The Rehabilitation of Mike Tyson

MikeTysonThe recent conversation about Chris Brown reminds me of something I have been wanting to write a post on for a little while. Ever since I saw one of the closing episodes of last season of How I Met Your Mother. Mike Tyson had a guest role helping the main character take care of a baby. Sort of. It was later revealed, for comic effect, that Mike Tyson will go on to be a US Senator.

The whole thing struck a nerve. Even setting aside what I am going to talk about, the notion of Tyson as a senator strains even the loose narrative of the show, which is generally pretty conservative about revealing what comes in the future, even if it’s outlandish about what is happening in the present (“unreliable narrator”). But beyond that, Tyson himself is not a very good object for this humor. He is a wreck of an individual – and not a particularly lovable wreck – and much more importantly, a convicted rapist.

Was there a point at which it was decided that Mike Tyson did not commit the crime for which he was convicted? That he was railroaded? Or that it was, at the least, ambiguous?

I have not heard anybody say as much, though it does seen that at times we act as though that’s the case. Mel Gibson’s cameo in Hangover 2 was scrapped due to objections from the cast and crew, some of which pertaining to some of Gibson’s controversies. Yet Mike Tyson was allowed his second cameo in the film series despite, well, rape. And it was an unmitigated positive portrayal, too, unlike his appearance in the first Hangover film.

Now, Mike Tyson has legally paid his debt to society. It might have been a light sentence in the overall, but it was the sentence that the system reserved. I do not begrudge Tyson being able to make a living. Even in Hollywood, and even trading on his celebrity. But not so much as the lovable celebrity friend, or an ironic future US Senator, or the tough guy who is gentle-at-heart. Given the givens, that role should fall flat with us. The first Hangover walked the line closely, but other portrayals have been more problematic. The humor should not revolve around exalting him. Unless it actually has been decided that he got a bum deal from the system.

Re-reading details from the case, it doesn’t look that way to me at all.

Matt Zoeller Seitz has a piece pointing out the incongruity between Gibson’s ouster and Tyson’s role. He goes on to argue that private lives – however despicable – shouldn’t have an effect. I go back and forth on the more general topic. Ultimatey, though, I think it depends on the context. Some artists – notably singers – form a relationship with their audience. And as such, revealed private behavior can easily effect how one approaches the art that they produce. Sensitive love songs from a revealed wife-beater create an… awkward context. An actor, on the other hand, is playing somebody else (usually). A writer or director is telling a story about somebody else (ostensibly, usually) and so I personally find it more easy to overlook.

Except when, as is the case with Tyson, he is playing himself and his role very much depends on our relationship with the figure. Some measure of forgiveness, to laugh along. And I think, in this respect, I am not as forgiving as Hollywood seems to be.

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