Blog PostsCharlie Sheen and Celebrity Schadenfreude

I’ve kept mum about Charlie Sheen until now because a) I wasn’t sure how I felt about it, and b) I’ve spent most of my free time devouring all the news I could find about labor unions in Wisconsin and elsewhere.  But, as the news media would like us to believe, a serious debate about the importance of labor unions and collective bargaining rights is nowhere near as important as a famous person falling part, so I’ve decided to make Charlie Sheen the focus of my Sunday linkspam.

I consider myself a kind, compassionate person, but I do have a dark side.  While I take little pleasure in the pain of most people, I often make an exception for celebrities.  There’s nothing quite as darkly satisfying as watching an overpaid, overly famous person of little talent and skill fall off of a pedestal.  That’s the beauty of schadenfreude: “making me feel glad that I’m not you!”

And Charlie Sheen’s public fall from grace inspired some truly funny Internet memes.  Cats Quote Charlie Sheen is one of the best ones, and I’m quite fond of the Charlie Sheen Family Circus blog.  Combining cute images of bland comic strips or cuddly cats with the rantings of a self-important idiot makes for some amusing juxtaposition.

But then I saw that Charlie Sheen now has almost two million followers on his Twitter account.  And then the Charlie Sheen meltdown stopped being funny to me for two reasons.

First, Charlie Sheen has gone far beyond the “Christian Bale on-set WE ARE DONE PROFESSIONALLY!” line and crossed into “Britney Spears” territory.  When Britney Spears started giving interview after interview revealing her extreme dimness, I laughed and enjoyed the backlash because I never liked her and thought she was one of the most overrated performers I had ever seen.  If she couldn’t stop recording and go far away so I wouldn’t have to hear about her again, at least I no longer had to hear media praising her for the talent she didn’t have.

But then she started falling apart, and the media reveled in it.  She shaved her head, took a bat to a car, and started ranting and raving like a delusional person.  Britney’s actions no longer seemed the actions of a spoiled diva princess.  They were the actions of someone who seemed truly mentally ill.

That’s when I stopped laughing.  I still didn’t want to have to hear about Britney Spears, but not just because I was tired of her; it was because the media and some of the public seemed to be relishing the downfall of someone they had previously praised and adored.  It was almost masturbatory.  It prompted Trey Parker and Matt Stone to write an entire episode of South Park defending Britney Spears and encouraging the media to leave her alone.  How often does South Park show sensitivity toward famous people?  (The rest of the episode is a brilliant commentary on the way the media and our culture revels in the fall of the virgin figure).

Now, I don’t claim to be any expert in psychology and I’m not going to presume to “diagnose” Charlie Sheen’s problems, but as an outside observer, they seem to be deeper than typical celebrity vanity.

The second reason I can’t laugh about Charlie Sheen anymore has to do with his treatment of women.

Before this incident came to light, Charlie Sheen wasn’t a celebrity I followed in any way.  I never watched Two and a Half Men, I didn’t pay attention to any of his movies, and he wasn’t involved in a relationship with any of my favorite actresses.  I knew him best as Martin Sheen’s son.  Therefore, I wasn’t fully aware of his history of domestic violence until I read this op-ed by Anna Holmes in The New York Times.  She talks about the way Charlie Sheen’s victims are often overlooked or treated as “disposable” because of the industries in which they work.

I don’t think – or at least, I hope – most people aren’t laughing at Charlie Sheen’s abuse of women.  They’re laughing at the ridiculous things he says.  One person mentioned that Charlie Sheen’s ridiculous quotes sound even funnier if you imagine that they’re coming from Sue Sylvester on Glee.

My question is, can you really separate Charlie Sheen’s violent behavior from Charlie Sheen, the guy who says ridiculous shit?

A lot of people want to, and a lot of people do.  I just don’t think it’s a socially responsible route to take, and here’s why.

I read a brilliantly written post about why rape jokes aren’t funny.  The author’s main thesis: it’s socially irresponsible to make rape jokes because even though most people know you’re “just kidding,” a rapist will hear a rape joke and believe the joke-teller is condoning hir behavior, thus perpetuating rape culture.

I feel similarly about the Charlie Sheen jokes.  People follow him on Twitter because they want to see the ridiculous things he says and mock him…but Charlie Sheen doesn’t think that’s why you’re following him.

Charlie Sheen thinks you’re following him because you like him.

Or, he doesn’t care why you’re following him because there are almost two million of you, and he thrives on attention, positive or negative.

I don’t think it’s our social responsibility to take care of a spoiled celebrity or be deeply emotionally invested in his welfare; there are many more, less privileged people in this world that deserve more of our sympathy.  I do think it’s our social responsibility to not condone, even tacitly, the behavior of a violent, abusive person.

This leads to the question: “So, then where’s the line?  When is it okay to revel in the schadenfreude and when should we ignore it?”

Truthfully?  I don’t know.  I don’t think the Sheen Family Circus is crossing the line, but I could just be making excuses for myself because I, personally, found it funny.  Maybe we shouldn’t be making fun of Charlie Sheen at all.  Or, maybe we need to make fun of him in a different way, or for different reasons.

Either way, it’s something to think about.

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3 Responses to Charlie Sheen and Celebrity Schadenfreude

  1. Ed says:

    Makes you wonder if Nero might have been “playing them out” rather than playing to distraction–all those thousands who’d delighted in watching tigers and butchers flay and fry the flesh of the others. Maybe he mourned that they were far grosser he.

    • Lady T says:

      True – it’s hard to argue that Nero was much more corrupt than most of Rome at that point.

      I, Claudius has an interesting take on Nero. The series posits that Claudius purposely chose Nero as his successor to make people uncomfortable and unhappy with imperial rule. Yet another reason to watch the series (hint, hint).

      • bajol says:

        I share your disgust with and horrow toward those who make light of rape and other violent crimes; however, I’ve always believed that comedy is the ultimate democratic expression. We can and should laugh at everything and everyone, a position which gives us the right to laugh at anything and anyone.

        Still, there was a time after 9/11 when jokes on jihadists and bin laden (I will not grace his name with capitals) were out of play because they were too painful and almost sacreligious. So I understand those who find sheen’s women hating behavior (again, he deserves no capitals) too repugnant to laugh at.

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