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Hollywood’s History of Abuse: Sean Penn’s Lawsuit (and Others)

Trigger warning for domestic and emotional abuse.

You may have seen this story in the news recently: Sean Penn is suing Empire creator Lee Daniels for $10 million after Daniels spoke in defence of actor Terrence Howard (whose stories of physical abuse were making headlines), saying, “that poor boy ain’t done nothing different than Marlon Brando or Sean Penn, and all of a sudden he’s some f****n’ demon.”

This lawsuit has brought the attention of the public to the startling number of very well-known (and well-loved) men in Hollywood with a history of abuse. Some of these may surprise you, and some of these may simply remind you of what you’ve forgotten, but these famous men were all charged with, convicted of, or publicly admitted to abusing women.

Lots of great art comes from not-so-great people, but making great art does not condone abuse. Some choose to boycott the people who commit these acts, and some decide not to. I know that as a feminist, it’s important to reconcile our own individual views on feminism with the art we choose to consume, and in order to do so we need all the facts. With that being said, here is the list. Make of it what you will.

Sean Penn

Before he was a political activist and a two-time Oscar winner, Sean Penn emotionally and physically assaulted his then-wife, pop-star Madonna. In 1988, Penn drunkenly broke into her home, tied her to a chair, and physically assaulted her for hours. Madonna escaped and ran to the nearest police station. The police lieutenant on the case said at the time, “I hardly recognized her as Madonna.”

Penn was charged with felony domestic assault, but the charges were dropped to a misdemeanour at Madonna’s request. The couple divorced after this incident.

Despite this, and other violent incidents, Sean Penn is still hugely prevalent in the film industry. He’s been called one of the greatest actors of his generation (according to his own lawsuit), and just this past year he presented the Best Picture award at the Oscars (and made a racist joke at the expense of the winner).  

Terrence Howard

Howard has numerous allegations and convictions of abuse and violent behaviour beginning as early as 2000, and as recent as 2013. In 2002, Howard pled guilty to disorderly conduct after breaking into his estranged wife’s home and punching her three times in the face. In 2010, just one week into his new marriage with Michelle Ghent, he allegedly punched her in the face, and a week before she filed for divorce he allegedly threatened her with a butcher knife. These allegations appeared in their divorce papers, and Ghent was granted a restraining order against Howard.

In 2013, at the premiere of Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Howard spoke to the press about the allegations made by Ghent, stating, “We’re divorced now and she should stay that way, and I just wish the best for her. But as far as me harming somebody, anybody that knows me, I really can’t harm a fly, you know? It’s completely against my spirit.” Howard has also stated that he thinks Chris Brown is “a good guy,” but later claimed he had no idea that Chris Brown had been accused of physically abusing then-girlfriend Rihanna.

Speaking of Chris Brown, most people know about his violent history, so we don’t have to get into it here. If you’re unfamiliar or need a reminder, Uproxx has a timeline here that will get you up to speed.



Eminem famously rapped about domestic abuse in the 2010 single “Love the Way You Lie” featuring Rihanna, a victim of domestic abuse herself. In the song, he ends his rap with “If she ever tries to f****n’ leave again, I’m gonna tie her to the bed and set this house on fire.” It’s common knowledge that his relationship with ex-wife Kim Mathers was violent and tumultuous, and in his song titled “Kim,” he raps “bleed, bitch, bleed.” In another song, he raps, “Yeah I laugh when I call you a slut, it’s funny.” And recently Eminem found himself in hot water after suggesting that he wanted to rape Iggy Azalea in one of his songs. It is arguable whether or not his raps are an admission of abuse, especially his song about his ex-wife, but Kim Mathers has claimed that Eminem abused her. Eminem often claims that he has the right to say whatever he wants, but he also took his ex-wife to court for making public comments about their abusive relationship, claiming these were “derogatory, disparaging, inflammatory and otherwise negative comments.” 

Mike Tyson

Before he made appearances in comedic films such as The Hangover, and before he was praised by the likes of Bradley Cooper, Mike Tyson served 3 years in prison for raping a 19-year-old girl. He also called a Canadian newscaster a “piece of sh*t” for bringing up the conviction in a live interview in 2014.

Tyson has also admitted to assaulting his first wife, Robin Givens, but says he never hit her with a “closed fist” and that he used to just “shake [her] up” a little. He also called her “a pig” for allegedly trying to take his money during their divorce.

The list could go on and on, and that list would include Charlie Sheen of Two and a Half Men who shot Kelly Preston and assaulted Denise Richards, Bill Cosby and his recent sexual abuse allegations, Roman Polanski and his long list of defenders even after pleading guilty to unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor, Sean Connery and his approval of slapping women, Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin who allegedly abducted a 14-year-old to rape, Michael Fassbender who allegedly broke his ex-girlfriend’s nose… etc., etc.

This article isn’t meant to tell you what to do or how to feel about these men. It’s about being informed and knowing all the facts before you decide what album to buy, or what movie to see this weekend.

Let us know what you think in the comments, collegiettes!



Maggie is a 5th year Political Science and Law Specialization student at the University of Windsor. Originally from from Kitchener, Ontario, she is a proud feminist, vegetarian, and Netflix addict. She aspires to figure out what it is she aspires to do. Follow her on Twitter (@MaggieParkhill) or on Instagram (maggieparkhill).
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