Show Hide image

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?

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
Show Hide image

Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories