Michael B. Duff

Lubbock's answer to a question no one asked

Charlie Sheen takes his act to Twitter, but is it wrong to watch?

Subtitle for this one should be, “How to get one million Twitter followers in 25 hours.”

What’s the secret? Be Charlie Sheen.

Not content to be in the punch line of every joke on the Internet this week, Charlie Sheen took “winning” to the next level by starting a new account on Twitter. As I write this he has 1.2 million followers — including, regretfully, myself.

I felt a twinge of guilt as I clicked the Follow button yesterday because the act felt strangely personal, as if by giving Sheen this sliver of attention, I was actually contributing to the man’s downfall.

As I said on Facebook yesterday, “We’ve just given a suicidal narcissist a direct line into the lives of one million people.”

I think there are two distinct groups of people following Charlie Sheen today. Half the people wanted to be there for his first day on Twitter and the other half want to be there for his last.

Half of America wants to see him get better and the other half wants to watch him flame out.

Following a celebrity on Twitter is fundamentally different from reading interviews or watching them on television. Most media appearances are supervised by publicists who keep their celebrities on message and make sure they don’t drift too far from social norms.

Even most Twitter accounts are like that — sanitized, ghost-written lists of fluff churned out by assistants or carefully crafted by celebrities who know how to control their image.

But Sheen is playing without a net, so when the inevitable public meltdown comes, we’ll all have a front row seat. I’m afraid these million followers are going to be like another drug for Sheen, another source of manic energy, randomly prompting mood swings with every snarky comment.

Mark Cina at The Hollywood Reporter says Sheen’s Twitter account is a kind of publicity stunt, organized by a celebrity endorsement firm called Ad.ly. Comedian Patton Oswalt is saying the account is a fake, ghost-written by a service.

Perversely, these accusations are making me feel better. That implies there will be a level of editing here, a layer of cynical insulation between the audience and the star. Does using this spectacle for commercial gain make the situation more depressing, or less?

At first glance this is just another celebrity train wreck, but Spiked Online editor Brendan O’Neill has a different take. In his Wednesday Telegraph column he characterized Sheen’s outburst as a heroic stand against “the therapy police.”

O’Neill’s column was a real eye-opener for me because the average observer looking at our society would say we have no guiding principles at all. We pay lip service to the moral standards of our fathers and grandfathers but we treat most infractions with a wink and a nod.

The media brings us tales of promiscuity, drug use, binge drinking and destructive behavior as if it was all a kind of circus staged for our amusement. Sheen’s high-octane partying has inspired a kind of shameful awe, with the subtext that “all men would do this if they could.”

Our society is willing to tolerate any kind of self-destructive behavior from celebrities, as long as they’re willing to go on Oprah and apologize for it later.

O’Neill says by refusing to accept the diagnosis of mental illness, Sheen is committing the only unforgiveable sin.

“In his refusal to speak their lingo,” O’Neill says,” to play their game, to do what all celebs in his situation must do these days – arrange to be interviewed by Hello! so that they can be photographed weeping while confessing to having suffered a mental breakdown – Sheen is rebelling against the super-conformist modern narrative of weak individuals who need to be saved by psycho-priests. They won’t forgive him for this.”

I would take this one step further and note that the language of moral judgment has been replaced by the language of psychological diagnosis.

Charlie Sheen may be taking drugs, cavorting with prostitutes, risking his life and putting his kids in danger, but we’re not allowed to judge him. We can’t hold him up as a cautionary tale and condemn him as a moral failure. We have to understand him and encourage him to “get help.”

I worry that of these new million Twitter followers, half of them are celebrating Sheen’s lifestyle and the other half have tuned in to watch him die. I worry that Sheen is on his way to becoming a kind of stoner folk hero, and I worry that by subscribing to his Twitter feed, I’m deriving entertainment from the destruction of a human life.

Do these thoughts make me a hopeless prude? Probably. But there’s something very “Roman empire” about the way the mob is embracing Sheen’s lifestyle — celebrating his antics in the arena while they wait for the axe to fall.

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Written by Michael B. Duff

March 4, 2011 at 12:19

Posted in Columns, Culture, Twitter

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