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):
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.