Charlie Sheen Circus Shines Spotlight on Sexist Gender Roles

by Lisa Bennett, NOW Communications Director

On March 3, The New York Times ran an excellent article by Anna Holmes about actor Charlie Sheen and the media’s longstanding indifference toward his abuse of women. Holmes blames, in part, our current reality TV culture, which normalizes the exploitation and humiliation of women often thought of as “gold diggers” or “sluts.” Jennifer Pozner has written a book about this trend, called “Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty-Pleasure TV,” wherein she identifies the stereotyping and misogyny at work in these seemingly harmless shows.

The insightful points made by Holmes and Pozner got me thinking about why certain aspects of the Sheen circus are so infuriating. The very next day, The Washington Post published a piece by Ruth Marcus, who noted that when ABC’s 20/20 asked Sheen what his daughters might think of him, he replied: “They’ll wake up one day and realize how cool dad is. And you know, he signs all the checks on the front, not the back.” Clearly, this insult is directed at the mother of his children. Sheen wants his kids to view him as the “cool” parent because he pays child support.

Now, we’re talking about the same person who claims his “tiger blood” makes him special, so we could be excused from taking him too seriously. But Sheen is not alone in his attitude toward women. Remember Mel Gibson’s outbursts of rage toward the mother of his child? Kanye West recently tweeted that “b*tches” are trying to get pregnant by wealthy men so they can soak them for thousands of dollars per abortion. These particular men might seem unhinged in general, but the hostility they express toward women is instructive because it’s shared by far too many others.

Let’s take a look at the situation: First of all, it’s safe to assume in our society that a rich and famous man will have no trouble finding a date or a mate, and chances are good she’ll look like a supermodel. Of those men who can, many take advantage of this setup — yet they call the very women they date gold diggers.

And when he settles down, a man who can afford it often wants his wife to stay at home with the kids, to not work, to be at his disposal. This arrangement may suit him, and at the same time he looks down on his wife for being financially dependent on him.

It just goes to show you — the traditional gender roles we’ve lived with for so many centuries, and which we seem unable to fully extricate ourselves from, are designed to benefit men, and they make men feel superior to women. These traditional roles were NOT conceived as a partnership, though most feminists would argue that the role of mother and homemaker should be viewed as every bit as important as the role of breadwinner.

But the attitude lingers that any relationship where the man makes significantly more money than the woman puts her below him and makes her suspect as a money-grubbing freeloader and, quite possibly, the live-in version of a prostitute. Again, men like Sheen prefer this setup because it puts them in a position of power. Men like this clearly do not seek to be equals with women. And when the woman tries to speak up for herself or demand better treatment for her or her kids, her controlling spouse turns into a big crybaby because she’s upsetting his perfect power imbalance.

Does a woman’s occupation or lack thereof, her economic disadvantage, her need, her vulnerability erase her status as a human being? Of course not. We owe it to the mothers, the exes, the sex workers, the “goddesses” to stand up for them for a change. At least until we can unravel these outdated gender narratives that hold us all captive.

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