On Celebrity Culture and Abuse
I’m going to go ahead and stick a trigger warning here for discussion of domestic abuse.
You know Sean Penn, right? That guy who beat the ever-living shit out of his wife, was charged with domestic assualt, and then got an Oscar? Maybe Roman Polanski is more familiar to you, as the guy who took a plea bargain back in 1977 that laid out his unlawful sexual intercourse with a thirteen-year-old child? We gave him an Oscar, too, and a Palme D’or, even after he fled the USA to avoid be imprisoned for his crimes. Ozzy Osbourne was happy chatting to an interviewer about the time he was arrested for trying to murder his wife, Sharon, but he’s still just that wacky rocker guy to most. Charlie Sheen, sitcom star and internet meme, was charged with third-degree assault on his then-wife, Brooke Mueller, but we remember him for his Emmy-winning turn in Two and a Half Men. Chris Brown continues to see his songs chart, even as the harrowing pictures of his one-time girlfriend Rihanna crop up online, depicting her black and blue face after he assaulted her. This are my cut-offs. These are the things that I will not support someone after hearing. You might have different standards, but it’s always good to remind ourselves that the people the media idolizes for us aren’t always worth idolizing.
I’m talking about the misogyny and general nasty undercurrent in our media that allows us and encourages us to embrace these men to our screens. We, as a culture, have found a way to forget the violence many of our treasured cultural icons have committed against people, especially women. We hold our desire to be entertained above the right of the people they abused not to see their attackers idolized. And it’s not about justice, it’s about the fact that, time and time again, we’re happy to ignore the flagrant ways celebrities abuse their power, to hire them, to watch them, to promote them, even to go as far as holding them up as humanitarian icons. I don’t know about you, but that makes me feel a little gross. Either our cultural memory is that short, or we’re simply willing to hold the notion that Sean Penn once left Madonna tied to a chair after roughing her up for hours on end so that he could go out and buy more booze and that we still want to see his movies in our heads at the same time. I’m not sure which is worse: the fact that we might just have collectively forgotten, or that we remember and it just doesn’t register high enough on our “things that matter” list to stop us wanting to see his mannered, average performances.
And look, I’m not saying that it’s pleasant, having to think about what and who you’re supporting when you just want to watch half an hour of television or a couple of hours in the cinema. But that’s the problem- it’s easier for the media to stamp down on these issues, to try and blot them from our cultural memory, than it is to question why it’s okay to hand a self-confessed sex offender who never saw a day of prison one of the highest cinematic trophies in the world. We prefer to remember Sean Connery as James Bond, not as that guy who said that hitting a woman was fine if she was “being a bitch”, because it’s easier not to muddy the waters of our one-dimensional vision of him with the fact that he’s a piece of shit.
And I know it’s a shitty, awful, saddening, infuriating thing to think about, but we have to consider who we’re supporting when we choose what to see and who to spend our money on. I think it’s up to you to decide who you want to support, because we all have different cut-offs for what constitutes unforgivable behaviour, but also to try and wade through the media’s effort to negate the bad things that their highest-grossing celebrities have done. We’re taught to consume our media mindlessly, but only by questioning what and who we lend our time and money to will we weed out those who are abusing the power we’re giving them, and encouraging us to forget their unpleasant histories.