The first quarter of 2011 has ushered in the year of the “mad man.” From Charlie Sheen to Chris Brown to George Lopez to Jared Loughner and David Prosser we’ve seen it all: everything from attempted murder to assault and battery, to polygamy, to verbal and emotional abuse against women. Sadly, this idea of mad masculinity is being turned into a commodity that can be consumed repeatedly across a range of media outlets.
What’s sadder is that these examples could be multiplied many times over and aren’t limited to stories on TMZ or headlines of mainstream newspapers. As Phil Molé details in a thorough and important post, “the worst cases of misogyny in the world today are rarely even deemed newsworthy.”
But whether we’re talking about India or Indiana, what remains striking is how little we seem to know or care about the frequency of discrimination against women, physical or otherwise. What’s more is that in the US we seem to be entertained by an increasingly blatant contempt for women. Why is Chris Brown invited to return to “Good Morning America” after his morning-show meltdown regarding questions about his assault on Rihanna? Why is Charlie Sheen slated to make $7 million from his upcoming national tour, aka "My Violent Torpedo of Truth/Defeat is Not an Option Show"? Why does George Lopez feel it’s all right to call Kirstie Alley a pig on his talk show? Why don’t we talk about the hateful sexist slurs Loughner wrote on letters from Gabrielle Giffords before he shot her in January? Why is Prosser allowed to use slurs as truth against Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson?
When mad men rear their heads in mainstream media—as in the cases of Sheen, Brown, Lopez, Loughner and Prosser—they are largely dismissed. Or, worse, they are turned into a joke. And when mad men like Loughner or Prosser attack women in politics, it rarely commands serious scrutiny or analysis. Mad men are treated as individual bad men and not as part of a society that devalues women. The recent focus on mad misogynist men as entertainment also appeals to an escapist impulse on the part of audiences. More important, it suggests that we’ve become desensitized and are either unable or unwilling to address discrimination against women in a serious and political manner.
In the cases of Brown and Sheen, misogyny disappeared in favor of a focus on differential treatment among mad men who assault women. In the cases of Lopez and Prosser, misogyny disappeared in favor of a focus on how the men’s careers will be affected. And in Loughner’s case, misogyny disappeared from the conversation in favor of a focus on his own history of mental illness.
These images of mad men work hand in hand with reality shows like TLC’s “Sister Wives,” E! Investigates’ “Husbands Who Kill,” and MTV’s “Jersey Shore” and mask the ugly truth that misogyny isn’t entertaining. They also mask the fact that misogyny--whether it comes in the form of violent outbursts, assaults or sexual domination--isn’t new. What’s new is that contemporary popular culture turns misogyny into marriage proposals, modeling contracts, and millions of dollars. And, as Anna Holmes puts it in the New York Times, today’s pop culture makes “assault and abasement seem commonplace, acceptable behavior, tolerated by women and encouraged in men.” Apologies aren’t deemed necessary.
Instead of acknowledging what’s making men mad and why women appear to be tolerating discrimination we have allowed misogyny to come out of the contained spaces of homes and workplaces and invade mainstream media without any substantial critique. Men who won’t “man up” are called “pussies.” Women who won’t submit are called “total bitches.” And so-called ugly women are referred to as “grenades” and “pigs.”
Framing this kind of woman-talk as scandalous gossip and entertainment allows audiences to feel better because we would never dream of using those terms. And even if we secretly would use that kind of language, we are still better than those crazy men with their crude manners who use that kind of language in public. We fail to realize our power to turn these images off and demand that different and more humane images of men and women be the norm. Even more tragically, we fail to acknowledge that consuming these images implicates us in the rise of mad masculinity and misogyny, regardless of how genuinely we wish they did not.