On Charlie Sheen and Chris Brown

Chris Brown on Good Morning America
When Chris Brown lost his shit following a Good Morning America interview where he was asked about his assault on Rihanna he tweeted, “I’m so over people bringing this past shit up!!! Yet we praise Charlie sheen and other celebs for there bullshit.”
Charlie Sheen on Jimmy Kimmel
I agree completely with Jay Smooth – Chris Brown is getting off way too easy. The fact that he’s being invited to promote an album on TV shows at all is shameful. But I do see a clear, substantive difference in the way people – not just the media, but individuals consuming both these stories – are responding to Brown and Sheen.

Via Amanda Hess I was alerted to a post on Where is Your Line where Sarah H. suggests the public reaction to Charlie Sheen is a feminist victory:

Sheen has allegedly threatened to kill five women, has shot at and strangled his girlfriends, and once beat a woman for not having sex with him. It’s darkly enjoyable to see a man who has abused so many women in the past now be openly mocked by the public, and to witness his breakdown and consequent firing from Two and a Half Men.

Except no, not at all. Sheen is riding the current wave of publicity to the bank. So is Brown. But the narratives surrounding the two of them could not be more different. Brown can’t give an interview without having to speak about Rihanna. This is a good thing. He shouldn’t be out there promoting himself at all right now, as Samhita pointed out. But Sheen’s long, ongoing, and unpunished abuse of women is not part of the narrative surrounding his public break down, which by the way should also be occurring behind closed doors.

I’m not just talking about how this is being covered in the media, either – yes, Sheen should be questioned about his abuse when he’s out promoting himself. But when I overhear conversations about Sheen or see people discussing him on Facebook or Twitter (and my network is full of feminists), with very very few exceptions his history of abuse is not part of the conversation at all. The media certainly holds some culpability, as they are making people aware of Brown’s abuse and not Sheen’s, but Sheen’s history isn’t exactly secret. Discussions of Sheen’s abuse are coming almost exclusively from people of color, and even then the abuse is brought up, as in this case, to show the contrast with Brown. There is simply not an independent conversation about Sheen’s treatment of women.

I think this has a lot to do with the the long entanglement of race and sexual and gendered violence in US popular imagination.

From the earliest days of slavery laws against miscegenation, a disturbing term for interracial relationships and marriage, were put in place in an attempt to keep the lines between white and black clear. The reality was that rape of black women by white men was a common part of the institution of slavery – black women were abused so white slave owners could produce the next generation of free labor. But the image of interracial relationships held by white Americans was very different from the reality. Following the end of slavery the myth of the black male rapist was used to uphold Jim Crow segregation. A paternalistic view of white women saw them as needing protection from black men, who were in turn viewed as subhuman sexual predators hungry for white flesh. False rape charges led to many of the lynchings of that era.

The image of the black male rapist preying on innocent white women was central to the plot of The Birth of a Nation, the movie credited with creating the modern language of film, the most prevalent form of pop art in the 20th century. The trope has only continued from there, appearing in countless movies and TV shows to the point of complete saturation. Rape and sexual violence have consistently been associated with black men, specifically black men who are strangers, lurking in a dark alley preparing to attack unsuspecting women, still usually white.

This trope is incredibly dangerous, as we are seeing play out in a number of cases right now. As Lori discussed at The Grio, race is overshadowing the real horror of the gang rape of a child in Texas. Sexual violence knows no racial bounds, but the popular imagination of sexual violence is so racialized that we cannot avoid confronting this fact all too often.

And this is precisely where I see the difference between the perception of Chris Brown and Charlie Sheen. Brown fits the image of someone who commits acts of gendered abuse – he is a black man. There’s also a dangerous flip side to this – he fits the image of someone who is the victim of unfounded charges as well for the many people who have been shaken by the unfair targeting of black men. Brown abused Rihanna and this must not be forgotten or downplayed. A racialized understanding of abuse confounds this reality from multiple angles.

Charlie Sheen, on the other hand, slots easily into another image, that of the man-child. You know, the lead of every Judd Apatow movie, the loveable, clueless white man who’s never grown up. His unacceptable behavior is excused as adorable or, at worst, immature. We may be laughing at and judging Sheen, but it’s all in good fun. Tiger blood and winning and all that. Forget the fact that the man appears to be seriously mentally unstable, going through an episode that should be the focus of medical professionals, not the media. We’re not even talking about the fact that he hits women.

I don’t think there’s a conscious decision being made to view Brown and Sheen in these disparate ways. The mix up of race and sexual violence is embedded in the US’s shared subconscious, especially that of white Americans. This means gender and abuse easily rise to the top when we think about Brown, as they should. But the image of the black man as rapist served a dual purpose, excusing white men of their own crimes. It buried the role of rape in slavery and made a white male acquaintance seem a much less likely abuser than a black male stranger. And now it’s letting Sheen’s behavior go unpunished and almost completely un-commented on.

I think we all, and especially white folks, need to take a serious look at how we are thinking about and responding to these two celebrities. If we are going to share Jay Smooth’s excellent condemnation of Chris Brown with everyone we know, why aren’t we also standing on our soap boxes shouting that Charlie Sheen abuses women consistently and seemingly without remorse?

I believe the reasons speak to internalized racism that, while probably devoid of malice or conscious feelings of hate, absolutely must be examined. Racism has played such a formative role in structuring our cultural understandings of the world that it need not be conscious to have a dangerous impact. If we can come to understand Charlie Sheen as the perpetrator of gendered violence just as much as we now see Chris Brown in that light, perhaps we can move towards changing a dangerously racialized understanding of abuse.

Boston, MA

Jos Truitt is Executive Director of Development at Feministing. She joined the team in July 2009, became an Editor in August 2011, and Executive Director in September 2013. She writes about a range of topics including transgender issues, abortion access, and media representation. Jos first got involved with organizing when she led a walk out against the Iraq war at her high school, the Boston Arts Academy. She was introduced to the reproductive justice movement while at Hampshire College, where she organized the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program’s annual reproductive justice conference. She has worked on the National Abortion Federation’s hotline, was a Field Organizer at Choice USA, and has volunteered as a Pro-Choice Clinic Escort. Jos has written for publications including The Guardian, Bilerico, RH Reality Check, Metro Weekly, and the Columbia Journalism Review. She has spoken and trained at numerous national conferences and college campuses about trans issues, reproductive justice, blogging, feminism, and grassroots organizing. Jos completed her MFA in Printmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute in Spring 2013. In her "spare time" she likes to bake and work on projects about mermaids.

Jos Truitt is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Development.

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  • http://feministing.com/members/sandra/ SamBarge

    Ofcourse racism is the reason behind the different treatments of Chris Brown and Charlie Sheen in the media. I can’t see how anyone could think otherwise.

  • http://feministing.com/members/sharon/ Shavaun Jamieson

    Great post, Jos!
    I think another aspect of Chris Brown’s experiences vs. Charlie Sheen’s is the identity/fame/visibility of their respective victims. Rihanna was already a pretty big deal when the “incident” (as Brown refers to it) occurred, and graphic photographs of her injuries were leaked to the public. In Sheen’s case (if I’m not mistaken), the women he abuses are “nobodies” to most of the public, i.e. not famous people, and there’s no visual to tie to the abuse. Yes, he abused Denise Richards throughout their relationship, but her fame and fanbase are limited. I think with Rihanna, people felt like she was someone they knew, and those photos would have been pretty hard to ignore.
    None of this is to say that race doesn’t play a part in how it’s all unfolding – I just think there are more layers to it.

    • http://feministing.com/members/trishm/ trish

      I completely agree with your take on this. I really think that one of the main differences between Brown and Sheen is that with Brown his abuse was against another celeb. I do see race playing a part in this, but I really do feel like the whole “who was abused” played a part in it.

    • http://feministing.com/members/christinaann/ christina

      I agree, though I am sure race does play into it a certain extent, I think Charlie Sheen’s abuse would have been much more visible if to women he were abusing were also famous celebrities. Unfortunately because his victims are not also in the spot light, it is not made as aware, or at the forefront of people’s minds.

  • http://feministing.com/members/azure156/ Jenny Gonzalez-Blitz

    While Sheen has been subjected to mockery by the public, it’s been for saying absurd things, not for abusing women. And despite the mockery, firing, etc., he’s still managed to quickly sell out his one man show and been offered cameos in other upcoming projects. Hardly what I’d call a great comeuppance on behalf of feminism.

  • http://feministing.com/members/regalbeaglelegaleagle/ Reese

    I’m sorry, but I just don’t buy the argument that racism is the big factor at play here. When you’re talking about celebrities, often the rules of “racism” don’t necessarily apply the way they would for “regular folk.” I think there have been plenty of black male celebrities whose violence against women and children have been ignored by the US media and population. These men, despite their violent histories, were often celebrated (see OJ Simpson before Nicole Brown’s murder, R. Kelly, Mike Tyson who is now the comeback kid, Jason Kidd, and the basketball saint Kobe Bryant). How do you explain the black celebrity men who have a history of committing abuse, yet they still sold records, movies, and basketball tickets? What, America just has a problem with lighter skinned black guys who like Sisqo who beat women up?

    The big difference between Chris Brown’s situation and that of Charlie Sheen is that Chris Brown attacked an equally, if not more, famous person. He also did so during the age of the internet (24 hour news cycles and endless blogs dedicated to bad celeb behavior). The bulk of Charlie Sheen’s misdeeds happened in the 80’s and 90’s. Even today, most people don’t know he shot Kelly Preston or beat up other women. People are only truly becoming aware of his crazy now because he’s decided to lose it, again, during the age of the internet.

    I just don’t buy that racism is the biggest factor here. And, honestly, every thing I have seen about Charlie Sheen is mocking him which I actually have a problem with because he is clearly mentally ill (but, that’s another issue). My basic point is this: Racism definitely plays a role in almost every aspect of society. As a black woman I know this and live this. But, as a black woman, I also know that racism doesn’t have to be the prime motivator for everything. And, I really don’t believe racism is the prime motivator for the questioning of Chris Brown.

    I think the main factors were the fame of the person Chris Brown attacked and the fact that he did it in 2009 and not 1985.

  • unequivocal

    Apples and oranges.

    While I admit that I am not highly attuned to media coverage of pop culture icons, it seems obvious to me that the narrative surrounding Sheen is based almost entirely on his mental instability. I don’t think that there’s a person around who is inclined to take Sheen seriously, so of course coverage of him doesn’t include any sort of analysis of his abusive behavior.

    There may very well be a racial element to the difference in media coverage, but unpacking the meaning behind that is going to be very difficult. We like our celebrities to be as bizarre as possible, and Sheen (sadly) fits that bill.

    Again, my perspective may be atypical, but I can say that I know next to nothing about either Brown or Sheen, except for the fact that Brown beat up another celebrity, and Sheen is apparently in the middle of some kind of manic or psychotic episode; those are literally the only interesting things about either of these people.

    Trying to explain away the media treatment of these rather unique circumstances as racism seems to be both oversimplifying the issue and ignoring what exactly makes both of these stories notable in the public eye.

  • http://feministing.com/members/toongrrl/ Jessica “Jess” Victoria Carillo

    I”m still confused about how “Two and a Half Men” lasted a hell a lot longer than “The Wild Thornberrys.” And Kelly Preston dated him? Thank God she got out when she did. I’m also still confused over how either of them still have careers. Can I share some clips with ya’ll about better days? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UmIiKXRJAF4