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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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How to think about the EU result if you voted Remain

A belief in democracy means accepting the crowd is wiser than you are as an individual. 

I voted Remain, I feel sick about this result and its implications for what’s to come. But I’m a believer in democracy. This post is about how to reconcile those two things (it’s a bit unstructured because I’m working it out as I go, and I’m not sure I agree with all of it).

Democracy isn’t just fairer than other systems of governance, it’s smarter. It leads to better decisions and better outcomes, on average and over the long run, than countries that are run by autocrats or councils of wise men with jobs for life. It is simply the best way we have yet devised of solving complex problems involving many people. On that topic, if you’re not averse to some rather dense and technical prose, read this post or seek out this book. But the central argument is that democracy is the best way of harnessing ‘cognitive diversity’ — bringing to bear many different perspectives on a problem, each of which are very partial in themselves, but add up to something more than any one wise person.

I don’t think you can truly be a believer in democracy unless you accept that the people, collectively, are smarter than you are. That’s hard. It’s easy to say you believe in the popular will, right up until the popular will does something REALLY STUPID. The hard thing is not just to ‘accept the result’ but to accept that the majority who voted for that result know or understand something better than you. But they do. You are just one person, after all, and try as you might to expand your perspective with reading (and some try harder than others) you can’t see everything. So if a vote goes against you, you need to reflect on the possibility you got it wrong in some way. If I look at the results of past general elections and referendums, for instance, I now see they were all pretty much the right calls, including those where I voted the other way.

One way to think about the vote is that it has forced a slightly more equitable distribution of anxiety and alienation upon the country. After Thursday, I feel more insecure about my future, and that of my family. I also feel like a foreigner in my own country — that there’s this whole massive swathe of people out there who don’t think like me at all and probably don’t like me. I feel like a big decision about my life has been imposed on me by nameless people out there. But of course, this is exactly how many of those very people have been feeling for years, and at a much higher level of intensity. Democracy forces us to try on each other’s clothes. I could have carried on quite happily ignoring the unhappiness of much of the country but I can’t ignore this.

I’m seeing a lot of people on Twitter and in the press bemoaning how ill-informed people were, talking about a ‘post-factual democracy’. Well, maybe, though I think that requires further investigation - democracy has always been a dirty dishonest business. But surely the great thing about Thursday that so many people voted — including many, many people who might have felt disenfranchised from a system that hasn’t been serving them well. I’m not sure you’re truly a democrat if you don’t take at least a tiny bit of delight in seeing people so far from the centres of power tipping the polity upside down and giving it a shake. Would it have been better or worse for the country if Remain had won because only informed middle-class people voted? It might have felt better for people like me, it might actually have been better, economically, for everyone. But it would have indicated a deeper rot in our democracy than do the problems with our national information environment (which I accept are real).

I’m not quite saying ‘the people are always right’ — at least, I don’t think it was wrong to vote to stay in the EU. I still believe we should have Remained and I’m worried about what we’ve got ourselves into by getting out. But I am saying they may have been right to use this opportunity — the only one they were given — to send an unignorable signal to the powers-that-be that things aren’t working. You might say general elections are the place for that, but our particular system isn’t suited to change things on which there is a broad consensus between the two main parties.

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.