Chris Brown, Charlie Sheen, and Hollywood’s Inability to Draw a Line on Violence Against Women

When the Grammys invited Chris Brown to perform not once but twice during Sunday’s awards show, three years after he plead guilty to assaulting his then-girlfriend Rihanna, the decision sparked outrage—and some good questions. At Ebony, Zerlina Maxwell wants to know if the Grammys think they’re sending a message other than that domestic abuse is no big deal. And the New Yorker’s rock critic, Sasha Frere-Jones, asked “Why forgive Chris Brown so quickly and hang Ike Turner out to dry for so long?” The answer isn’t that the Grammys, or any other institution in Hollywood, have arcane or difficult-to-discern rules about when domestic abusers should be welcomed back and given the platforms they need to make enormous amounts of money. It’s that they don’t have established standards at all, leaving them to handle things on a case-by-case basis that often seems incoherent.

In January, I asked FX President John Landgraf, who is working with Charlie Sheen on a new show called Anger Management, if he thought there was a clear standard for something an actor could do that would make them, in Landgraf’s eyes, unemployable. He told me:

I can’t tell you what that is. But the answer’s clearly yes. You can certainly imagine a performer doing something that renders them unemployable. Again, what is that? I don’t know. And do I hope that won’t take place and believe that probably won’t take place? Yeah. But anybody could do something that would be grounds for termination of a show. How could I define that line? I’m not a lawyer. How could I have a precise list of things and here’s the line and if you’re on this side of the line you’re fine and you’re on that side of the line, you’re not fine? I don’t think that’s theoretically possible.

When it comes to why Landgraf trusts Sheen in particular to star in Anger Management, in which Sheen plays a former baseball player with anger issues whose best friend is a woman, who has a female therapist, and who is raising a daughter as a single father, he said:

Part of what the show is about, frankly, is a kind of comeuppance. For example, he has a teenaged daughter, he has an ex-wife, his ex-wife has questionable tastes in men, and he was the first of her questionable tastes in men. But now, as a co-parent, he has to deal with a series of men in his 13-year-old daughter’s life, and that’s a kind of comeuppance for him. I can’t know what’s in Charlie Sheen’s heart. I can only tell you that as an artist and as a performer, he made a choice in terms of what he chose to do next that to me is indicative of somebody who wants to grow, and he wants to play a more self-aware, more dimensional character, and he wants to make a more complicated, more nuanced show.

I think you and Mo [Ryan, the television critic at Huffington Post] imagine that some of the same things that happened in the past will probably happen in the future, and therefore in your estimation, I’ve stepped into the role of an enabler that was exited by others like Warner Brothers and CBS. And in my estimation, we make a really good show and Charlie grows as a human being, and we don’t know.

I’d argue that the evidence is fairly clear that Charlie Sheen has a pattern of repeated violence against women who are his intimate partners, and of relapses in his program of recovery, and that perhaps my and Mo’s bet is better than Landgraf’s. But making bets about the future isn’t really the point here. It’s how Hollywood treats past behavior and sends messages about which sins matter, and how much, and which don’t.

Charlie Sheen and Chris Brown both have the right to work. But that’s not the same thing as saying that anyone, anywhere, is under obligation to hire them, or to provide them platforms—like the Grammy awards—that are particularly helpful in generating large spurts of attention and income. The Grammys’ invitation to Brown, for example, and his win there seem to have validated his perception that he is being unfairly judged for having battered a woman (in the past, he’s thrown temper tantrums when asked entirely reasonable questions by journalists about the incident, something it seems odd his management team didn’t prepare him for). “HATE ALL U WANT BECUZ I GOT A GRAMMY Now! That’s the ultimate F–K OFF!” he Tweeted after the show, as if musical prowess ought to make us forget that he beat a woman. Unfortunately, the fact that he and other performers who abuse women keep working after those incidents proves that Hollywood largely agrees with Brown.

Landgraf told me that “my point of view is I’m not Charlie’s judge, jury, and executioner. I’m not ready to declare him someone who should be banished forever from the public eye and from his work. If he’d come in and indicated no interest and ambition in progressing his work on-camera as well as no ambition to progress his life than I wouldn’t have chosen to get involved with it.” But Landgraf and FX are also not affirmatively obligated to go into business with Sheen, to spend the energy they could have devoted to promoting other shows and other artists to convincing us that Sheen is fine now and the show will be good. And it would be awfully nice for those of us on the outside who have to deal with the consequences of Hollywood’s mixed messaging if someone, somewhere, was willing to lay down some standards for what actions get a performer exiled, for what period of time, and what standard of behavior they have to meet to gain readmission to the industry’s most valuable showcases.