“I’m not Thomas Jefferson. He was a pussy.” Ah, the wise words of Charlie Sheen. Remember him? Just recently, the domestic violence offender (since 1994…) started his own television show, Anger Management. Sheen plays an ex-baseball player with problems controlling his rage. The infamous actor reached record-breaking viewership levels for FX in its first weeks. Viewers from around the world tuned in to watch what seems to be a semi-autobiographical story of Sheen’s violent nature.
Just last week, Daniel Tosh, a comedian and hugely popular host of Comedy Central, truly outdid himself. After being reprimanded by a female audience member for making a rape joke, Tosh responded “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl [referring to the audience member] got raped by, like, five guys right now? Like right now?” So funny, Dan, so funny.
Now let’s backtrack to 2006. At the 78th Academy Awards, the band Three 6 Mafia became the first hip hop group to win an Academy Award for Best Original Song for “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp.” If you’re a little shaky on the lyrics, allow me to remind you: “You know it’s hard out here for a pimp…Gotta couple girls workin’ on the changes for me…Like takin’ from a girl don’t know no better.” Catchy, eh?
This June, I began my internship at Sanctuary For Families, a non-profit that serves women from domestic violence households and women who have been sex-trafficked. I learned of power systems, types of abuse, barriers to leaving a partner, and many, many other pieces of valuable knowledge. As a communications intern, I followed the news daily through newspapers, websites, Facebook, and Twitter. I kept our followers up to date on news in the realm of violence against women, domestic violence, and sex-trafficking.
As I perused the news each day, I found striking themes that I discussed with my coworkers. The media was popularizing these various forms of violence through different mediums. Our jaws dropped as we watched the Daniel Tosh performance and we rolled our eyes listening to the Three 6 Mafia lyrics. I was stunned at the public’s seeming apathy towards such offensive content.
The problem here is twofold. The first involves the media and its acceptance (and promotion) of content that involves a certain kind of violence. I’m not saying that all guns should be banned from television tomorrow (although some may argue otherwise), but I am saying that producers and networks need to be more discerning with their choices. By casting a previous domestic violence offender in a show about anger management, the media acknowledges the issue and chooses to popularize it on national TV. By keeping Daniel Tosh on the air, the media accepts rape as both humorous and negligible.
Small decisions send big messages to viewers across the country and across the world. As violence against women is accepted into popular culture, it becomes normalized into everyday life. We become immune to the deeper societal problems as we laugh watching Tosh.0 and sing along to Three 6 Mafia’s tunes. This numbing becomes problematic when the violence we see on TV becomes our own, or that of a friend. We accept it more readily, failing to challenge it as a troublesome, deep-rooted crisis.
But the media tells only half the story. Naturally, television networks respond to viewership, radio shows to ratings, Facebook profiles to “likes,” and Twitter accounts to retweets. We, the population of viewers, listeners, likers, and tweeters dictate what the media feeds us.
If we all chose not to watch “Anger Management,” FX would drop the show after a season. If no one laughed at Tosh’s jokes, he would not be standing on the stage telling them. But something about us responds, encouraging the violence against women that is so engrained in our culture.
And, thus, a vicious cycle emerges, one that takes more than collective action to break. If we, as a society, recognized the systems of power and violence that we, ourselves, perpetuate, we might begin to see change. But until that recognition becomes true activism and protest, the high-powered producers, directors, talk show hosts, and musicians will continue to value this violence in programming and in popular culture.
We need more than diffuse, circulating anger in the air. We need regulations that prevent acts of violence against women from being aired, and, thus, becoming “cool.” Networks need criteria for selecting actors and actresses that excludes past offenders. Until we reshape the way the media presents violence against women, it will be difficult to reshape ourselves and the society around us.