Thursday, March 31, 2011

Charlie Sheen, Chris Brown, & Violence Against Women


On Tuesday, Feministing posted an article “On Charlie Sheen and Chris Brown”, which I think everyone should read. It's a cogent analysis of the role played by racism in the internet and media response to Charlie Sheen, Chris Brown, and their respective violence against women.

Brown tweeted his frustration at still being asked questions about his violence against Rihanna two years on, pointing out that nobody is taking Sheen to task for his history of violence. Obviously it is not okay for Brown to be “over” it, and we need to keep questioning any public figure who has done such a terrible thing – but, in the second half of his tweet, he kind of has a point.

When I wrote about Charlie Sheen, back at the beginning of all the ugliness that has gone down in his current media blitz, I (somewhat naively) considered him solely from the perspective of his TV role, and I (very naively) concluded that his role on Two and a Half Men makes the snarky denizens of the internet leery because of its uncomfortable resemblance to real life. Obviously, this has proved not to be the case: cyberspace will forgive any sin if it finds something funny. Sheen's twitter account garnered a million followers quicker than anyone had before; he has been fawned over by numerous talk show hosts who are happy to avoid difficult topics as long as he talks about tiger blood and goddesses and winning; and many of the things he has recently said became memes inescapable on the web. For the past month, we have all been talking about Charlie Sheen, but we have not been talking about his abuse of women.

The Feministing article does a good job of tracing the connection between racism and violence against women in the US back to times of slavery, and showing how the image of African-American men as aggressors against (usually white) women still pervades US culture. This is a perfect illustration of the phenomenon of intersectionality. Obviously violence against women is a feminist issue, but in this instance the cultural response is such an inextricable blend of misogyny and racism that we simply cannot divorce the two, and attempts to approach this sorry story as a purely [implied: white] women's issue are dishonest and counterproductive.

An astonishing number of people do not take systemic racism seriously. They deny its continued existence today, or they try to soften it by calling it “subconscious” or “latent”. But ours is a world where a TV executive can refuse to hire people of color for years, and nobody notices until he admits it out loud. How much more overt can it be?

Violence against women is not taken seriously either. We are told that feminism has achieved its aims, in the West at least, and we are “over-sensitive” to perceived instances of misogyny. But in the West a prestigious newspaper can still blame an 11-year-old for being gang-raped by dozens of men. How much more overt can it be?

The Charlie Sheen débâcle of the past month has been characterized by misogyny; with our treatment of Chris Brown for comparison, it's evident that racism also plays a part. A man of color with a history of violence against women appals us. A white man with a history of violence against women entertains and delights us. Everything about this phenomenon is shameful and sickening. We in the media and internet need to start showing a sense of responsibility. We need to start asking the uncomfortable questions and we need to stop perpetuating the same old systems of injustice. Social media and information/communication technology can be a powerful force, and we should be using them to do something worthwhile.

Fortunately, the life cycle of a meme in cyberspace occurs at warp speed. Already it seems the internet has tired of the great Sheenstravaganza of March 2011: tickets for Sheen's forthcoming tour have undersold, and we internauts have turned our derision and glee to newer phenomena. This has more to do with pop culture's infinitesimally short attention span, however, than it has to do with morality. On Newsgrape, my “Charlie Vs. Barney” post has more hits than anything else I've posted there, and I regret not using that pulling power to write something more responsible. Like everyone else who has written about Charlie Sheen without foregrounding his history of violence, I can only say: mea culpa. I'll try to do better next time.

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