Charlie Sheen has three faces. Not a day goes by without the publication of several new articles analyzing Sheen’s increasingly bizarre exploits (including, of course, this one) but, strangely, they all seem to be talking about a slightly different guy. The diverging media narratives of Charlie Sheen, and the very real behavior they’re covering, are interesting. They go beyond standard depictions of bad celebrity behavior, and seem to betray something fundamental about contemporary masculinity itself.
First, we have Charlie Sheen the comedian: Driven by a Kanye West-like compulsion to generate and control his own media narrative, and an equally Kanye-like propensity for bizarre statements, he has a massively popular Twitter account, gives a steady stream of interviews, and refers to himself as a “high priest Vatican assassin warlock” who is on a drug “called Charlie Sheen,” which you cannot share “because if you try it once, you will die and your children will weep over your exploded body.” This Sheen has a legion of newfound fans, and has inspired countless Internet memes. #Tigerblood and #WINNING, which are impossible to miss on one’s Twitter dashboard, both originated with Sheen. They keep spreading, and why not? They actually are extremely funny.
Second, we have Sheen the tragedy. He’s lost his job as the star of hugely popular sitcom Two and a Half Men, after proclaiming that he “violently hated” Two and a Half Men creator Chuck Lorre. He’s lost his wife, who was granted a restraining order against him. He’s lost his children, who were recently taken out of his custody. And, at the root of all this, he’s lost his health and his self-control: In January, he was taken to the hospital for a medical emergency that’s now being reported as a “hernia.” A briefcase of cocaine was found at the scene. This Sheen is a sick man, whose life is rapidly falling apart. It’s been speculated by many, including celebrity “addiction specialist” Dr. Drew, that he may be dealing with bipolar disorder, and that his statements — he cannot be addicted to any known drug, he has superhuman mental powers, he is “special” and not like other people, despite all evidence, he is #WINNING — are symptoms of a manic swing. Of course, this is exploitative and callous: Responsible therapists don’t give their diagnoses to the press at the “American Idol Top 24 Prom,” particularly not if they’ve never met the patient. And Mr. Sheen’s symptoms are also consistent with doing briefcases full of cocaine. At any rate, this Sheen — gaunt, pale, increasingly disconnected from reality — is in serious danger. It’s widely understood that he may die very soon.
And then, there is the third, most troubling Sheen: The violent misogynist and abuser, who preys on the most vulnerable women he can find, and gets away with it. Choire Sicha of The Awl refers to him as a “very ill and somewhat frightening monster.” David Carr, in The New York Times, points out that the reports of domestic abuse during his Two and a Half Men tenure were ignored; it was all right to shoot ex-fiancée Kelly Preston, but dissing Chuck Lorre was a firing offense. Anna Holmes, in an excellent article for the NYT, points out that the women Sheen has terrorized — sex workers, starlets and non-celebrities who lack Sheen’s power within Hollywood — are the sort of women most likely to be blamed for the violence against them, and therefore the least likely to pose a problem for Sheen.
Of course, these three narratives all come with very different moral obligations. We’re required to condemn Sheen, the terrorizer of women, along with the society that let him terrorize them without consequences. We’re required to find empathy within ourselves for Sheen the sick man, to acknowledge that his behavior amounts to a very public cry for help, to hope that he gets it soon. The comedic Sheen doesn’t require us to do anything but enjoy ourselves, which is why he’s the most popular of the three.
But it’s Sheen the misogynist who holds the key to the puzzle. Holmes points out that self-destructive celebrities are nothing new; it’s just that they’re normally treated differently. “Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears are endlessly derided for their extracurricular meltdowns and lack of professionalism,” she writes. It’s true: Shaming is normally a major part of the sport of celebrity crash-gawking. All Miley Cyrus had to do was take an (apparently legal) bong hit and hold onto a pole during a musical performance, and we regularly treat her as if she’d released several dozen sex tapes filmed atop a pile of crack rocks. Sheen, by contrast, has displayed far more troubling behavior, and become a hero. This actually makes sense: Lohan and Spears are breaking all the rules of femininity. But as Sheen has gotten more out of control, his behavior has become more stereotypically masculine.
Americans have a soft spot for hyper-masculine characters, especially in comedy. Think of Barney on the CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother, who insists on wearing a suit at all times, compulsively seduces and discards “bimbos,” and has penned a “Playbook” of lies for tricking women into sex. Think of Ron Swanson on NBC’s Parks and Recreation, who loves woodworking, red meat and capitalism, and frequently rails against the “bitches” he’s divorced and the evils of big government (or any government; in his ideal America, there would be one government employee, and his only job would be “deciding who to nuke”). Or think of “Charlie” on Two and a Half Men, an alcoholic and womanizer who, in the words of his Wikipedia page, “lives a life of carefree debauchery.”
These are all beloved characters. Comedy is a site for working out cultural uneasiness; in 2011, this sort of stereotypical, self-conscious white manliness is outdated and widely looked down upon, and this fact makes a lot of people (especially men) insecure and unhappy. Seeing it played out and spoofed lets us simultaneously enjoy machismo and distance ourselves from it; Ron, Barney and even Charlie all provide a strangely feminist form of catharsis.
But if this sort of behavior is confined to our TV sets, where it is managed by writers, it’s fun. We know that we’re meant to laugh, and that the actors are only reading ridiculous lines. Barney is played by Neal Patrick Harris, a gay man, which adds yet another layer of distance. In real life, however, it’s significantly less cuddly. You simply cannot have “traditional” white masculinity without an equally “traditional” denigration of women and less privileged people. In real life, Ron Swanson would march with the Tea Party, and his violent hatred of “bitches” he’s married would be disturbing. In real life, Barney’s lack of respect for the women he sleeps with — along with the fact that almost every single one of his sexual encounters is based upon deceiving the woman — would render him creepy, even dangerous. In real life, Charlie… well.
But it’s why we can laugh at Sheen, or even have compassion for him without acknowledging the harm he does to others. His statements have more in common with Chuck Norris Facts than with popular ideas about addiction or misogyny. Ron Swanson promises to turn his disciples “from men into gladiators, and from gladiators into Swansons;” it’s not far removed from being on a drug called “Charlie Sheen.” When Barney is sad, he says, “I stop being sad and be awesome instead.” Sheen insists that he’s too awesome to feel sorrow for any of his losses: “Aren’t there moments where a guy, like, crashes, like, in the corner, like, ‘Oh my God, it’s all my mom’s fault’? Shut up. Shut up! Stop! Move forward.”
And we listen, and we laugh, because this sort of hyperbolic, self-aggrandizing macho is familiar. Charlie Sheen the tragedy, Charlie Sheen the criminal, Charlie Sheen the misogynist: They’re all easily subsumed into Charlie Sheen the Exceedingly Masculine. And, since the dark undertones and tragic consequences of this behavior are minimized by fiction, it’s easy to pretend they don’t exist in life. Sheen himself is apparently profiting from his downward spiral; his Twitter feed is sponsored by Ad.ly, which gives him significant money for product placements. If he’s doing this on purpose, it’s working; if not, who cares? The laughs keep coming. Until the next time he hurts someone — or the next time that he hurts himself, which may also be final — he’s living his life like a real man. Or half of one, anyway.