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.”
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.
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.