For the past few weeks, national media has focused almost exclusively on the complete and total breakdown of Charlie Sheen. Between goddesses, tiger blood, potentially anti-Semitic name-calling and general winning, this spilling of human insanity has been, if we’re looking at face-value and being honest, pretty entertaining. But as we’ve headed into the third week, jobs have been lost, terms like “moral turpitude” have been thrown around and custody cases have been filed, at what point do things stop being funny?
It was 2007 when Britney Spears first began showing public signs of mental illness, but if you really look at her history, it started earlier, most obviously with her two day marriage to the non-Costanza Jason Alexander. When she married Kevin Federline, she seemed relatively well, but between visits from Child Protective Services, desperately emotional interviews and the now infamous Chaotic videos showing Britney in various stages of whacked out, it’s retrospectively clear she most likely wasn’t.
And, yet, when she was put in a treatment center, left and shaved her head, attacked a car with an umbrella, held her child hostage in a bathroom and got a 5150 hospitalization hold put on her, danced on MTV in a bra and underwear half asleep, and now exists in the childlike world of conservatorship while still being thrown onstage to perform for millions despite obviously having the inability to make decisions for herself, some how she is the joke. And she never stopped being one to the majority of people. Not even when things got so desperate and dire that things became tragic.
Society doesn’t just find entertainment in these situations when using the celebrity in question as the butt of a joke. Anna Nicole Smith lived in butt-of-the-joke-ville for most of her career before she died. Only when her son passed then she herself died a short time later was she receiving any kind of care for her fragile mental state. But it was her death that was used as entertainment, disguised as news. It’s hard to remember now in the days after the Michael Jackson media death blitz, but for about a month after the passing of Anna Nicole Smith, it was all anyone talked about in the news. It was an obsession.
So, when not even death can stop the circus, where is the line?
Mental illness is still not wholly respected or understood for much of the country. And when the ill person is a celebrity, somehow that lack of understanding and respect becomes more widespread, almost treated as a punishment. The standard line is “this is what they got themselves into by being famous,” but for so many of them, they never had a choice.
I’ve railed on the cruelty and completely legal act of child abuse that is child stardom, to much eye-rolling, but how do you expect someone like Britney Spears or Lindsay Lohan to just leave the spotlight and settle down in Louisiana or Long Island? They don’t know how. They never had to learn. They never had a single normal day of existence in their lives, and now we have watched them fall apart and become laughingstocks and we just expect them to leave? They can’t. I don’t know what they can do, but I know they can’t do that. It would be like sending a pampered cocker spaniel to live among wild wolves.
Now we have Charlie Sheen. Charlie Sheen, like Michael Jackson before him to some extent, has the added bonus of, as Warner Brothers accuses in their letter addressing his firing, “moral turpitude.” Charlie Sheen is an abusive, offensive individual who has brutalized women, abused crack like it was those aforementioned women, and existed as a complete affront to what it means to be a decent human being for his entire adult life. It’s just recently come to a head and is something we’re all seeing now. It’s not like any of this is new; it just wasn’t as big a deal when his cars went off cliffs or he missed work immediately following porn conventions.
I am on the record as accusing Charlie Sheen of being an evil idiot, and I have been, rightfully, accused of hypocrisy by some commenters. Why should Lindsay and Britney get the “get out of public scrutiny free” card for being raised by parental wrecks or having some form of mental illness untreated until she was a nearing-30 mother of two, respectively, while Charlie Sheen is just evil? And that’s fair. And now that the past few weeks has happened, I’m seeing that. Particularly now as he enters into the part that makes me sad—the joining in on the joke.
Some celebrities are able to laugh at themselves. Robert Downey, Jr. is fantastic at this. But when some people do it, it has the thick air of “this is only getting worse” around it. Lindsay Lohan will go on MTV or Jimmy Kimmel and make fun of herself for a few bucks and some airtime, but then will fire off a letter to Lorne Michaels for daring to make fun of her on his show entirely about making fun of people. Charlie Sheen now thinks “winning” is as hilarious as we did two weeks ago and is attempting to capitalize on it through t-shirts and a paid Twitter account. It’s that area where delusion and an unstoppable ego collide, and seeming self-awareness is not a sign of wellness or clarity.
So, what do we do? Nothing. Every single celebrity blog post or IMDb forum thread in history has received at least one comment saying “if you don’t like them, ignore them” or “why won’t s/he just go away?” That’s naive, and impossible. We can each of us rally together and ignore the sadness before us, but that won’t change the millions of people who won’t. It’s like Two and a Half Men. Not a single one of us knew why it lasted as long as it did; but it’s finally leaving. Whether those we watch through the glass leave quietly or much more tragically will be another story.