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In Defense of Charlie

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SHEEN
AP

A few days ago, Alec Baldwin offered some advice to Charlie Sheen (perhaps you've heard of him?). "Take a nap. Get a shower. Call Chuck. Go on Letterman and make an apology. Write a huge check to the B'Nai Brith. And then beg for your job back." Non-celebrity to non-celebrity, I'd like to provide some equally unsolicited suggestions for the rest of America. Take a deep breath. Take a cold shower. Take a gigantic step back. It's time to chill your collective shit.

When Charlie Sheen went on his first bizarre and public rant two-and-a-half weeks ago, reactions ranged from shock to admonishment. Four days later, Sheen appeared on the Today Show to do the complete opposite of damage control in an equally bizarre interview. But there was a glimmer of clarity in those beady little crazy eyes. When asked whether Warner Brothers had any choice but to fire him after his inflammatory remarks, Sheen declared his behavior off the set irrelevant, referring to himself as "a guy hitting every mark, nailing every line, every joke, with a full house screaming." Guy's got a point.

First of all, I'm shocked that anyone is still shocked when the Charlie Sheens of America go off the deep end. People like Sheen get screaming fans and special treatment. And the market places an average amount of talent paired with an above-average appearance at an obscenely high value. Being a celebrity in the United States is nothing short of a total mind-fuck. So yes, this system is going to churn out the occasional nut who thinks it's acceptable to go on drunken rampages and publicly insult his boss. We tell some members of society that normal standards of behavior and morality aren't applicable to them, and then proceed to hurl a great deal of wealth their way. It doesn't require much foresight to picture the outcome of this set up.

I don't mean to imply that there is only one response to fame. Of course there are many. A well-known actor or actress might enroll in an Ivy League institution. Celebrities often champion causes they believe in and make large charitable donations. Stars who are feared to have peaked at a young age sometimes develop as artists and create increasingly inspired works over careers that span decades. The famous can be, and I'm sure often are, perfectly lovely people. But here's what else you can do if you're a celebrity. You can treat people like crap and coast on your looks, money, and fame. You can make melodramatic statements about the cost of your success to sympathetic audiences. You can endorse products for a handsome check, and you can endorse politicians as though you have the slightest clue what you're talking about. You can stay in your comfort zone playing a character who's precisely who you are in real life minus the dark and depressing stuff, make exorbitant amounts of money, and sleep with lots of beautiful women. And people will still listen.

So I'm not trying to make excuses for celebrities or bemoan their daily trials and tribulations. I'm the first one to roll her eyes when a young, beautiful, rich movie star cries about how hard it is to be young, beautiful, and rich. These complaints are often made to a reporter for a magazine that just paid that star a great deal of money to prance around in outfits that cost more than most people make in a year. It's an insanely exhibitionist venue in which to declare your frustration with the public's deep-seated fascination with you.

If anything, that's why I find Charlie Sheen's latest ramblings pretty unannoying. He's not whining about how much his life sucks. He's talking about how awesome it is. And it is objectively awesome, if only for its possibility. Tomorrow I could take a nap. I could hop in the shower. I could apologize to everyone I've ever insulted, and I could swear off alcohol and drugs forever. I still couldn't get 10 minutes on Letterman, much less a role on a hit television show. And I certainly wouldn't have a net worth of $35 million.

Why would we expect a human being to respond to the insane idolatry we hurl at celebrities in a sane way? Someone who would behave in such a vitriolic and arrogant manner isn't someone I'd want to engage with personally. He isn't someone who's worthy of my admiration or respect. He isn't someone whose endorsement would make me want to buy a product or vote for a politician. But I personally couldn't care less if he's the same person who delivers the funny lines on a sitcom I happen to enjoy.

So when Charlie Sheen declares that Warner Brothers has no right to fire him because he shows up on time and delivers his lines like a pro, I've got to give him a resounding, "Guy's got a point." The only thing that is relevant to me is the product. And that is the only thing that should be relevant to me. That I get some kind of sick satisfaction from finding out some mundane fact about some actor, that it matters to me that he votes this way, that James Franco studies in this New Haven café or that Natalie Portman was influenced by this collection of poetry, that such tidbits are written by serious people in serious publications purporting to say serious things, all suggest that the culture of celebrity is slightly out of hand. This kind of behavior is decidedly unhealthy and, in a world that has its share of concerns actually worthy of our attention, it is horribly, horribly embarrassing.

Warner Brothers giving Sheen the boot fuels this culture. It says that what matters about our celebrities isn't their acting ability, but their personal lives. It tells me it makes sense to be surprised when Mel Gibson goes on another violent tirade. Or when Lindsay Lohan steals another necklace. Or when any celebrity isn't enough like the person they pretend to be on screen or stage. Or, in Sheen's case, is too much like that person. This episode should be a wake up call not only for Sheen, but for us. We need to unfollow the figurative Twitter of our nation's rich and famous. We need to start expecting less from our celebrities, and more from ourselves.