Why Charlie Sheen Should Be Bad For Business

Why isn’t the star of CBS’s Two and a Half Men, Charlie Sheen, out of a job by now? One word: money. (A few more words: white male privilege, shoddy reporting, cowardice.)

For those of you who read fewer tabloid headlines than I do, you may be unaware of the Hollywood-sized problem Sheen has been causing for the network, let alone any woman who’s wandered, willingly or not, across his path in the last few years decades.

Currently the highest paid actor on television at an astounding $1.8 million per episode, Sheen has a history of abusing women, usually coupled with substance abuse. In 1990, he shot then-fiancee Kelly Preston in the arm—an accident, but a frightening and weird one that seemed to only foretell the future. In 1997, he pleaded no contest after hitting then-girlfriend Brittany Ashland. His now-ex-wife, actress Denise Richards, left him in 2006 after claiming he’d threatened and abused her and their two young children. For allegedly threatening to kill his now-estranged wife Brooke Mueller last year, he plead guilty to misdemeanor assault; he went to court-ordered rehab and a few months later, he was back to his usual repertoire: trashing a hotel room and frightening a woman companion so badly that she locked herself in the bathroom until the police arrived. And this week, Sheen landed in rehab…again. 

None of this has ever seemed to affect Hollywood’s desire to hire Sheen, and that’s not changing now. While CBS entertainment president Nina Tassler has said, “We have a high level of concern [about Sheen],” she went on to say, “This show is a hit. That’s all we have to say.”

Let’s be real here: The publicity around Sheen’s cyclical behavior benefits a cable network with an otherwise struggling lineup of shows. Simply put, he’s good for business. It appears that no one will stop watching Two and a Half Men because Sheen hit a woman or snorted some more blow. They haven’t yet—Sheen boosts ratings every time he goes on a week-long bender—and they’re unlikely to start now (though this may simply be indicative of the show’s demographics). Personal responsibility and choices aside, do you think this has anything to do with the fact that few critics have bothered to denounce Sheen? It’s rather shocking that he can continue to do his job after the binges he goes on, and thus, that is what makes the headlines. Repeatedly. Even Tassler, when pressed that in another line of work, someone might be fired for Sheen’s behavior, said “What do you get fired for? Going to work and doing your job?”

When people do step up to talk about Sheen’s ongoing personal problems, it is often within the context of addiction and drug abuse, not violence against women. Celebrity rehabber Dr. Drew came forward today to urge Sheen to take his recovery seriously. A fair request, but there was not a single mention of gender-based violence in the public plea. Why can’t someone publicly ask that Charlie Sheen never hold a knife to a woman’s throat again? Have we already forgotten how women rose up against Chris Brown after he beat then-girlfriend Rihanna? Why does Sheen get a free pass?

Worse, Salon’s television critic Matt Zoller Seitz recently compared Sheen to filmmaker Roman Polanski, a similarly troubled public figure who has managed to evade prison time for child rape for nearly half his life. Zoller Seitz laments, “The minute we start boycotting artists based on their depraved personal lives, there won’t be much art left to enjoy.”

Or, you know, there might be much better, less offensive art out there–and the profits wouldn’t line the pockets of abusive men who frighten and beat women without ever worrying that a judge will sentence them to something more serious than 30 days in a substance abuse treatment facility. Yes, Charlie Sheen has a Golden Globe for Best Actor. Yes, he’s had a long career. Clearly, many people think he can be quite funny.

But you know what? I don’t care. As feminists, we’re forced to make these kinds of decisions all the time. Should a hip-hop fan reject Eminem for his misogynist lyrics? Should shoppers avoid American Apparel because of their sexist ads and union-busting? Maybe a lot of these choices are complicated, and maybe they should be. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about it and have an honest conversation about power, violence and the media’s apologist stance when it comes to abusive men in Hollywood.

Truth be told, I don’t care what drugs Charlie Sheen does in his free time. What I do care about is living in a world in which bad boy antics are shrugged off, in which beating up women is acceptable, in which threatening to kill your wife isn’t a big deal if you have enough money. I care about critics who claim that entertainment trumps decency and the harmful precedent that sets. When we stop unilaterally letting troubled artists off the hook and acknowledging that many entertainers are not, in fact, prone to beating their partners (or in Polanski’s case, sexually violating young women), we might finally start having honest conversations about abuse (of people and power), addiction, and misogyny in the media, as well as in our private lives.

Photo of Charlie Sheen via Wikimedia Commons.

About

Brittany Shoot is a writer, editor, and critic currently based in Copenhagen, Denmark. She has written for Bitch, Herizons, In These Times, make/shift, The New York Times, RH Reality Check, truthout.org, and ZNet among others and recently contributed to several recent encyclopedia volumes on issues ranging from veganism to graffiti to infanticide. She has bachelor’s degrees in women’s studies, communication, and psychology from the University of Iowa and a master’s degree in visual and media arts from Emerson College.