Paris portrays. On the outside, audiences see a privileged heiress, but really, Hilton is a marketing genius who leveraged her hot blonde physique to develop Paris, the persona; a fun, vapid party girl who maintains her status by defying the laws of intelligence. The narrative of the film is centered around the image of a traumatized Paris who doesn’t sleep due to a recurring nightmare of real childhood events, which are revealed to come from abuse she experienced during her time at the Provo Canyon School, a reform school for troubled youths. Instead of being exposed, Hilton’s trauma is used as a means for her to campaign with fellow Provo victims, where the total effect of the film is a rehabilitation of Paris’ bad reputation by its justification as a response to trauma. Around the same time, The New York Times released a documentary on Britney Spears entitled Framing Britney Spears, which capitalized on her past trauma as well. The documentary highlights Britney’s famous head-shaving meltdown of 2006 as the media taking advantage of a mental breakdown that is a larger part of Spears’ battle with bipolar disorder as a way to focus on her ongoing battle with her father’s court-appointed executorship of her funds. The “free Britney” movement takes on a second life here, to paint Britney as a mentally ill victim, it puts audiences in a moral position to re-contextualize her raunchy past. What about LiLo? In 2019, a video of LiLo dancing in Mykonos went viral in an almost ironic sense, leading to her one-season MTV reality show entitled Lindsay Lohan’s Beach Club. The way this meme became a show represents a capitalization distinct from Paris and Britney: this meme capitalizes on the memory of LiLo’s past, iconic double-life as an obligation to make her relevant again by re-appropriating the same persona. LiLo has a second life in the 2020’s, but not in the way This Is Paris and Framing Britney Spears pathologize the trauma of the respective starlets they represent, her impact is based on her distance from the double-life, where new relationships to her re-packaged past are limited to mimesis.
As hinted at previously, the LLCU represents para-relationships from human to object, LiLo to her universe. What then, can be deduced from media relationships in a parasocial sense? Sconce picks this notion apart, establishing how “Paracinema is less a distinct group of films than a particular reading protocol, a counter-aesthetic turned subcultural sensibility devoted to all manners of cultural detritus. In short, the explicit manifesto of paracinematic culture is to valorize all forms of cinematic ‘trash,’ whether such films have been either explicitly rejected or simply ignored by legitimate film culture. In doing so, paracinema represents the most developed and dedicated of cinephilic subcultures…”(Sconce, 372). This is akin to the idea of language v. a dictionary – the words are already there, and one might be able to recognize the characters that make up a word as a word, but the language culturally contextualizes the material, translating it to glean new meaning. Uniqueness, here, comes from the aspiration to “counter-cinematic” status (Sconce, 374). The distinction comes from taking an alternative approach towards art, like the alternative approach toward LiLo as a meme in the contemporary moment compared to her household name icon status in the early aughts. Paracinema seeks to distinguish via re-contextualization as opposed to camp’s confrontation of culture via irony, like Bissell’s point in comparing Rocky Horror and The Room. Beyond ideas of the importance of the archive as giving new life, why has the LLCU become important later, when it used to merely represent teen girl detritus? With respect to paracinema, “The paracinematic audience promotes their tastes and textual proclivities in opposition to a loosely defined group of cultural and economic elites, those purveyors of the status quo who not only rule the world, but who are also responsible for making the contemporary cinema, in the paracinematic mind, so completely boring,” (Sconce, 374). New paracinematic relationships toward the LLCU were not planned by marketing geniuses in a mysterious proverbial board room, but these relationships were engendered by its sheer existence – the LLCU operates on nostalgia from whatever boring contemporary cinema is new. The old becomes new when there’s a shift in the dominant new, it allows the old to be re-contextualized in a battle against contemporary new as a means to valorize the icons audiences are nostalgic toward. Where does this battle come from, exactly? Sconce addresses how “…many scholars see this trend towards the valorization of ‘trash’ at work in the academy itself, especially in the realm of media studies,” (Sconce, 377). He references Jostein Gripsrud who critiques this trend: “Presenting oneself as a soap-fan in scholarly circles could be considered daring or provocative some ten years ago. Nowadays it is more of a prerequisite for legitimate entry in the academy discourse on soaps in some Anglo-American fora,” (Gripsrud as cited by Sconce, 377). In this way, it’s not that subculture has subsumed culture in some cyclical contrarianism, but that the aesthetics of subculture operate as new class signifiers: the high-brow academic who turns a nose up at reality tv, or the intelligentsia high-brow who know that it’s more culturally tasteful to acknowledge reality TV as something rife for intellectualization. What do audiences do with such textual experience, and how, within the cult, is there even a cult of the expert? According to theorist Jodi Dean, these pushes toward parasociality occur, “Just as industrial capitalism relied on the exploitation of labour, so does communicative capitalism rely on the exploitation of communication. In communicative capitalism, reflexivity captures creativity, sociality, resistance, and critique enclosing them into mediated networks for the financial gain of a corporate and shareholding class,” (Dean, 1). This intellectual ceding of the LLCU is the product of parasocial relationships toward LiLo, the person, as they are inspired by communicative capitalism: an industry feeding on participatory culture.
Gripsrud writes, “Not surprisingly, paracinematic culture is a particularly active site of investment for many contemporary graduate students in film studies,” (Gripsrud as cited by Sconce, 377). Ironically, this is the very echochamber in which this paper shouts. In so scrupulously picking apart the LLCU, this paper participates in a communicative capitalism merely by addressing the tendency many academics (a class to which I belong), have to valorize trash as the method of acknowledging it. While clear politics of representation muddy the ability to clearly approach media, the LLCU is part and parcel of all media’s neutral gaze.
Mean Girls (2004) – Directed by Mark Waters, Written By: Rosalind Wiseman (book) and Tina Fey (Screenplay)
Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen (2004) – Directed by Sara Sugarman, Screenplay by Gail Parent, Based on a book of the same title by Dylan Sheldon
Freaky Friday (2003) – Directed by Mark Waters, Screenplay by Heather Hach and Leslie Dixon, Based on a film by the same title by Mary Rodgers
Hebdige, Dick. Subculture. Taylor and Francis, 2013.
Jeffrey Sconce, ‘Trashing’ the academy: taste, excess, and an emerging politics of cinematic style, Screen, Volume 36, Issue 4, Winter 1995, Pages 371–393,
Dean, Jodi. “Faces as Commons.” Online Open, 2016, www.onlineopen.org/faces-as-commons.
Bissell, Tom. “Cinema Crudité: The Mysterious Appeal of the Post-Camp Cult Film.” Magic Hours: Essays on Creators and Creation.