So Charlie Sheen is everywhere. Today, Good Morning America, Radar Online, Saturday Night Live, Vanity Fair… everywhere. For the most part, these are sensationalist and often comedic depictions that make Sheen’s ramblings into ubiquitous turns of phrase in pop culture, and almost uniformly fail to explore any of the cultural implications of his very public breakdown.
On March 3, Anna Holmes wrote an excellent op-ed for the New York Times on Sheen’s history of abuse. Holmes is right to turn the spotlight on Piers Morgan and the permissive media and a seemingly apathetic public, and question what values underpin the willingness to so quickly forgive & forget while simultaneously vilify the targets of his rage and abuse. This is an excellent exploration of systemic misogyny, and how it’s allowed to continue and even flourish. The problem is, Holmes’ piece is one of very few to hit mainstream media outlets deconstructing the politics of Charlie Sheen’s high-profile breakdown.
Without additional voices to provide some light and shading, Holmes’ standalone piece may seem to cast Sheen solely as an abusive sonofabitch. This isn’t untrue, but, as witnessed by this week’s televised rants, it also isn’t the whole story. To be clear, Sheen has said and done some unquestionably violent and oppressive things, from his anti-semitic remarks regarding Two and a Half Men creator Chuck Lorre to his long and well-documented history of domestic violence. But to paint Sheen solely as a nefarious abuser or a comedic caricature does a disservice to the sorely underexplored worlds of addiction and mental illness.
Charlie Sheen is saying and doing some awful things and has been for a long, long time. He is also clearly, before our eyes, breaking down. Whether he has relapsed or is grappling with a peak in mental illness, his actions are clearly beyond reason and beyond his control. And millions of us stand by, watch, and even laugh, while failing to engage with a deeply tragic narrative that’s playing out in front of our eyes. At best, he’s subjected to at-a-distance pathologizing by ambulance-chasing TV analysts like Drs. Drew and Phil. And at worst, he becomes the butt of the joke. Either way, the opportunity to address mental health and addiction in a thoughtful public dialogue is quickly slipping away.
If you don’t have sympathy for Charlie Sheen, you don’t need to. Again, he’s said and done some dreadful things. But here’s the thing: if you’re queer, if you’re a woman, if you’re trans or gender non-conforming, if you’re a person of color, if you are a part of just about any marginalized community, someone at some point has probably told you that your understanding of the oppression you experience is a figment of your imagination, a part of a far-reaching and elaborate delusion you’ve victimized yourself into believing. And for many of us, the systematic oppression has led to substance abuse and addiction. Regardless of how we each individually feel about Sheen’s words and deeds, they impact us. The public reaction to many major celebrity meltdowns—including Charlie Sheen’s—impacts all of us because it is part of an intricate system designed to disempower, oppress and disease marginalized communities. This is one of precious few opportunities to discuss mental health and addiction as they exist within our communities, as they exist as tactics to maintain our disempowerment, and as they exist as methods to deflect the abuse and oppression we face (see: Sheen’s abusive history).
And, frankly, these aren’t conversations many of us have with one another. How often do we engage and discuss drug use in gay men’s club culture? How often do we address addiction and mental illness in trans communities? And, for those of us who have been diagnosed with mental illnesses, how safe and supported do we feel in disclosing to partners, friends and family?
I do hope that Sheen gets help and, to echo Holmes, that media depiction of his exes shifts. But closer to home,I hope that, within our communities, we take a moment to address mental health and addiction—both as tactics of oppression and as outcomes of it.