I want to write about last week’s episode of Louie because most of the reviews and analyses I’ve read of the episode have failed to capture, in my opinion, the overall point of the episode and its failures. While I think the episode was a daring (though not particularly brave, and we’ll take a look at that later) portrayal of the nuances of gender-roles in modern times, it failed to deliver any substantive comments on these nuances, opting for shock-value and humor over any actual critique, deconstruction, or criticism of our gender-coding’s problematics.
Spoiler Alert / Trigger Warnings for Discussions of Sexual Assault
The episode begins with the “Telling Jokes” portion, showing Louie eating dinner with his two daughters, sharing jokes at the dinner table and exposing the limits and bounds of humor. There’s a joke that’s actually funny told by one daughter to the other, which the listening daughter doesn’t get, and a joke whose punchline is dissatisfying tautological though it yields heartwarming, hilarious results. It was a moment surprisingly tender for “Louie,” which is a show typically couched in multiple layers of cynicism and moroseness, and came as a welcomed surprise. What followed however, was troubling in that it proved to be very little funny (to me, and those with whom I watched it) yet seemed to be very funny to others. My critique doesn’t come out of the fact that I’m dismayed that my understanding of “humor” differs from the majority’s, but because of the episode’s underlying implication.
“Set Up” depicts a scenario in which Louie is set up on a blind-dinner date at his friend’s house with a woman named “Laurie.” All scenes predating and during their encounter are awkward bordering on painful: it just so happens they both, prior to being formally introduced, purchased wine at the same liquor store, awkwardly following each other to the same house; Laurie seems generally disinterested in Louie’s profession; when asked what she does for a living, Laurie explains that she owns her own contracting company and some fishing-port in the Northeast, to which Louie retorts with the question “Oh so you own your own business?” “Yeah, I just said that,” Laurie retorts, understandably pissed at the underlying sexist implications his question holds. Painfully honest in its depiction of the strains of marriage life, the friends who invited Louie and Laurie to dinner are shown having an awkward and tense (though not unusual, we can immediately tell) encounter, which drives their guests away from dinner, where the two share a brief exchange over how ridiculous settling is in marriage—how marriage is, in itself, a form of settling, the two agree. They head to a bar, which is where the two previously estranged guests lighten up, and things get weird and dark.
After sharing a few drinks, Laurie starts to drive Louie home—drunk—and suggests to Louie that they pull over to mess around, Laurie imploring that Louie let her give him a blowjob. After the act, Laurie essentially says “my turn,” feeling entitled at this point that Louie reciprocate the affection by going down on her. Louie rejects, hesitantly though clearly, saying that he “doesn’t do that,” that it’s “too intimate,” and that he’d feel “whorish,” to which Laurie gets peeved—rightfully, in my eyes. While her feeling of entitlement is rooted in the assumption that sex is part of an economy—that is, that certain favors bequeath certain sexual favors—is a deeply flawed concept, I respect Laurie’s annoyance at Louie’s hypocrisy, stating that man-on-woman fellatio is “too intimate,” where woman-on-man fellatio, for Louie, apparently isn’t. It was a very honest depiction of the sexist double-standards that typically detract from women achieving the same sort of sexual attention they so rightly deserve, and promotes the idea that women are more inclined to serve rather than be serviced. Him saying that while he doesn’t think Laurie is a whore for giving him a blowjob but that he would feel whorish for doing the same for her, he, despite his right to act on that which he does or does not feel comfortable, he still asserts a skewed, sexist-driven moral double-standard that makes him an asshole. One double standard, exposed and critiqued.
It’s when Louis C.K tries to invert this double-standard that his argument and message crumbles a part. Immediately following his refusal, Laurie calls him a “faggot” in order to goad him into sex, blames Obama for our society’s lack of good, game men, cackles maniacally, elbows Louie’s head into the window, breaking the glass, and then forces herself onto him while threatening to break his thumb.
The scene is supposed to function as an inversion of a cliched “date-rape” scenario, showcasing the way men too can be pressured into unwanted sexual encounters (as they can be), and how the use of power and shame (of one’s sexuality, as in this case) is an abusive, violent act. All well and good, but the episode fails—as does every. fucking. article i’ve read on the subject—to really tackle if this sort of inversion is fair, accurate, or even sensible. One article brings up how
Louie knows that he’s not and that it’s not some horrific insult to be called ‘gay’ in the first place so there’s no need to put aside his own values in order to submit to her peer pressure—it’s all not that different from a man chiding a woman for not going down on him by calling her a prude or an ice queen..
making a false claim of parallelism that states that Louie being shamed for his sexual orientation is equivalent to a woman being shamed for being a prude or chaste. While using either to denigrate one’s sexuality is shitty, they are not equivalent; men can be called gay as an insult and still lay claim to some sort of sexual drive—even though in this case it would be misguided—where a woman calling a woman a prude or ice-queen removes her sexual identity all together; her sexual drive is erased from the equation; she is stripped of an intrinsic capacity of most living things and shamed for it in an explicitly gendered way.
Another article goes so far as to say that this sort of abuse is funny—”hilarious“ even:
“It’s one of those fascinating things… I have no doubt if the situation were reversed with a male character doing those exact actions to a female character (the initial sex act included), it would play as a ghastly, brutal sexual assault. But when Melissa Leo does that to Louis C.K., it’s a very funny moment… even though it still is, you know, a ghastly, brutal sexual assault. In fact, it’s funny almost because it’s so f**ked up. Damn if Louis C.K. doesn’t know how to tap into that weird place others wouldn’t think of going for humor. “Lick it! Lick it!”, indeed. This is a show not afraid to go to very uncomfortable and even twisted places, and I continue to admire it for that.”
The only reasonably sensible and intellectually nuanced critique of the episode came from Slate, which points out various other flaws in writers’ critiques of the episode, ultimately concluding that it is “very hard to stick [the] landing” of “full gender-role reversal,” though it never goes as far as to say why. She quotes Willa Paskin, a writer whose wildly uncanny apologist tendencies baffle me into madness, and who claims that
“the portrayal of Laurie is far too sympathetic for her to just be another date rapist … Though Laurie does, in fact, physically assault Louie, almost up until the moment she does, he is not scared to be in a car with her. He’s not physically threatened.”
This is even more troubling considering the context within the episode. Before their sexual encounter the two agree that they refuse to settle for marriage, yet at the episode’s close the two agree to see each other again, shrugging off the encounter because it provided the most amount of “spice” (do you see how offensive this sounds?) that either of them had experienced prior in their dull, single lives. Settling for rape because it’s at least interesting and complex is hardly a progressive, interesting, or meaningful stance, and is entirely dismissive and ignorant of the actual realities of rape. Where the Slate article, written by Allison Benedict, falls short for me is that it never really challenges this statement outside of recognizing that it is a very misguided double-standard. What fails to make this an actual gender swap—and what ultimately makes Louie’s depiction of it through the lens of rape and sexual assault so frustratingly egregious, insulting, and insensitive, is that Louie is not afraid. He can be in a stranger’s car, alone, drunk, with someone pressuring him into sex, and not feel alarmed outside of slightly uncomfortable. He never screams, he never shows panic, he’s never jolted. After having his head smashed into a window, he recovers almost immediately and rubs his head. He eventually capitulates. This, I hope we all realize, is not a role reversal. I can only speak from my own experience, but I can not say that this same scenario, were it reversed, would be an “accurate” or “honest” or anywhere near funny depiction of a sexual assault, or of “gender roles” playing themselves out. Gender-roles are about power and privilege, exercised through force, enforced and manifested through fear, shame, and intimidation. That all is missing; the realities of women’s experiences, discomforts, and apprehension about sex and drunkenness and strangers is missing; they can be in a back-alley, and we see no fear in Louie’s eyes. Louie blurs the lines to provoke, but he never commits to the harsh realities that make such experiences grounded in something truly uncomfortable, in the truest sense, like actual fear. This isn’t an honest depiction of a real scenario subverted; it’s a distortion of a real scenario for shock-value. (And if you think that Louie’s deadpan response is just reflective of the show’s understated style, please remind yourself of how loudly Melissa Leo’s character is laughing throughout the entire scene, or how, back in Season One’s episode “Tarese,” how loud his sexual encounter was.)
The episode could, by some stretch of the imagination, be seen as a way of exposing how the socialization of traditional gender roles primes men to not take their sexual violation seriously—that is, that the way men are conditioned to not understand, identify with, or understand their emotions is symptomatic of a larger social condition—but there is literally nothing in the episode to support that claim. If this was Louis C.K’s intent for the entire episode, there needs to be some sort of conscious, tangible substance in the episode to grab onto and support the assertion. If Louie can so easily assert these controversial claims and defend them retrospectively through some assumed understanding of a complex and abstract phenomenon, not only is the show equal parts the most intellectually nuanced thing on television, didactic and lazy, but is so by making itself unassailable, through enforcing the modality of “implied intent.”
If this episode does anything, it at least points out that Louis C.K, while a smart, often-endearing, and shrewd dude, is still artistically influenced by his tremendous privileges (male, straight, white, and otherwise), which he at times reveals and in this case abuses. Had Louis C.K really wanted to show “the realities” of this gendered world, he probably should’ve done so with out exploiting those realities for his own artistic, comedic gains.