The trouble with Charlie

2011-03-11 09:53

Forty-three minutes into his “special live edition” with Charlie Sheen last Monday night, Piers Morgan finally got around to asking his guest a real question.

Before that, Morgan and Sheen had mostly traded chuckles and anecdotes about days-long benders, inflated network salaries and meet-ups in Aspen, Colorado.

But then, after three commercial breaks, Morgan inquired: “Have you ever hit a woman?”

Two minutes later, with Morgan apparently satisfied with the actor’s answer that no, women should be “hugged and caressed”, that line of questioning was over.

That Morgan didn’t press the issue of domestic violence shouldn’t have come as any surprise.

CBS executives, not to mention the millions of viewers of Sheen’s “family” sitcom Two and a Half Men, have consistently turned a blind eye towards Sheen’s history of abusing women.

Part of this, of course, is about money.

The actor’s F-18 of an id – to borrow a metaphor from Sheen himself – had long provided the show a steady stream of free publicity.

It also helped make Sheen the highest-paid actor on television, at $1.2 million (R8.3 million) an episode.

But it’s also about apathy. Even now – after Sheen began carpet-bombing his bosses in radio rants, prompting CBS to shut down production on the show from which he was fired this week – observers still seem more entertained than outraged, tuning in to see him appear on every talk show on the planet and coming up with creative internet memes based on his most colourful statements.

And while his self-abuses are endlessly discussed, his abuse of women is barely broached.

Our inertia is not for lack of evidence. In 1990, he accidentally shot his fiancée at the time, actress Kelly Preston, in the arm.

The engagement ended soon after.

In 1994, he was sued by a college student who alleged that he struck her on the head after she declined to have sex with him.

The case was settled out of court. Two years later, an adult-film actress, Brittany Ashland, said she had been thrown to the floor of Sheen’s Los Angeles house during a fight. He pleaded no contest and paid a fine.

In 2006, his wife at the time, actress Denise Richards, filed a restraining order against him, saying Sheen had shoved and threatened to kill her.

In December 2009, Sheen’s third wife, Brooke Mueller, a real-estate executive, called 911 after he held a knife to her throat.

He pleaded guilty and was placed on probation.

Last October, another adult-film actress, Capri Anderson, locked herself in a Plaza Hotel bathroom after Sheen went on a rampage.

Anderson filed a criminal complaint but no arrest was made.

And last Tuesday, Mueller requested a temporary restraining order against her former husband, alleging that he had threatened to cut her head off, “put it in a box and send it to your mum”.

The order was granted, and the couple’s twin sons were quickly removed from his home. “Lies,” Sheen told People magazine.

The privilege afforded wealthy white men like Charlie Sheen may not be a particularly new point, but it’s an important one nonetheless.

Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears are endlessly derided for their extracurricular meltdowns and lack of professionalism on set; and R&B star Chris Brown was made a veritable pariah after beating up his equally, if not more famous girlfriend, Rihanna.

Their careers have all since suffered, and understandably so.

This hasn’t been the case with Sheen, whose behaviour has been repeatedly and affectionately dismissed as the antics of a “bad boy” (see any news article in the past 20 years), a “rock star” (see Piers Morgan, again) and a “rebel” (see Andrea Canning’s 20/20 interview last week).

He has, in essence, achieved a sort of folk-hero status. Last week, his just-created Twitter account hit one million followers, setting a Guinness World Record.

But there’s something else at work here: the seeming imperfection of Sheen’s numerous accusers. The women are of a type, which is to say, highly unsympathetic.

Some are sex workers – pornographic film stars and escorts – whose compliance with churlish conduct is assumed to be part of the deal. For the record: It is not.

Others, namely Richards and Mueller, are less-famous starlets or former “nobodies” whose relationships with Sheen have been disparaged as purely sexual and transactional.

The women reside in a continuum in which injuries are assumed and insults are expected.

“Gold diggers”, “prostitutes” and “sluts” are just some of the epithets lobbed at the women Sheen has chosen to spend his time with.

Andy Cohen, a senior executive at Bravo and a TV star in his own right, referred to the actor’s current companions, Natalie Kenly and Bree Olson, as “whores” on MSNBC’s Morning Joe programme.

Arianna Huffington sarcastically tweeted that Sheen’s girlfriends “symbolise modesty, loyalty and good taste”.

Sheen’s own nickname for Kenly and Olson – “the goddesses” – is in its own way indicative of their perceived interchangeability and disposability.

It’s these sorts of explicit and implicit value judgments that underscore our contempt for women who are assumed to be trading on their sexuality.

A woman’s active embrace of the fame monster or participation in the sex industry, we seem to say, means that she compromises her right not to be assaulted; let alone humiliated, insulted or degraded.

The promise of a modern Cinderella ending – attention, fame, and the love and savings account of a rich man – is always the assumed goal.

Objectification and abuse, it follows, is not only an accepted occupational hazard for certain women, but something that men like Sheen have earned the right to indulge in.

He reportedly once said he didn’t pay prostitutes for sex, he paid them “to leave”.

One can’t help but think that his handlers might have moved more quickly to rein in their prized sitcom stallion if his victims’ motivations weren’t assumed to be purely mercenary – or if they enjoyed parity and respect with regards to their age, influence and earning power.

These assumptions – about women, about powerful men, about bad behaviour – have roots that go way back but find endorsement in today’s unscripted TV culture.

Indeed, it’s difficult for many to discern any difference between Sheen’s real-life, round-the-clock, recorded outbursts and the sexist narratives devised by reality television producers, in which women are routinely portrayed as backstabbing floozies, and dreadful behaviour by males is explained away as a side effect of unbridled passion or too much pilsner.

As Jennifer Pozner points out in her recent book Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty-Pleasure TV, misogyny is embedded within the DNA of the reality genre.

One of the very first millennial shows, in fact, Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire, was notable in that it auctioned off what producers called the “biggest prize of all”: a supposedly wealthy B-movie writer named Rick Rockwell, who was later revealed to have had a restraining order filed against him by a woman he’d threatened to kill.

According to Pozner, the reaction of one of the producers of Multimillionaire was: “Great! More publicity!”

On reality television, gratuitous violence and explicit sexuality are not only entertainment but a means to an end.

These enthusiastically documented humiliations are positioned as necessities in the service of some final prize or larger benefit – a marriage proposal, a modelling contract or $1 million.

But they also make assault and abasement seem commonplace, acceptable behaviour; tolerated by women and encouraged in men.

Which brings us back to Morgan, who, like many of Sh

een’s past and present press enablers, showed little to no urgency in addressing the question of violence against women.

“You’re entitled to behave however the hell you like as long as you don’t scare the horses and the children,” Morgan said at one point. Scaring women, it seems, was just fine.

During the interview, a series of images played on a continuous loop.

One of them was a defiant and confident-looking Sheen in a mug shot taken after his 2009 domestic violence arrest. 

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