Louis C.K., Louie, and that one scene.

Clearly the man is not hung up on dignity.

Warning: Here there be spoilers.

I’m a really big fan of comedian Louis C.K. He consistently takes humor to really uncomfortable places, those places where you burst out laughing even while covering your eyes because you can barely stand to look at the comic as he steps so deftly and unflinchingly into human bullcrap — it’s like he’s his own butterfly specimen, pinned to the wall, by his own hand, for us to examine. It doesn’t always work, but there is a breathtaking beauty to the effort. Moreover, I see in his humor, his interviews, and the decisions he’s made about how to run his career a fundamentally and deeply decent human being.

C.K.’s TV series on FX, Louie, is an expression of all of this, a nominal “sitcom” that serves as an examination of the life of a New York comic who happens to share a name with and a lot of the same concerns as C.K. himself. He’s playing a version of himself, a thing that a lot of people have taken to doing, from Daniel Radcliffe on Extras to Stephen Colbert on the Colbert Report, but for my money, no one has done it better. Louis C.K. gets lost in the character of Louie, a thing that cannot be said about anyone else who does anything even remotely similar — there’s usually too much winking and nudging going on for the character to really take hold, but C.K. indulges in neither winking nor nudging. He commits.

Louie‘s third season is now underway, and all through last week’s episode, everything was as weird and creative and maybe-it-doesn’t-work-but-it-also-kind-of-does as any other episode, and then, in the final five minutes, C.K. takes an enormous leap: Louie is date-raped.

What is astonishing is that C.K. wrote and directed the scene in a way that makes the whole series of events entirely believable — and weirdly, nauseatingly funny — as the scene builds to a crescendo of madness in which a large, male person is forced, through violence and intimidation, to perform a sexual act on a woman on whom he does not want to perform that act.

Unsurprisingly, the scene has led to an enormous amount of online chatter, and C.K., being the stand-up guy that he is, posted it on YouTube, for the purpose of facilitating the conversation (uh, NSFW, in case that wasn’t clear):

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I’ll be honest: I just don’t know what to make of the last couple of lines. The woman asks “You want to go out again, right?” and Louie, either completed stunned or completely calm, says: “Yeah, sure.”

I don’t know what to make of those lines, because I know exactly what came before them, and it was rape. The entire scene is the mirror image of what millions of women have experienced: The man does something pleasurable to the woman, the woman says she’d rather not reciprocate, he starts begging and complaining of being left hanging, is quickly reduced to name-calling and threats, and finally uses violence to get what he wanted in the first place. In this scene, Louie’s being an asshole about it all (up until the violence, when he acquiesces out of what is clearly fear), and the thing is — that’s exactly the thing. You get to be an asshole without being punished for it with rape, regardless of your gender. Women and men alike have every right to leave each other with blue balls (so to speak).

So, given my exposure to C.K.’s humor, and my sense that his feminism exists on an almost cellular level, I feel confident that all of the above was very,very purposeful. This is a man who doesn’t let stray words wander about — an entire scene? That right there was planned, and planned carefully.

But that cavalier last line? That what-feels-like-an-easy-laugh? I don’t know what to make of it, I truly don’t. It’ll all depend on if the topic comes up again, or if that’s where it ends. Women and men who have just been raped often don’t fully realize it until later, or they say they’ll see the rapist again because they’re not thinking straight, or… well, any number of things.

But if that’s where it’s left — if C.K. set up this elaborate, five minute scene of excruciatingly black humor in which we are forced, even as we laugh, to see society’s nastiest shit up close and personal, only to end it with a throw-away line that allows his character to emerge from said shit unscathed…?

Well, I don’t know what to think.

And maybe that’s all a good, smart comedian really has to do — put us in a squirmy position where we don’t know what to think. But it feels like a sell-out of some kind, not just of survivors of sexual assault, but also of C.K.’s own brand of art. He doesn’t generally do easy and/or throw-away — and a rape scene doesn’t really feel like a good place to start.

17 Comments

  1. Dex

     /  July 9, 2012

    I can certainly see where you’re coming from, but my take was different as it relates to the last line. I don’t think there was anything in that scene that indicated he would ever want to be around that woman again. I thought the line was more along the lines of a desperate guy who would say anything to get the night over with and delay or at least minimize the crazy until he could safely exit the vehicle.

    I definitely haven’t been in as dire a situation, but I’ve been in a few situations where I was attracting super-unwelcome attention from a woman (again, nothing quite like what was portrayed in the clip, but enough that I was extremely uncomfortable) and each time I sort of just grinned and bore it and was polite and deflecting right up until the point that I was able to extricate myself from the situation.

    Last fall, I was out with three colleagues and a female job candidate for lunch. When lunch ended, we were heading to our respective vehicles, so I held out my hand to shake the candidate’s hand and wish her luck (even though I wasn’t a big fan of the candidate, I felt it was the polite thing to do). Without warning, the candidate lunged in and gave me a very close and creepy, long-ish hug in front of my colleagues. I tried to step back but was not quick enough. I wanted desperately to physically push her off of me, but instead froze there, arms at my side, a look of horror on my face. [There’s just no polite way to throw someone off of you without causing a scene.]

    I said a perfunctory goodbye and almost ran to my car. My colleagues could tell that I was horrified (I ran to them immediately after returning to school to make it clear that I had not initiated the hug and was absolutely traumatized; my one colleague was cracking up because she said the look on my face when it happened was priceless, but I didn’t really find it so funny). I’m not so sure a passerby or someone who didn’t know me well would have been able to tell just how horrified I was, or whether they would even have perceived the candidate as the aggressor.

    • At the risk of being that guy (yeah, you’re right, I don’t really care) this whole story is kind of a weird non sequitur.

      As far as the episode, I’m not 100% sure what I think about it. The politics of it all feel a little grotesque (Louis CK isn’t a great actor but that last beat is definitely him being genuinely into the idea of going on a second date with his rapist) but it does seem like it’s true to his character as its been established. Louie is a weird and fairly myopic dude. Do I think it’s realistic to imagine that he is both unaware that he has just been raped and was also kind of turned on by the experience? Yes. Yes I do.

      As a piece of television that is true to the general tone and spirit of the show and its characters, I think the scene works from beginning to end, including the denouement. But in the broader context, where CK creates a rape scenario and stops short of acknowledging the elephant in the room (that this scene implies that rape is something that people can and perhaps should simply take in stride), it’s (somewhat of) a problem. Ultimately, we don’t live in a society where male/female rape can ever be compared on a 1:1 basis to female/male rape, and that ultimately presents its own problem when men and women try to talk about this issue with each other.

      It’s a fascinating scene all around. It might have crossed a line, I don’t know. But it’s an interesting conversation piece.

      • Dex

         /  July 9, 2012

        I took care to say that I wasn’t equating my situation with the situation in the video but thanks for slapping me down all the same.

        Of course I don’t think it’s unrealistic to think that Louie may have been turned on by it or whatever your take is, but I also don’t think there’s a way to watch that video out of context and not acknowledge some ambiguity to it. I always thought that was part of Louie’s thing to at times leave things ambiguous or to leave tension unresolved as opposed to hitting people on the head. I mean, he does a lot of the latter as well, but I’ve always thought many of his stronger bits left people hanging. He does that a lot when he does bits on the use of slurs, for example, and he often does it at the end of the bit.

        • I can totally see that people freeze (as you described in your first comment) and it’s possible that’s what the character was doing – but it didn’t read that way to me, and I’d have to hear more about it in a later episode to really buy that. But given that this is Louie I don’t really think that we’ll ever hear about it again.

          PS I really appreciate the effort to find common ground and find a personal starting point for the conversation. I agree that it was a very different circumstance, but we can only talk about the life we actually had. ‘Scool.

      • It’s a fascinating scene all around. It might have crossed a line, I don’t know. But it’s an interesting conversation piece.

        Pretty much this. I think rape being, well, rape, I’m just that much more sensitive to the impact of possible missteps, and that much more willing to jettison tone (which, you’re right, it’s totally in keeping with the general tone of the series so far) in favor of a greater nuance. The likelihood that it will ever be revisited is slim-to-none, because he deals in these weird slice of life episodes that never really lead to anything and mostly don’t accumulate like an actual life (other than the motorcycle, I guess!).

        • Yeah, I don’t think we should expect an “I’m a rape survivor” episode in the future although, well, youneverknow. He gives you these stories every week and you just have to take them for what they are.

          Louie was unambiguously raped. Any conversation about this episode starts with that. And that’s a powerful idea, that rapes come in a lot of flavors, and it’s even possible to make one seem kind of goofy from an outside perspective while still being very clearly a rape. A rape-rape, even. You can’t control the audience’s response (some people will go out of their way to say, “he wasn’t raped” because they are thick and stupid) but it’s there and people watched it. The ethics and morality of the scene ebbs and flows, and that feels like the most honest thing about it. The button on the scene definitely feels a little out of place, but I don’t think it destroys the message that’s being conveyed here.

      • LizR

         /  July 10, 2012

        Do I think it’s realistic to imagine that he is both unaware that he has just been raped and was also kind of turned on by the experience? Yes. Yes I do.

        And also, having that reaction and taking it to a genuine “yeah, sure, I will see you again” place is sort of the same kind of laziness that the girlfriend from the first episode called him on, but with the stakes raised by about a million. Even if you have an experience like that and you’re a mix of turned on and intrigued and violated by it, it’s still definitely not a good idea to see the person again. But Louie, in the moment, could be thinking in terms of the excitement or comfort or interest in the weirdness, and not about all of the really shitty things that can happen when you date people who talk you into having sex with them by smashing your head into a window.

  2. Thanks for posting this, Emily. I probably would have missed it otherwise. You’re right about Louie C.K. being a super smart guy who’s super aware of systems like capitalism, feminism, white privilege, etc. And because of that, I think this scene was his comment on the fact that even when there’s no ambiguity about him being a victim of sexual violence, it is virtually impossible to equate, in a one-to-one way, the experience of a man being raped to that of a woman being raped. When it’s all over, the man, because of his position in society, physical strength, etc., can never experience rape like a woman does. Please understand that I’m not saying rape isn’t horrific for men. I’m just saying that if you reverse the lines and actions in any rape scene across gender, all things are still not equal.

    The juxtaposition of his head getting smashed into the window and his last line drove that home pretty hard for me.

  3. CitizenE

     /  July 10, 2012

    First, not enough can be said about Melissa Leo.

    Secondly, my take on this was that it was not so much about woman on man rape, but quite the opposite, presenting the case using gender as a mirror. I don’t know if the final line is part of Louie’s sad sack persona or derived from an understandable intimidation factor or simply comic relief from which to move on. And there is one other entertainment meme that is a possibility, how often have we seen a man take a woman on screen, who under the illusion of the entertainment medium says no, but actually means yes when all is said and done? With Louie, ambivalence is his mo. He constantly displays himself as someone not so certain about his own convictions.

    Reciprocity and justice is something men have been dealing with sexually in public since feminism hit its stride in the seventies, there is, and not without justification, a history long gripe being given vent in this scene, but also being presented in its worse light. This isn’t simply about blue balling, but a creepy, cruel even, especially in its bland indifference, sexual selfishness that is confronted with itself in forceful terms.

    Finally, I am no one to talk, but this idea that everything has to be worked out in a verbal agreement before hand may be healthy or salutary or just, but in the practical reality of things, in the nature of sex, the beauty as well as ugliness of the improvisational nature of the interchange, it is not always realistic to say, “well, you should have expressed your expectations verbally.” Leo’s character has a right to be pissed off. We can even forgive her the irrational you hate women cause you’re gay rap. It’s the violence and the domination we find distasteful, but Louie, part of his charm, is a bit of a submissive is he not? So then…

    Props to him for this foray in ambiguity, but I think some of the reaction, my own included, can be derived from the personal projection with which the ambiguity leaves us.

  4. chingona

     /  July 11, 2012

    For whatever it’s worth, I’ve heard stories from more than one woman who continued to go out with someone who raped them on a first or second date. The friendly demeanor of the rapist after the act made them question their own judgement about what had just happened, and on some level, continuing to see the person meant that they hadn’t been raped. On a psychological or emotional level, they weren’t prepared to call what had just happened rape, so they proceeded as if it wasn’t.

    • LizR

       /  July 11, 2012

      If this isn’t way too personal for you/the friends in question, do you know how violent those encounters were? Because I definitely have friends who continued to date people after encounters that were definitely rape, encounters where they had to put way too much effort into getting their no respected, and so on, but none of them involved violence on the level shown in the scene. I’m not sure if this is further proof that you can’t reverse the genders and have a rape scene read the same way, or if the experiences of my friends are skewed. In my experience “I said no, several times, and he didn’t stop and I dropped it and rolled with it” and “I felt too scared to object” and small amounts of physical intimidation or violence, like being held down, are common experiences for women. But having the rapist smash a window with your head (especially the first time out and not later in an abusive relationship), is just totally outside my experience, and I can’t imagine women not seeing that for what it is fairly quickly. To me, that starts to cross a line away from the creepy romcom stuff that women are conditioned to not think of as rape and into the more stereotypical or obvious idea of rape. But maybe you/your friends’ experience is different?

      • chingona

         /  July 11, 2012

        Confession: I didn’t watch the scene yet. I didn’t know it was that violent.

        The encounters I’m aware of were more violent then the “drop and roll” but not “head-bashing” violent. Enough physical force to leave bruises where she was held down and remove any illusion that this was on the normal spectrum of he-pressures, she-resists, but the woman wasn’t beat up. (None of these were me.)

        • LizR

           /  July 11, 2012

          Thanks, that makes sense. I’m sorry that that happened to your friends😦.

  5. The line struck me as something someone would say to get out of a situation without risking further violence.

    • I see what you mean, but it just didn’t scan that way to me on viewing. His delivery reads as entirely unphased, IMO, like he’s gone back into his kind of clueless-Louie mode.

      (And you know what, it’s entirely possible that what looks lazy to me was purposeful and this whole conversation was what he wanted to get started).

  6. chingona

     /  July 12, 2012

    Now that I’ve finally seen it, I think I agree with Craig’s take. The delivery does read as unphased, yet it makes sense in the context of the Louie character.

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