To those of you too busy reading about the historic uprisings in the Middle East, let me catch you up really quickly on the ongoing turmoil in the faraway country of Charlie Sheen. The millionaire sitcom star has been publicly self-destructing. Years of alleged substance abuse, marital problems and bizarre behaviors have, apparently, climaxed. Over the past week or so, he has seemingly divided like a cell into multiple versions of himself and simultaneously appeared on every live television talk show currently being produced. But like most modern celebrity scandals, the personal immolation we’re witnessing isn’t really about the vaguely human celebrity whose antics and flaws and outrageous moral lapses are beamed from dozens of differently shaped boxes directly to our brains.
No. As befitting our narcissistic culture, Charlie Sheen’s meltdown is about us. You and me. Our society. Our self-interested collective of hairless apes. We are Borg. See, celebrity is a mirror. Once upon a time, that mirror reflected our hopes and dreams. We elevated emotionally volatile individuals like Marilyn Monroe and forced them to wear the glittering chains of our wildest aspirations. Frank Sinatra would never have had a meltdown. Sinatra didn’t melt. But who knows the rot under the gilding.
But today, for whatever reason, celebrity has become a funhouse mirror that reflects our fears back to us. Charlie Sheen’s flaming nosedive is a spectacle that transfixes our millions of eyes and we stare slackjawed. We wag our fingers. We cluck. But we stare.
What are we staring at exactly? We are raptly watching the death of a dream. Charlie Sheen is just a casualty. A sacrifice, maybe, but definitely not the main stage show. We’re all sitting front and center, watching the overgrown, post-adolescent frat boy dream die. At this moment, Charlie Sheen defends a lifestyle and a worldview that is the dream of so many men. Sheen’s lusty appetites are gratuitous like one of the corrupt Caesars, but bland and prefabricated like an Appleby’s. He wants to party without purpose, nail porn stars and punt on his responsibilities as a man. He wants to live the fantasy of every fraternity brother currently shotgunning a beer. And, hey, I’m not crapping on frat boys who are… you know… college boys. But if you’re over the age of 30, and your idea of an awesome night is constructing the perfect gravity bong … well … I mean … aren’t there any points given out for original acts of hedonism anymore?
Right now, there are millions of dudes out there for whom the 1990s never ended. Grown ass frat boys who pine every day for the good ol’ days, before their life ran off the edges of the life map they drew on a cocktail napkin when they were 20 years old. If you think about it, for far too many people, that decade never ended. Our national discourse is just too full of professional Adam Sandler characters, Rush Limbaugh zombies and self-parodying, permanently furious feminists who wallpaper their apartments with back-issues of Sassy magazine. But it is the frat boy who is the most potent symbol of this kind of constant desire to go back to the future. They’re all intellectually-stunted hobbits who carbon-froze their maturity and proudly mount it on the wall of their man cave like Jabba the Hutt did to Han Solo. Imagine Proust hopelessly binge eating those little French cookies that reminded him of his youth – pathetically trying to relive some supposedly magical moment from the past over and over and over again.
The late-’90s were the high-water mark for this culture: noxious frat boy lady hate bands like Limp Bizkit were huge. Maxim magazine, the PG-13 version of Boy’s Life, was a publishing juggernaut because of its mix of censored Playboy centerfolds, macho nerd prose about rad stuff, and yawn-inducing Hillary Clinton jokes. Wearing a baseball hat, a pukka shell necklace and planning to open a beach bar with your best bros using the money earned from selling the website FreeCollegeBoobPics.com you were going to start was The Plan. Hey, did anyone notice it’s 2011? The life Charlie Sheen is clinging to is no kind of life, and anyone who pines for it suffers from a severe form of sentimentalism that borders on delusion. The best years of your life are always ahead of you, not behind you. It reminds of those tales of Japanese soldiers discovered on remote Pacific islands years after the end of World War II who didn’t know the war had ended. Actually, it reminds me of hippies. Frat boys are the new hippies (and hipsters are the disco of the future — a soon-to-be national shame where no one will ever admit having worn skinny jeans.)
When I was a kid in the late-’80s, one of our neighbors was a stinky, fortysomething hippie. The guy didn’t know that Woodstock was over. He wore tie-dye shirts. Had long dirty hair. Flashed me the peace sign as I rode my bike by his house. He was emotionally stuck in a youth that would never end. The first time I ever smelled weed was one afternoon in my backyard. He and some hippie friend were passing a pathetic little roach back and forth. They whispered and snickered and continuously made sure the coast was clear. Even at that young age, I couldn’t f**king stand him. I know plenty of dudes who are graying and aging and sincerely laughing at beer commercials, as if they’re National Geographic documentaries about their lives.
Unlike Charlie Sheen, and other “winners,” men don’t threaten their wives. They understand that children learn how to behave by quietly observing the hundreds of thousands of choices, both big and small, their parents make. Men can handle their booze, which doesn’t mean they can inhale liquor by the gallon and not hurl. Handling your booze means having the wisdom and willpower not to drink the booze in the first place if you know you can’t handle it. A man owns his failures and successes. A man knows that adulthood is partying, if you choose, on your terms, not the terms of the boy’s club. Frat boys are hippies – unfrozen cavemen who are strangers in the modern world.
But I’ll say one thing for the hippies. The ’60s produced a lot of self-indulgent, hard-living rock stars … but at least a lot of them produced some pretty awesome music. Our frat boys, party girls and other assorted celebrity gargoyles produce nothing but mediocre advertising filler.
As for Charlie Sheen … let’s stop a moment to remember that he is an actual, real life person. Not just a grotesque Pinocchio shuffling for our entertainment. When you’re poor and a hoarder, you’re crazy. When you’re rich and a hoarder, you’re eccentric. I suppose that when you’re a golden goose and have a substance abuse problem, you’re a Charlie Sheen. I have guzzled so much whiskey in my past, I have whiskey gills. I’ve done, to excess, most drugs, save for ecstasy, because I hated ravers almost as much as I hated hippies. I have made most of my most regrettable poor life choices under some kind of influence. I’ve done some things that I will be apologizing for as they close the lid on my coffin. But “OMG GUYS I WUZ SOOOOO DRUNK” is the lowest form of conversation. So I have read the reports of Sheen’s drug habits, and if they’re true, then I can say with some measure of authority that one sign you have a cocaine problem is that your cocaine comes in a briefcase, as has been reported in Sheen’s case. I have also met and interviewed porn stars and they are all generally very nice people. Broken, yes, but who isn’t? But I also know that many porn stars love cocaine and money.
Television warps reality, but if I didn’t know any better, I’d say that Charlie Sheen looks like a guy who is covering up fear and anger with a bravado I am not buying. He bellows and rants hilariously, just like thousands of other drunks at the far ends of thousands of dark dive bars. The guy is on Twitter now, ostensibly to get in on the joke, but you can’t be the joke and in on it, too. Like a good mother teaches, you’re either being laughed with, or laughed at. I suppose he’s a hero to some, but those shallow dimwits have no imagination. He’s no hero. In fact, Sheen reminds me of the king’s jester who dances and juggles and whose silly taunts are soaked with savage truth, but the royal court is too busy laughing and carousing to listen. Charlie Sheen is telling us all that he needs help. He’s also telling us that the dream is dead, but even he can’t hear that, because dude will not shut the f**k up.
Follow John DeVore’s preening narcissism on Twitter.