Barr none

Facebook is a-twitter about Rosanne Barr’s just-published piece in NY Mag, billed as an essay on “the lack of change in the TV industry.” It is certainly about persistent sexism in the industry, and Barr’s partial success in shaking things up during her time in prime time. (Her successes are two: in the substance of the show, depicting “a fierce working-class Domestic Goddess”; and in the management of the show, gaining the writing credit she was at first denied, and then firing those who worked against her in the first 14 episodes.)

(c) Robert Maxwell, from the NY Mag article.

The essay is also about Charlie Sheen, and the price of fame which leads you, in her opinion, to “bipolar thoughts” and, as she quotes Cher as having said, to see your success as evidence that you are “one of God’s favorite children.”

Although the essay’s opening paragraph suggests hers will be an essay in response to Charlie Sheen’s recent antics (and particularly, his fights with the producers of Two and a Half Men), the huge majority of text is devoted to reviewing events in Barr’s own career, and settling scores. In the end, this emphasis leads the reader to the conclusion that–despite her protestations to the contrary–she sees Charlie Sheen as the victim of forces beyond his control and that he may be–as she feels she was–a gifted writer and performer who got screwed by number-crunching industry hacks.

[Witness, for example:

I finally found the right lawyer to tell me what scares TV producers worse than anything—too late for me. What scares these guys—who think that the perks of success include humiliating and destroying the star they work for (read Lorre’s personal attacks on Charlie Sheen in his vanity cards at the end of Two and a Half Men)—isn’t getting caught stealing or being made to pay for that; it’s being charged with fostering a “hostile work environment.” If I could do it all over, I’d sue ABC and Carsey-­Werner under those provisions. Hollywood hates labor, and hates shows about labor worse than any other thing. And that’s why you won’t be seeing another Roseanne anytime soon. Instead, all over the tube, you will find enterprising, overmedicated, painted-up, capitalist whores claiming to be housewives. But I’m not bitter.

I don’t know anything about the particulars of the situation, but I hardly think CBS’s main issue with Sheen is their anti-labor proclivities, although I don’t doubt those exist–witness Writer’s Guild strikes of yore.]

This rings false in two ways: first, Charlie Sheen is…well, let’s let Rosanne say it:

Charlie Sheen was the world’s most famous john, and a sitcom was written around him. That just says it all. Doing tons of drugs, smacking prostitutes around, holding a knife up to the head of your wife—sure, that sounds like a dream come true for so many guys out there, but that doesn’t make it right! People do what they can get away with (or figure they can), and Sheen is, in fact, a product of what we call politely the “culture.” Where I can relate to the Charlie stuff is his undisguised contempt for certain people in his work environment and his unwillingness to play a role that’s expected of him on his own time.

Charlie Sheen’s behavior in his personal life, and the semi-fictionalization of that in the writing of his character on a sitcom, makes him a totally unsympathetic representative of the “oppressed” in the TV industry, IMHO. Which leads me to the second issue I take with Rosanne’s comparison of her experience with Sheen’s: he’s not a woman. So much of her own argument rests on the notion that institutional and interpersonal sexism is a logic on which the production of Prime Time television relies (in programming and management), so then how is Charlie subject to the same forces as she was?

To be clear: I’m convinced (by social science evidence as well as personal testimonies like Rosanne’s) that gender discrimination is a hugely powerful influence in television. Therefore, I’m not convinced that the fame machine impacts men and women in at all comparable ways.

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