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Anna Brennan (Thunderpants): Race in the Media: Contradictions in the Cases of Charlie Sheen & Chris Brown

April 10, 2012

By Anna Brennan

Team Thunderpants

Race in the Media: Contradictions in the cases of Charlie Sheen and Chris Brown           

            In our society, public fascination with the daily lives of celebrities seems never-ending.  From their romantic endeavors to their dietary choices, we just can’t seem to get enough of the soap opera – and thanks to a constant stream of media dedicated to this very thing we don’t have to.  Unfortunately celebrity gossip does not always limit itself to short-lived marriages and tales of personal trainers; sometimes allegations of abuse and mistreatment attract the public eye to the more violent side of human relationships.  When these reports surface, reactions of the popular media both influence and reflect biases of the population at large.  Differing responses to celebrities of color such as Chris Brown, and white celebrities such as Charlie Sheen, raise questions around the influence of racialized understandings of masculinity in our society.

Let’s recap.

Following a pre Grammy Awards party in 2009, allegations surfaced that prominent singer Chris Brown had assault fellow performer and romantic partner Rihanna prior to their scheduled performance at the award show.  Brown was arrested for charges stemming from the incident, engaged in some angry tweets that seemed to boil down to “get over it,” and a temper tantrum on the set of Good Morning America.

On the other side, the laundry list of charges against Charlie Sheen includes shooting his then-fiancée Kelly Preston in the arm “accidently” in 1990, battery against girlfriend Brittany Ashland in 1996, accusations of threatening behavior by ex wife Denise Richards in 2005, and felony menacing and assault against wife Brooke Mueller after threatening her with a knife in 2011.  Following the most recent incident Sheen had a very public meltdown, including trashing hotel rooms, becoming romantically involved with two women he called his “goddesses,” declaring that he is composed of “tiger blood” and thus impervious to addiction, and coining the term “winning,” not to mention losing custody of his children and being fired from his role on “Two and a Half Men.” 


Despite both being implicated in instances of domestic violence, media reactions to these two men have differed significantly.  Although coverage has varied on Chris Brown, he still continues to face scrutiny for his violence against Rihanna as well as his subsequent outbursts.  Charlie Sheen, however, has been practically celebrated, with #winning becoming a new trend on Twitter, and landing both a comedy tour and the lead role in an upcoming series “Anger Management.”  There has been virtually no mention of his assault against Mueller, let alone his history of domestic violence against the women in his life. 

The question remains: where is the disconnect?  Why are both the media and the public more willing to forget Charlie Sheen’s transgressions than Chris Brown’s?  It is hard not to think that race might have something to do with it, especially when considering the list of other white actors who have been implicated in incidents of domestic violence – such as David Hasselhoff, Nicolas Cage, Mel Gibson, Christian Slater, Bill Murray, and Eminem – and the relatively little impact it has had on their careers.  As Dennis Rome asserts in “African Americans: Murderers, Rapists, and Drug Addicts,” ” The criminal image of the black male is continuously evoked today to perpetuate the dominant society’s continued fear and subjugation of African Americans” (1998: 71). 

Now this is not to take away from the horrific reality of the violences allegedly committed by both Brown and Sheen, or to attempt to oversimplify the complexities of racial relations and privilege as they play out within popular media sources.  However, based on a brief analysis of the portrayals of these two men, it seems we could definitely stand to take a more critical perspective on the acceptability of violence against women among celebrities, especially surrounding racialized privilege and stereotyping.

For more information check it out:


“Evil Slutopia: Celebrity Domestic Violence.” Evil Slutopia. 24 Apr. 2011.             <;.

Holmes, Anna. “The Disposable Woman.” New York Times: The Opinion Pages. New York             Times, 3 Mar. 2011. <;.

Nittle, Nadra Kareem. “Race Card: Chris Brown, Charlie Sheen, Race and Domestic             Violence.” Bitch Media. Bitch Magazine, 24 Jan. 2010.             <            violence>.

Rome, Dennis M. “African Americans: Murderers, Rapists, and Drug Addicts.” Images of Color,             Images of Crime: Readings. Ed. Coramae Richey Mann and Marjorie Sue Zatz. Los             Angeles, CA: Roxbury Pub., 1998. 71-79.






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  1. Audrey Manning permalink

    Racism is definitely a concern when it comes to how domestic violence is portrayed in the media. But this blog also reminded me of a more general issue. I think that our culture struggles with publicly addressing domestic violence as a national problem. Charlie Sheen and Chris Brown are examples of one way the media fails to address the seriousness of abuse. Instead of confronting the problem head on, the media uses humor to deal with our country’s serious issues. The “Winning” trend, entire comedy skits devoted to the Rihanna-Chris Brown incident and various jokes were all methods to “beat around the bush.” Sadly, by doing this, the victims are being disrespected. I believe that Sheen and Brown demonstrate that violence is an issue that needs to be taken more seriously, not used for publicity or laughs.

  2. Gabby Masters permalink

    Regarding the Chris Brown-Rihanna situation what I think is also problematic is how the media has criticized Rihanna for recently making a new song with Chris. One of the things about domestic violence is that it is a vicious and violent cycle. Although there was much support for Rihanna after the innocent, the media and public have lost some sympathy for her because of the fact that she is still connected to Chris whether musically, via twitter, or whatever. In domestic violence cases, it is often very hard for the victim to get away and separate themselves from the perpetrator. The media needs to realize this instead of blaming Rihanna and shaking their head at her maintained relationship with Chris.

    Also, in one of my classes we talked about the language used in articles about rapes and how much they differ if the perpetrator is black or white. We read about the Glen Ridge rape in which a group of athletes raped a female classmate. The gang rape was absolutely horrific, however the news articles language didn’t concentrate on these aspects, instead highlighting the boys athletic accomplishment, ultimately minimizing how awful what they did was. If the Glen Ridge boys had been black, there athletic accomplishments wouldn’t have mattered. The media would’ve played upon any “bad” thing they could hold against them, and would’ve painted the picture of them being violent and vicious, not in some weird way still heroic like the action boys in the glen ridge case.

  3. Emily Pizzale permalink

    You can see a clear difference in the public and media treatment of Brown versus Sheen. Whereas Brown faced a lot of backlash at the time of the initial abuse of Rihanna, Sheen’s transgressions were made into a joke, he’s crazy we thought, versus he’s a bad person who continually beats on women. This was Brown’s first offense and though it was highly visible (Rihanna’s destroyed face) Sheen’s HISTORY of violence gets little to no air time whereas, Brown a black man, is immediately criminalized at his first transgression (and rightly so) but still much more harshly than Sheen, a man who shows clear patterns of violence against women. White men are held to a different standard in our society, a lower one. White men can treat women however they want with little consequence. White men’s violence against women is tolerated, even laughed at and applauded, due to the privilege and power they hold in our society. Another example of race and violence becoming intertwined would be the different ways in which black women and white women are treated when violence is perpetrated against them. When white women are raped it always makes headlines, particularly if the attacker is black but when black women, asian women or latina women are raped their stories rarely make the news or even the papers. All violence against women should be condemned and we need to make sure we are not letting white men get off for free by making a joke of violence or ignoring the violence perpetrated against women of color.

  4. Lindsay Laszlo permalink

    I think this is a very interesting and important analysis of racialized privileges and stereotypes in the media. It’s extremely problematic to respond to domestic violence differently depending on race. The stereotype of the violent black male is constantly regurgitated to the public, which has structural implications on how black males are viewed in society. I think another reason Charlie Sheen received less backlash is because he had done it before, and it wasn’t as shocking as Chris Brown’s first case of abuse. That is not to say that it isn’t just as horrible, but the media and it’s consumers crave juicy gossip that they’ve never heard before. Charlie Sheen has been around longer than Chris Brown and had committed such horrific acts before and so it came as no surprise when he did it the fourth, fifth time, and so on. Chris Brown on the other hand was emerging as a really popular and young new artist with an equally as famous girlfriend. Another reason I think Chris Brown received more backlash is because photos of a beaten Rihanna surfaced on the web and outraged people. Seeing is believing and so for many people, seeing the image of their favorite female pop singer bruised up generated more fury around the incident. I think race in combination with these other two factors contributed to the differences in the public’s response.

  5. Cecily permalink

    I remember discussing this particular subject in class about celebrities and domestic violence in the media. I have to agree with Anna regarding her concerns on the different types of media coverage Chris Brown and Charlie Sheen received regarding their abusive behaviors. Chris Brown is a young artist (not to make age an excuse), who allegedly experienced abuse within his household by watching his father abuse his mother. Unfortunately, it is very likely that a child can grow up to be abusive if they grew up with abuse in their household. So, while I am definitely not condoning the actions of Chris Brown, if his family background is accurate, between his family history, young age, and high stress life, with therapy and time, Brown can learn from his mistakes and learn right and from wrong. In fact, Chris Brown has been in a healthy relationship with his girlfriend for a year two and there have been no signs of abuse.
    On the other hand, Charlie Sheen has allegedly had an abuse past with the majority of his romantic partners, and is further involved with drugs and wreckless behavior. Despite his outrageous actions, it is almost as though we praise Charlie Sheen and would be disappointed if he were to change his life around. We even went as far as to having a “Roast of Charlie Sheen,” to further publicize and make light of his behaviors.
    While I do not condone or make excuses for anyone who decides to lay their hand on another person, I have to agree with Anna in being concerned with the ways in which we handle each situation. We cannot ridicule one, while praising another, it is simply not right.

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