Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Problem with Charlie Sheen

In case you haven't noticed, Charlie Sheen has been in the news and he is America's new sweetheart. Thousands of people follow him on Twitter and watch his webcast to see what outlandish thing he'll say next. Television programs are scrambling to book him as a guest to see their ratings soar. "Winning!" is our country's newest catch phrase. But what we as a nation seem to have forgotten in all of our voyeuristic pleasure are the women at whose expense Sheen is having his fun.

Sady Doyle at Global Comment writes about what she calls Sheen's three faces. The first is Sheen the comedian, whom we can't help but follow. Second is Sheen the tragedy, a man who has lost his job, his family, his health, and his self-control. But third, the reason for so much loss, is why WRC is paying attention.

And then, there is the third, most troubling Sheen: The violent misogynist and abuser, who preys on the most vulnerable women he can find, and gets away with it. Choire Sicha of The Awl refers to him as a “very ill and somewhat frightening monster.” David Carr, in The New York Times, points out that the reports of domestic abuse during his Two and a Half Men tenure were ignored; it was all right to shoot ex-fiancĂ©e Kelly Preston, but dissing Chuck Lorre was a firing offense. Anna Holmes, in an excellent article for the NYT, points out that the women Sheen has terrorized — sex workers, starlets and non-celebrities who lack Sheen’s power within Hollywood — are the sort of women most likely to be blamed for the violence against them, and therefore the least likely to pose a problem for Sheen.

Yes, Sheen has three faces, but most of us are willing to ignore two of them. We don't want to recognize that Sheen is a sick, sad man. Why? Doyle argues it is because he is acting like we expect men to act.

Americans have a soft spot for hyper-masculine characters, especially in comedy. Think of Barney on the CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother, who insists on wearing a suit at all times, compulsively seduces and discards “bimbos,” and has penned a “Playbook” of lies for tricking women into sex. Think of Ron Swanson on NBC’s Parks and Recreation, who loves woodworking, red meat and capitalism, and frequently rails against the “b**ches” he’s divorced and the evils of big government (or any government; in his ideal America, there would be one government employee, and his only job would be “deciding who to nuke”). Or think of “Charlie” on Two and a Half Men, an alcoholic and womanizer who, in the words of his Wikipedia page, “lives a life of carefree debauchery.”
But if this sort of behavior is confined to our TV sets, where it is managed by writers, it’s fun. We know that we’re meant to laugh, and that the actors are only reading ridiculous lines. Barney is played by Neal Patrick Harris, a gay man, which adds yet another layer of distance. In real life, however, it’s significantly less cuddly. You simply cannot have “traditional” white masculinity without an equally “traditional” denigration of women and less privileged people. In real life, Ron Swanson['s] . . . violent hatred of “b**ches” he’s married would be disturbing. In real life, Barney’s lack of respect for the women he sleeps with — along with the fact that almost every single one of his sexual encounters is based upon deceiving the woman — would render him creepy, even dangerous. In real life, Charlie… well.

But it’s why we can laugh at Sheen, or even have compassion for him without acknowledging the harm he does to others. His statements have more in common with Chuck Norris Facts than with popular ideas about addiction or misogyny. Ron Swanson promises to turn his disciples “from men into gladiators, and from gladiators into Swansons;” it’s not far removed from being on a drug called “Charlie Sheen.” When Barney is sad, he says, “I stop being sad and be awesome instead.” Sheen insists that he’s too awesome to feel sorrow for any of his losses: “Aren’t there moments where a guy, like, crashes, like, in the corner, like, ‘Oh my God, it’s all my mom’s fault’? Shut up. Shut up! Stop! Move forward.”

And we listen, and we laugh, because this sort of hyperbolic, self-aggrandizing macho is familiar. Charlie Sheen the tragedy, Charlie Sheen the criminal, Charlie Sheen the misogynist: They’re all easily subsumed into Charlie Sheen the Exceedingly Masculine. And, since the dark undertones and tragic consequences of this behavior are minimized by fiction, it’s easy to pretend they don’t exist in life. Sheen himself is apparently profiting from his downward spiral; his Twitter feed is sponsored by, which gives him significant money for product placements. If he’s doing this on purpose, it’s working; if not, who cares? The laughs keep coming.

Let's just hope we don't keep laughing until he kills someone, or himself.

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