After Season Five Of ‘Louie’, I’m Even More Uncomfortable With Calling Louis CK A Feminist
Your fave continues to be problematic.
Warning: this article contains some mild spoilers for the fifth season of Louie, and some pretty major spoilers for season four.
Louis CK is often hailed as a progressive hero. His stand-up addresses white privilege, the risk of violence faced by women, class divides, and global wealth disparity, and does so in a way that makes you laugh until your stomach aches, rather than your heart breaks. Each new spot he delivers on Saturday Night Live or late night talk shows will spread across social media the next day, usually accompanied by all-caps adulation: “YES!” “NAILED IT!” “THIS!”
What tends not to go viral is his slightly less political material. If you’ve never seen a full hour of Louis CK’s comedy, you’re probably unaware that about 20% of his show is basically just wank gags. Despite the online proliferation of his highbrow original material, he’s super obsessed with his dick. So much so that when I first heard the unsubstantiated rumours about his habit of trapping female comics in his room as he masturbated in front of them, my first result was, ‘That makes complete sense’. Dude’s clearly got some shame issues he needs to work on — and if someone’s inclined to ask a theatre and television audience to bear witness to him dealing with his onanistic tendencies, it’s deeply plausible that he does the same for a smaller crowd.
His TV show alter-ego, and the namesake of his FX series Louie (season five of which belatedly premieres on the Comedy Channel next week), is similarly fixated. There’s a distinct sense that Louie is Louis’ way to exorcise his demons: a troublesome relationship with an eternally disappointed ex-wife; a series of comedians and club owners who don’t understand why he wants to talk about impending death rather than farts; the hardness that comes with navigating New York City. The character Louie doesn’t deal with many of these things well. He may have noble intentions, but his execution of those intentions is often flawed.
Louis CK And Louie CK
Just because Louie is often reprehensible, it doesn’t follow that Louis CK is too. We’re often invited to laugh at him, cringe at him, and be repulsed by him. But, as with any character whose mild trials and tribulations we follow weekly, there is an understanding that, however imperfect he is, we are still supposed to be on his side, and to relate to his foibles as our own. And in encouraging us to take his side, Louie has become increasingly problematic in its assertion of a male point of review — and an occasionally misogynistic one at that.
One of the most frequent admissions of Louie’s flaws are his repeated attempts on stunningly beautiful girls half his age, with whom he has nothing in common, no real connection and no interest in outside of their youth and beauty. The season two episode ‘Duckling’ offers a perfect example of this cringe comedy scenario, as Louie valiantly attempts to chat up a cheerleader (she isn’t given a name – none of the nubile objects of his affections ever are), before his efforts grind to a halt: he finds out she has never heard of Van Halen, and only recognises Steven Tyler as a judge on American Idol.
There’s been a host of beautiful women who he did manage to impress though: Parker Posey, Elisabeth Hower, Maria Dizzia, Chloë Sevigny, Eszter Balint, Yvonne Strahovski, Maria Bamford, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Gaby Hoffmann. All these woman are charmed enough by Louie’s gaucheness to date him or sleep with him, despite the encounters themselves often being awkward and humiliating rather than romantic and empowering. Still, Louis CK as a creator clearly believes enough in the charm of his overweight, balding, misanthropic hero to believe that a host of young, beautiful, mostly nameless women would see him as desirable.
It’s a trade-off often made in many forms of art. Mountains of Booker Prize-winning novels involve elderly men having affairs with young women with pert breasts and boyish hips; men who are devastated upon realising that they have been obsessing over an object of fantasy rather than a real connection. And while Woody Allen may be the most notorious offender in casting himself against far younger actresses, Hollywood has a well-documented tendency to pair ageing men with younger women. These artists are open about their narcissism and lust, as is Louis CK — but it is a strange trade-off to make. To ask an audience (particularly a female one) to engage with your narcissism as long as you acknowledge it is akin to suggesting masturbation isn’t self-pleasuring if someone else is watching.
The Problem Of Perspective
Narcissism informs the style of Louie, as well as perhaps being its central theme. Louie is so locked within his own struggles and mind that other characters, whether he is fighting with them or fucking them, are merely peripheral. He drew attention to this early on in the show, casting several different actresses as his ex-wife and his sister, ramming home the fact that, to Louie, these people are literally interchangeable. And there are sequences so strange and surreal that it wouldn’t be surprising to find out they existed inside of Louie’s mind. (Meanwhile, when Girls aired an episode in which Hannah Horvath [Lena Dunham] had a weekend fling with a handsome, rich doctor played by Patrick Wilson, critics argued over whether the entire storyline was a dream sequence, or at least completely unrealistic — owing to the ‘impossibility’ of someone who looked like Patrick Wilson wanting to sleep with someone who looked like Lena Dunham. The same criticism never surfaces when male leads like Louie end up bedding models). But it is, of course, his show, about his life, and there’s no moral failure in trying to depict the extent to which we are all prisoners of our own perspective of the world around us.
But more recent scenes further this myopia to an uncomfortable extent. Early in the fourth season, in an episode called ‘Model’, Louie is seduced by a (nameless) model played by Yvonne Strahovski, before he accidentally hits her in the face while she is tickling him. He takes her to the hospital, where it’s revealed she has been blinded and he’ll owe her $5000 a month for the rest of her life. In the show, this is some kind of Murphy’s Law twist; even when your wildest dreams come true, they’ll turn into a nightmare. Placed in a cultural context though, this sequence is far more disturbing. Louie shows up to a hospital with a battered women, and everybody disbelieves HIS version of events. This may be a tragedy for Louie, but for the millions of women who turn up at hospitals and say they have been beaten by a male sexual partner, it’s a complete inversion of the reality. In some ways, the episode plays like a rant on an MRA messageboard writ large.
It’s worth noting, at this point, that the world in which Louie struggles is largely female. He has a brother who appears once a season or so, and a few male colleagues who pop up sporadically, usually never to be seen again — but the bulk of his interpersonal relations are with women. He has two daughters, an ex-wife, a collection of strange sexual encounters, and a handful of longer story arcs involving women. It is women who he disappoints, women who misunderstand him, women who he misunderstands and ultimately fails. The impression, bulked by the aforementioned episode, is that this is a world in which women have control, and men struggle to keep up. In essence, that the way the world treats Louie is not fair.
Most disturbingly is the much-discussed sequence in ‘Pamela Part 1’, featuring the object of his longterm affection, Pamela (played by Pamela Adion). Though she’s flirted with him occasionally, and once invited him to take a bath with her before changing her mind, she has steadfastly refused Louie’s advances. But when he comes home to find her asleep on his couch after babysitting his children, he’s overcome. He fights her, telling her that he doesn’t believe that she’s no longer interested in him.
He wrestles her into his room as she grabs furniture, and then the doorframe, screaming, ‘NO’.
He corners her, holding the door closed as she tries to leave. “I’m going to make something happen,” he says. She agrees to a kiss, which he bestows as she grimaces, nearly crying. And then he lets go.
Once she leaves, he leans back on the door and punches the air in triumph.
This is an unequivocal sexual assault attempt. And it’s a scenario that women who are assaulted by a partner are familiar with. Men who do this may not be malicious, or intend to cause harm, or even see their actions as assault. But they believe that if only the woman could understand how much they wanted her, how strong and true their feelings and desire, she would understand and relent. It’s not that they don’t care when someone says no; it’s that they don’t believe she really means it. They don’t believe she knows what she does and doesn’t want to do.
And the fact that the kiss is extracted so forcefully, so unwillingly, so unpleasantly for the other party, is of no bearing. Louie gets what he wants. He gets his kiss.
You could argue that Louis CK knew exactly what he was depicting here, but what is more disturbing is what came after it: a relationship. Their next encounter is particularly romantic, as if his attempt at assault was merely an awkward seduction that he later gets right. And that makes the character right, too: Pamela could be convinced, violently so. When she said no, Pamela really did mean yes. Louis CK created a relationship that justifies the violent behaviour of countless stalkers, assaulters, and rapists.
Since then, I’ve been on guard while watching Louie. Season five brings with it another typically awkward sexual encounter — a dispassionate hallway fuck with with the surrogate mother of an acquaintance’s child, which ends even more explosively than usual — but the main sexual focus this season is the affair with Pamela, which she wants to keep casual, and from which he wants more.
There’s also an extraordinary gender-bending scene. After being beaten up on the street (by a girl), Louie asks Pamela to cover his bruises with makeup, and she pleads him to let her make him up as a girl with the promise of wild sex. What follows is an hilarious yet tender role play where Pamela, as a man, seduces Louie, as a woman.
But once in bed, things turn sour. After briefly making out, Pamela flips him over, and presumably forcefully penetrates him while he tries to stop her, a confused mix of pain and shock on his face. We’ve seen countless women be fucked this forcefully and joylessly onscreen before, but it’s rare to see a man subjected to it. After, as they lie in bed, Pamela breaks up with him, and he turns to her crying, mascara running down his face. He is demeaned. He is feminised.
In this, Louie experiences bad sex from a female perspective: coercion, a loss of control, and emotional and physical humiliation. In writing such a moving scene that portrays the female experience as often one of submission and pain, Louis CK shows remarkable empathy.
And this is why it’s hard for me to make up my mind (weighed down as it is by those allegations). There’s so much in this show which is fascinating and evocative, and unlike anything else on TV. But if Louis can empathise with a subjugated female when his own character is feminised, why can’t he do it with his female characters? Why does he shut us out of the minds of the women on the show? Why is he humiliated by forced sex, when the prospect of it doesn’t deter Pamela from beginning an affair with him?
The only time Louis attempts to understand what it is to be female is when he’s the one wearing the lipstick. And ultimately, that’s why his progressivism often falls flat to me: because it’s all about him.
Season five of Louie comes to the Comedy Channel on Wednesday June 24, at 8.30pm.
Maddie Palmer is a writer, broadcaster, and TV and digital producer. Her work appears on The Feed on SBS2, and she talks about TV with Myf Warhurst on Double Jay. She tweets from @msmaddiep, and writes Junkee’s TV column ‘Tuned In‘.