Sean Penn presented Birdman with the award for Best Picture at the 2015 Academy Awards.
Aside from a poor joke about director Alejandro González Iñárritu's green card, there was something else glaringly weird about his presence — Penn has been arrested for domestic violence.
On February 8, during the 57th Annual Grammy Awards telecast, President Barack Obama delivered a PSA about domestic violence and rape. During his speech, Obama said, "It's not okay. And it has to stop. Artists have a unique power to change minds and attitudes and get us thinking and talking about what matters. And all of us, in our own lives, have the power to set an example. Join our campaign to stop this violence. Go to itsonus.org, and take the pledge. And to the artists and the Grammys tonight, I ask you to ask your fans to do it, too. It's on us, all of us, to create a culture where violence isn't tolerated, where survivors are supported and where all our young people, men and women, can go as far as their talents and their dreams will take them."
The speech had more importance due to the fact that six years earlier on the night of the Grammys, Chris Brown assaulted his then-girlfriend Rihanna. Ironically, Obama's PSA landed on a night that Brown was in attendance and nominated for a Grammy. Many viewers took notice of this, immediately taking to social media to point this out.
Obama's speech aired in large part because of Brown's incident with Rihanna. That is why Obama's PSA aired specifically at the Grammys and not during some other telecast. You'd think that would suggest that Hollywood would be committed to following Obama's advice and creating a culture where domestic abuse isn't rewarded.
Except. Sean Penn presented an Academy Award two weeks later and no one interrupted the broadcast to deliver a PSA.
In 1987, Penn served 33 days in prison after assaulting a photographer. In 1988, Penn was charged with felony domestic assault on his then-wife Madonna. And by assault I mean he HIT HER OVER THE HEAD WITH A BASEBALL BAT. He pled to a misdemeanor, so like Brown, Penn avoided jail time for his assault. But lest you think he learned his lesson after this incident, as recently as 2009 Penn was arrested for vandalism charges after assaulting yet another photographer. He's been arrested six times.
Unlike Chris Brown, Penn has continued to be lauded by his Hollywood peers and has since won Oscars for his roles in Mystic River and Milk (in 2004 and 2009 respectively). Penn is not the subject of frequent thinkpieces or Twitter harassment by Jenny Johnson, a fan of attacking Brown whenever the spirit moves her.
Which is not to say that Brown should not be admonished for his actions. But in a time where John Legend has to call out the incarceration rates of black men at the Oscars, where Oscar voters find the #ICantBreathe movement "disgusting," and Neil Patrick Harris makes frequent jokes about diversity at the Oscars while also having David Oyelowo make a joke at Annie's expense (one of the few black-led films produced by a studio this year) — one has to call into question this activism. Is it only en vogue to discuss domestic abuse in Hollywood when we're talking about Chris Brown? Should we forget about Sean Penn's charges since they happened decades ago? Yes, Chris Brown assaulted Rihanna and violently threw a chair through a window on Good Morning America which is the epitome of shitty actions. But Sean Penn has done all this and more.
Is it that it's easier to classify a young black musician as dangerous in the media than it is an established white actor? Why does the white actor get awarded twice by the Oscars and get to present the biggest award of the night without being publicly shamed by the White House?