When Jesus announced his ministry to a synagogue of marginalized Jews in Nazareth during the upheaval of the first-century Roman diaspora, he read from Isaiah 61 to summarize his mission: "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because The Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. [The Lord] has sent me to proclaim freedom of the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."
Jesus was telling his audience that God had heard their cries and recognized their oppression. Jesus was telling them he had come to elevate truth by exposing systemic injustices, to speak out on their behalf, and to offer healing and hope both physically and spiritually for those who were afflicted by the world's ways. He had come to set a new reality in motion ... a reality that would engage humanity in a trajectory that departs from disgrace and grows toward benevolence and esteem. In the modern world, what still separates us from this promise? Can we still believe it?
It pains me to invoke the subject of the Charlie Sheen drama, especially now that its initial allure has mercifully waned in (some parts of) the news cycle. And even more so because there are so many other devastatingly important things happening in the world -- Japan, Libya, Egypt -- right now. But in the slightly more composed wake of the Sheen publicity frenzy, its reverberations deserve deeper reflection. Actually, we should consider the spectacle especially in the context of our global interconnectedness. More to the point, half or a bit more of the world's population -- girls and women -- stand to benefit from our collective contemplation on the Sheen machine, the media who propel him, and the info-tainment-cloaked misogynist American ethos that is exported around the planet.
In America, we possess a menacing 'luxury' simply by way of our logistical positioning in the world. Our socio-economic and individualized-expression-driven privilege affords us the freedom to make light of the socially destructive behavior of people of power and notoriety, to laugh it off as mindless scandal. Distracted by our own desires and preferences for entertainment consumption, we are conditioned to overlook the diminishment of the powerless and voiceless each time havoc is wreaked and reported among the super-rich and famous. Yet it is this echelon who ultimately drive the behavior of our business sectors and invent the intent of our industries. From celebrities to CEOs, they canonize our consumer content and shape our social norms via the unfettered access and influence we allow them in our culture at large.
Many in our first-world, American-Dream cocoon enjoy the convenience and leisure of consuming large quantities of entertainment, social media and news media. Some (over 2.8 million, actually) might say it's innocent fun to follow Sheen's delusional rants on Twitter, and on some level it might be, especially if we put aside general human decency, which suggests his illness and addiction should be addressed seriously and not pandered. Many would say it's also business as usual to accept unquestioned the widespread media minimizations (if not glamorizations) of Sheen's mental condition and related antics. This attitude even applies to his long, well-documented history of publicly demeaning and violently attacking women. In case you haven't heard, this includes shooting a former fiance, physically assaulting girlfriends and wives with weapons and threatening to kill them, and in more generous times, merely intimidating a sex worker to the point of locking herself in a pricey hotel bathroom while he trashed the place.
There are too many examples of this pandering to name, but possibly one of the most egregious -- which set the tone for the ensuing media onslaught -- was CNN's Piers Morgan, who got his best ratings yet in the first prime-time interview with Sheen on February 28. After thanking Sheen for giving him a big career break with an interview in the early 90s in Aspen, Morgan said earnestly: "My view is I think you're entitled to behave how the hell you like. As long as you don't -- in the old-fashioned sense -- scare the horses and the children and you turn up to work on time, and you do your job." He alluded to the ratings for 'Two and a Half Men' and concluded, "I don't really get what the problem has been here." Apparently women rank below the animals, and we are meant to assume along with Morgan that ratings and revenues trump all human dignity.
Late in the interview, Morgan barely brushed the topic of Sheen's violence against women, mentioning only that there had been "hints" (hints?!) of such stories in the media, dancing around a couple of let-him-off-the-hook questions, and then trailing away into a conversation about the departure of Sheen's publicist. Sheen's primary statement on the issue -- a punctuation mark applied to a string of disjointed, nonsensical denial narratives -- was that the purpose of women is "not to be hit" but "to be hugged and caressed." Read: if you can't beat them, sexualize them.
When a personality on a major American (internationally broadcast) cable network dismisses such violence, girls and women across the world are affected physically, economically, socially and spiritually. How, you ask? And what has this to do with God? Remember that popular pastime "Six degrees of Kevin Bacon" that made the world shrink in hilarious, often shocking ways? The game is played by connecting the famous actor to just about anyone, anywhere on the globe by linking the overlapping destinies of a mere six people's paths. This is that, without the star names, the 'Footloose' quotes, or the hilarity:
1. Sheen's character on 'Two and a Half Men' is a drunken womanizer who tears through one-night stands and prostitutes; thinks his father committed suicide because he couldn't live with his purportedly evil mother; feigns humor by manipulating people and situations to trick, trap and subdue women; and popularizes lines like: "If I can't eat it, bang it, or bet on it, it's not [listed] in my phone." The majority of women on the show are overtly sexualized, infantilized and downsized in ultimate consequence. The three primary female characters referenced regularly on the show (his mother, his brother's ex-wife and their housekeeper) are described on the CBS website as "emotionally toxic", "deeply neurotic", and "domineering and unapologetically blue collar", respectively.
In the general arc of the show, the act of conquering women or getting out of a questionable situation "unscathed" often somehow twists Charlie into a lovable hero to root for. The show's network positioning as a family-oriented situation comedy (the "half"-man is a young boy) render such behavior an "American value" that becomes if not aspirational for some, at least normalized for many. Broadcast to at least 50 other countries, and areas of the world where American culture is idealized, this skewed picture of the assumed "liberated American woman", how her character is portrayed, and what she is forced to accept from men is translated into dangerous terms.
2. Sheen's personal behavior amplifies and realizes the performance of a supposedly endearing and humorous leading man (otherwise why the high ratings?), blurring the lines between sympathetic character and real-life perpetrator. The character 'Charlie Harper' is widely known to be modeled after Sheen's real life. His media-covered interactions with real women in the real world capitalize upon the notion of females as disposable commodities for consumption. Sheen's constant, proud references to the services of "the goddesses" illustrate how females are de-person-alized and become easily interchangeable products for economic transactions. These transactions mark status for wealthy, powerful men who collect women for diversionary entertainment, social presentation, and personal comfort. In the aforementioned interview, Morgan had the revealing audacity to ask Sheen: "And what function do these goddesses perform?" Sheen's answer: "I mean, name it. Name it." He then went on to specifically describe their sexual role in football terms. And sadly, it is always the women who are villanized and scandalized for participating -- the men are idolized and immortalized for it.
3. Such flippant yet corporately-hyped dialogue creates a media-perpetuated, popular-culture ethos in which women (especially certain "types" of women) are seen, treated, and spoken of as sub-human -- or at best, are portrayed as inconsequential in comparison with male satisfaction and male-preferred outcome (does "winning" ring a bell?). Once media "scoop" is touted, high ratings are established, social media sharing kicks in, and international viewership spikes, other mainstream and social media outlets feel pressure to not only follow suit, but to heighten the stakes of sensationalism by reinforcing the message in increasingly provocative ways.
Hence, Sheen's message spans the globe, and Sheen can easily be seen as having a quite loud and accommodated -- if not "important" -- voice, and many legitimate platforms. The media not only fails to balance the commentary on the message, but typically hawks it with a smile, a wink, and a nod. For example, now Sheen is embarking on a tour called "Charlie Sheen Live: My Violent Torpedo of Truth". I cannot begin to imagine what a live show like this will entail, but it will be happening in April in cities across the country, from Radio City Music Hall in New York City, to the historic Fox Theater in Atlanta, to Nob Hill in San Francisco, CA.
4. One of the most powerful, influential nations in the world, where women supposedly have an enviable quality of life and some of the best opportunities for equality, growth, education and economic independence, America hence sends the signal to the rest of the world that women actually are inherently inferior and subservient, despite the carefully-constructed trappings to the contrary. We legitimize a false liberation dripping in exploitation, and so implicitly endorse conditions in less economically stable, less industrialized, and less "progressive" areas that continue to restrict women's political participation and socio-economic rights, neglect protection from sexual violence, and sustain educational and vocational discrimination.
5. This exploitation and demonizing of women perpetrated by privileged Americans makes a mockery of the brutal daily conditions of women in other parts of the world, especially where it is nearly impossible for women to support themselves, and therefore they have no choice but to be dependent on those who may exploit them. The UN Commission on the Status of Women can attest that subsistence, violence and war, lack of educational opportunities and decent employment prospects, poverty, rape, sexual abuse and mutilation, lack of health care, harsh labor conditions, and political and social intimidation are the reality of the majority of women on our planet. The CIA can report that 80 percent of the millions of international human trafficking victims in the world are women, and 50 percent of them female minors. Obviously the U.S. is not exempt from these phenomena, but there is no shortage of irony in the fact that one of the most privileged societies has "evolved" to employ more "sophisticated" and "socially acceptable" methods by which to commoditize, sexualize, scandalize and oppress its women. The message is that there is not yet true respect, consideration or equality of women even under the best circumstances, and furthermore, based on what "sells" in our American culture, that there is not much hope.
6. As Hillary Clinton exhorted at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995: "As long as discrimination and inequities remain so commonplace everywhere in the world, as long as girls and women are valued less, fed less, fed last, overworked, underpaid, not schooled, subjected to violence in and outside their homes -- the potential of the human family to create a peaceful, prosperous world will not be realized."
In other words -- in the language of faith -- God's will cannot be done, the imprisoned cannot be released, the oppressed cannot be liberated, the voiceless cannot be heard and the diminished cannot be redeemed. The impending reality of the Lord's favor cannot be expressed or experienced.
Jesus modeled an imperative to call the powerful, the elite, and those with great influence to reconsider and reify their responsibilities for improving reality for all people. In the gospels, he called tax collectors who benefited from loyalty to powerful Roman forces to recognize and renounce the life-stealing burden that unfair taxation put on the poor for the sake of the rich rulers. He stopped a self-righteous mob from stoning a woman accused of some form of adultery, reminding the crowd of their own complicity in her oppression, and beseeching the woman to walk away with a vision of a new reality for herself in relation to society and to God.
Today we must emulate this imperative to create equality and justice in the world -- we each have our own unique sphere of influence and the personal responsibility to make it happen. Couching the issue in a dead-end debate (like that modeled by Morgan) about the professional success vs. personal behavior of a small percentage of wealthy, notorious people who create a large percentage of the American cultural ethos makes no logical sense, and furthermore, does no one any good. The dualism created when we excuse the misogynistic personal behavior of powerful figures in the public realm implicitly excuses and exacerbates the oppression of the vulnerable in our country and other parts of the world.
Of course, it can logically be argued that the patriarchal language and stories of the Bible generally offer no better protocol for societies or hope for women than the language and stories perpetuated in our entertainment and news media today (which probably says more about the backward state of modernity than the troubles of ancient mores -- we've had a couple of millennia to change, after all). Quite possibly, given the Bible's formidable religious authority, its results have been and continue to be much more damaging than the Sheen effect. This is why Jesus' choice of invoking Isaiah 61 to announce his ministry's purpose is so crucial: "[The Lord] has sent me to proclaim freedom of the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." It invokes a living, organically growing promise that transcends time, texts, cultures, demoralizing social milieus, and human shortcomings.
We can still believe this promise when we focus on the actionable ethos of Jesus, unbinding him from the old dualism created by the ancient language and customs of the biblical literary contexts that surrounded him. Ancient hope is found in modern life when we allow Jesus to be the embodied expression of God's ultimate will for humanity: that societies put the well-being and the realization of the full potential of others -- especially the most vulnerable -- ahead of our own indulgences and luxuries. We can -- and must -- hold every false motivation and demeaning narrative in our modern environment up to the revealing light of Christ, which helps us recover our vision; only then can we help free the prisoners and liberate the oppressed. By refusing to consume or perpetuate Sheen's message, we can live that promise even today.