Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Why Charlie Sheen Kind of Matters

It's kind of amazing. I haven't owned a TV for years, nor do I really pay attention to TV shows on the internet. Rarely do I care at all about an American-made movie enough to go see it in any form. I mostly skim the newspaper these days, and get 95% of my news and information online. I occasionally listen to 5 or 10 minutes of talk radio just to get a snicker, or hear what the latest bullshit tag lines are on the days social issues.

And yet, the meltdown of actor Charlie Sheen has still made it into my world. Repeatedly, from several angles.

So, I don't do much pop culture. It's one of the ways I'm "different" you might say. Until I saw a photo of Sheen in a Cleveland Indians jersey, I'd completely forgotten he was a star in a movie I watched over and over again as a baseball obsessed teen. I have a very strong memory, even for tiny details, but remembering such things as the stars of movies or TV shows is completely irrelevant to me most of the time.

However, since good old Charlie has been tossed into my pop culture deprived life, I'm gonna offer a few bones about it all.

I have long felt dismayed at the amount of celebrity and hero worship in U.S. culture. Certainly, this is not a uniquely U.S. phenomenon , but perhaps the level of pervasiveness is. It's tainted everything, from the way we elect public officials to how we view our spiritual leaders. Riding the elevation to a peek with a celebrity, as well as participating in an almost ritualized form of character destruction when they fall, are both elements of a collective addition around famous folks.

Tiger Woods, who featured heavily in parts of the Buddhist blogosphere last year, is a great example. Millions upheld this man as an image of the perfect modern man. He was astoundingly good at his sport. He was articulate, mostly polite, and rarely combative with those competing against him. He was a "family man." As a man with a diverse racial background, he was also considered - like President Obama - to be a "representative of a more racially balanced future." Lots and lots of projections. And then, when it came out that he was a serial cheater, all hell broke lose. The man on the pedestal, the great role model for young people, suddenly was a lightning rod for pent up hatreds and grudges which often had nothing, really, to do with him.
And lost in all of that was the small sliver of intelligent criticism looking at, amongst other things, the way some celebrity men embody deeply abusive attitudes toward women, and how often their sexism, and even violence towards women, is dismissed or minimized in an attempt to keep the celebrity around, doing what they do best.

Charlie Sheen is also a great example of this. His drug abuse has been long know and yet was, for a long time, just considered part of the "bad boy" image that looks good on TV and movie screens, never mind that it is cause of a hell of a lot of suffering. Incidents of domestic abuse were dealt with lightly by the legal system, and apparently had little impact on the hyper popularity of Sheen's recent show Two and a Half Men. In fact, running the line between laughing at the stupidity of sexist behavior and finding sexist behavior funny seems to be a theme of the show itself. Sheen's history of using racial slurs (here's one example, also, apparently had little impact on his overall public image. It seems that like the slow downfall of Mel Gibson, it took a lot of odd, public ranting in the media and some strange twisting around anti-semitism to finally bring the guy down a notch. But odds are he'll now just be dismissed as wacko who hates Jews and believes in conspiracy theories, which really does nothing to address the cultural sickness around celebrities, nor the worst behavioral manifestations amongst the "fallen icons."

Then, there is the Elephant Journal post I linked to above, which is not only one of many Sheen posts on that spiritual website, but also one of many Sheen posts on many spiritual websites. Again, the guy is everywhere. Author Kristoffer Nelson (of the Ele post in question) is trying at humor, while also offering a bit of spiritual wisdom in the process. He writes:

What I find most interesting about our social obsession with Sheen’s insanity is that his ramblings aren’t too far from what the tradition’s masters claimed as the enlightened experience. There is a fine line between insanity and freedom. If Rajneesh said, “I have tiger blood flowing through my veins” would we laugh in dismiss or sign-up for a retreat? If a Yogi Bhajan said, “I closed my eyes and in a nanosecond I cured myself… I have a disease? Bullshit. I cured it with my brain.” would we completely disregard the comment or buy his book hoping to achieve the same? Make a vision board, anyone?

Given a different context, less porn stars and blow binges, Sheen could possibly be our next Eckhart Tolle: “Apocalypse Now will teach you how to live inside of a moment between a moment.” Sound familiar?

Sheen is easy to dismiss because we think we’re not him.

Yeah, I like the last line. It's a good reminder.

But the whole post is also too damned cute, and represents this sort of amused, compassionate gaze that some spiritual types like to offer that takes the bumbling idiocies of celebs and uses them for some individualized spiritual development offering. Which is fine in one sense. Recognizing the suddenly strong reactions against a fallen pop culture icon are probably more about yourself than about the icon is healthy. And that celebrity X's "bad behavior" is something you could easily do under the right causes and conditions - again, a healthy attitude.

However, the same amused, compassionate gaze fails to address the systemic, root reasons behind both the allowed excesses and abuses of the celebrities themselves, as well as our collective additions around the rise and fall of these people. There have been numerous articles and discussions online in recent months about the role of unquestioning, fawning students and sanghas in the rise of Buddhist teachers who abuse sex and power. And also numerous articles and discussions pointing out that there's something seriously wrong with just blaming a fallen teacher for their bad behavior. The way I see it, this could easily be expanded to pop culture, politics, and other areas of life - because all of it has been deeply tainted by forms of celebrity and hero worship.

The title of this post is "Why Charlie Sheen Kind of Matters." I say "kind of" because it's not really about him particularly, but about what he represents. Like Kobe Bryant, Ben Roethlisberger, Mel Gibson, Rush Limbaugh, John Edwards, Newt Gingrich - the list goes on and on - Charlie Sheen is a highly privileged male celebrity who has done plenty wrong, gotten away with more than the average person would, and now has become the fodder for jokes, gossip, hatred, and general public abuse. The lovable, charismatic bad boy paid millions to entertain is now a lowly, crazed thug.

Aren't you all tired of going on this roller coaster ride already? I know I have been for awhile now.


Claudia said...

Nathan I found your post very touching (and very well written) Especially in light of today being "womens day". I frankly find myself fascinated by the whole thing in a way that is so wrong, even distracting to the practice (I.e. Watching his YouTube speeches) that I've limited myself to only a few minutes a day of Sheen news... You make a very good point on the underlying issue...

Algernon said...

In short, and at risk of sounding heartless, Charlie Sheen is a rerun. It's the same U.S. Celebrity Pop Fall story. Over and over, we do this weird dance in the funhouse, staring at the "freaks" unaware of ourselves.

Unknown said...

I, for one, am tired of these crazy, useless celebrities getting so much news coverage. The real important stories get lost in all this madness.

I also dont see why we still hold on to celebrities who do bad things. Take Michael Vick for instance. He was found guilty of animal cruelty (abusing and killing dogs for sport) and got a minimal sentence and went right back to making millions playing football. All because people think he is some football hero.

It's sad what we will overlook or downplay in order to keep our so called "heroes" in the spotlight.

Nathan said...

"The real important stories get lost in all this madness." This is something that always gets me as well. In fact, it's why I mostly don't engage in popular media these days.

I do think there needs to be a door open for people to grow up and redeem themselves. Michael Vick's return to stardom probably was too quick, and it's obvious that a lot of football fans, once they saw that he could still play, just wanted the heroics back.

But I also think part of the social problem we have is damning those who screw up for eternity. If Michael Vick was an average, working class black guy instead of a star quarterback, his jail record would deem him a criminal for life. Dude would barely be able to get a decent job because he's always going to be "suspect" for something he did in his 20's.
And that's really not right in my view.