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Laurie Penny: Charlie Sheen's problem with women

The actor has brutalised the women in his life for years, but the global press is more scandalised by his drug habit.

Those who are experiencing acute psychological and chemical breakdown are endlessly entertaining, especially if they are so overindulged that we don't even have to pity them.

“I am on a drug. It's called Charlie Sheen," said Charlie Sheen, on an American daytime show. "It's not available because if you try it, you will die. Your face will melt off and your children will weep over your exploded body."

It's hard to tell who is more demeaned by the endless coverage of this millionaire sitcom actor's scag-pickled brain slowly dissolving into a soup of fizzing self-regard: the acting profession, TV audiences in general or the global press for being more scandalised by Sheen's drug habit than how
he has brutalised the women in his life for years.

Of course, while Hollywood loves a scandal, violence against women simply isn't scandalous. On the contrary: it is routine.

Slapping the occasional prostitute has long been part of the mythology of the Hollywood "bad boy" and Sheen has earned himself a roguish reputation for shrugging off assault allegations. On one occasion, he accidentally shot his then fiancée Kelly Preston. Never mind, though: apart from his wives, many of the women who suffered at the hands of this giggling wash-up in his sleaze lair were sex workers, so they were probably asking for it.

Before Sheen started denouncing his employers across American news networks, he drew the attention of the press for "cavorting with porn stars". What appeared to shock prim media outlets, however, was not that Sheen had threatened a string of female sex workers but that he had associated with them at all.

It's almost as if we still live in a culture that believes that women who trade on their sexuality in any way are asking to be beaten, raped and murdered. It's almost as if we live in a culture that believes that sex workers - and not the men who abuse them - should be ashamed of themselves.

Good ol' boys

When a celebrity who also happens to be a violent misogynist falls from grace, it is rarely the misogyny that draws comment. Last summer, when Mel Gibson finally tossed off one foaming racist diatribe too many, the entire press chose to ignore the context in which that rant was delivered - namely a terrifying outburst directed at his former partner, the mother of his child. Mike Tyson and other known rapists are treated as good ol' boys. They are portrayed as dangerous, exciting junkies who are not only cool enough to take drugs and smack women about but are wealthy enough to pay for it.

It is clear that, in the world of celebrity, terrorising women, especially if they are younger than you, poorer than you or sleeping with you, does not exclude you from becoming what Sheen deems "a total freakin' rock star from Mars".

When such people are already so chest-pumpingly high on the oxygen of publicity, it is hard to want to give them a single extra column inch. However hilarious their pop-eyed self-destructive benders, though, the violent misogyny of some of our smuggest folk heroes can no longer be dismissed.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 14 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Who owns the world?

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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit