The first 3 months of 2011 have been a maelstrom of insanity in celebrity news. Central to the American cultural grasp is the middle-aged, violent, drug-fueled man-child known in some circles as Charlie Sheen. His cocaine-drenched, woman-beating/objectifying, absurdity-spewing antics have made for both the most surreal and sobering news coverage in some time. Every webpage, aired interview and magazine cover begets Twitter posts, t-shirts and speaking tours. Little is made of his abusive past towards the women in his life, while his machete-brandishing, live-blogging, always-on mania focuses eyeballs and conversations.
Replace the name “Charlie Sheen” with “Chris Brown” and things become more dour. The R&B singer, now old enough to buy and drink alcohol, has a similar level of popularity as of late for the wrong reasons. His violent reaction at Good Morning America to interview questions sparked a new level of interest in his mindset and his attack on singer and former-girlfriend Rihanna. Unlike Sheen, Brown didn’t pepper his infamous behavior with ridiculous sound bites or laser-focused intensity.
Brown went through a wringer of interviews questioning his actions and attempts to change for his goal of public forgiveness — made all the more ironic with his latest album title acronym, F.A.M.E. — Forgiving All My Enemies/Fans Are My Everything. Sheen flipped a middle finger to his detractors. Brown wants desperately to move on. Sheen revels in the attention. Brown is still vilified; Sheen is the latest folk hero to like-minded people.
Sheen and Brown share more similarities than their ages suggest. And while Sheen’s whiteness (he’s half-white) differentiates him from Brown’s African-American heritage, looks and experiences, they are both connected through their violence, their celebrity and a single Twitter tweet from Brown:
“I’m so over people bring this past s**t up!! Yet we praise Charlie Sheen and other celebs for [their] bullsh**t.”
The tweet was quickly deleted, but the message made an impact on me. Sheen’s daffiness in skirting the law and his destructive actions earned my sarcastic, passive-aggressive commentary on Facebook and Twitter in his being caught in the net of his horrific behavior. Meanwhile, I was critical of Brown’s fury on Rihanna from the get-go, and his publicity-mandated apologies clashing with his tweets and personal actions further angered me. Both men infuriated me for their treatment of their loved ones and their reputations, but my actions mirrored that of the public. That unsettling revelation cut deep.
More than anything, I wanted to understand why I was quick to condemn Brown’s anger and subsequent wishy-washy acts. And then I read this open letter to the young singer from writer Kevin Powell, himself once a troubled young man that saw his temper broadcast on television (Real World) and cost him relationships and professional jobs. In particular, these words made an impact:
But the fact is, Chris, we cannot afford to teach children, directly or indirectly, that violence and anger in any form are the solutions for our frustrations, disagreements, or pain, and not expect that violence and anger to penetrate the psyche of that child. To be with that child as he, you, me, and countless other American males in our nation, grow from boy to teenager to early adulthood. Ultimately it will come out in some channel, either inwardly on themselves in the manner of serious self-repression, self-loathing, and fear. Or outwardly in the shape of blind rage and violence, against themselves, against others, including women and girls.
With that paragraph, Powell nailed the plight of Sheen, Brown and millions of American men. The cycle of violence and abuse — physical, emotional and sexual — is not something that appears out of nowhere but is born and renewed through savage attacks from and on family, trapping the person in an eternal child-like emotional state. The external results are what we see with every police investigation into rape and beating, every bruise and shattered psyche. The internal consequences — such as low self-esteem and deep-seated anxieties — are visible in observing body language and listening to one’s words.
I use this blog, especially lately, to share my highs and lows, my joy and frustration. The letter to Brown visualized my recent disappointments and far-reaching confidence issues. In an odd way, I felt comforted in seeing my plight summed up in such a concise way. These realities are the unfortunate norm in society.
There are others that share the pain, struggling with their own issues. And the media firestorms surrounding Charlie Sheen and Chris Brown are reminders of that suffering. Sheen has masked his visibly violent and selfish actions with a manic, nutty visage. In turn, most of the public can overlook his abuse of people and drugs because they cannot personally identify with the reality of Sheen’s vicious. They can’t see themselves on the end of Sheen’s wrath because the cries of “Tiger Blood” and “Winning” are outside of the realm of reality that they, their family members and others close to them experienced in their tragedies.
Brown’s infamy, on the other hand, tapped directly into the frightened fragility of abuse sufferers, the bruised Rihanna police pictures reminded the celebrity culture of the harsh realities of humanity underneath carefully-constructed and presented appearances. Brown became the face of the savage, dominant abuser, and each public appearance, concert and meltdown will be discussed and scrutinized ad nauseum — even if he miraculously cures AIDS and ends poverty. Subconsciously or consciously, Brown is reminding people of the abuse they or those close to them suffered.
Both Charlie Sheen and Chris Brown will be forever linked in the 2011 celebrity culture zeitgeist, for the preposterous, severe nature of their actions and the need to understand their differences. The question is whether we collectively will be able to cut through the glossy surface of superstar worship and understand the gross underbelly that lies underneath, confronting how we see our celebrities and ourselves in the process. The answer lies in what we will do to change that mentality.
(I deliberately did not elaborate further about race, class and color regarding Sheen and Brown because there are more — and better — theses available on the the comparisons. Domestic abuse transcends all categories and needs to be confronted and dealt with in a manner that corrects the behavior.)