The following is a response to the article After Season Five Of ‘Louie’, I’m Even More Uncomfortable With Calling Louis CK A Feminist by Maddie Palmer as published on JUNKEE on 17/06/2015.
If you haven’t sat down and watched Louie, the semi-eponymous series by Louis C.K., chances are you’ve seen snippets, or else some philosophical gems from the comedic everywhere-man popping up in your news feed.
I read an article this week criticising C.K. – via his show – for its/his lack of feminist merit and progressivism. Which is fine. No entertainer is beyond reproach. But, as a fan of the show, I bristled at some of the ill-conceived arguments.
Like the article’s author, I too am irked by patriarchal tropes and lazy conceptions of ‘traditional’ gender dynamics. Equally unappealing to me, however, is the tendency to seize upon every offering – whether it be an artistic endeavour, interview, whatever – in a feeding frenzy of outrage.
The problem is this…to my mind, throwing around allegations of anti-feminism without proper justification risks devaluing and/or muting valid feminist critiques. It conditions people to tune out at the mere mention of the F-word and dismiss it as something radical and militant. Surely the idea is to foster understanding and engagement with feminist perspectives (at least for the dudebros who are painfully slow on the uptake) so we can finally naturalise the thing. I think we can agree that it’d be super nice to stop having to frame it as something ‘other’.
It seems a large part of Palmer’s dislike of Louie stems from her dislike of C.K., the person, and his alleged misdemeanours (which are mentioned in the article more than once). I have to admit that story was news to me but, regardless, such things should lie separately from critiques of his creative output. History is littered with despicable people who made brilliant art. I wouldn’t invite Woody Allen to dinner but I’m still allowed to enjoy Annie Hall. Rumour has it Picasso was a fuckhead.
Likewise, dark themes explored within the art itself should not be automatically denounced. Is Lolita any less of a classic because of what it depicts? Of course not. It’s creepy as hell, but beautifully written. It’s also fiction.
I don’t pretend to know anything about C.K.’s personal life. In any case, Palmer’s article purports to be a critique of the show so I will keep my focus where it’s best informed.
Palmer’s argument is intensely muddled. On the one hand she acknowledges that C.K. has created a world in which women have control – where most of the central, recurring characters are strong-willed women (including his smart, talented daughters). Then she bemoans the fact that he sometimes succeeds in seducing a girl who is, to paraphrase, too hot for him.
The show excels because it presents a myriad of perspectives. Sometimes vulgar and aggressive. Sometimes with trailblazing insight and empathy. All consistently thought-provoking.
His character’s flirtations are regularly rejected or laughed off. It’s not like he’s boasting a 100 percent success rate. Also, in the show, Louie does have a moderate level of fame and showcases enough eloquence and charm at times that bedding a woman out of his league (not that Palmer is being superficial) is not entirely unlikely. Whatever double standards there are in the reaction to Lena Dunham’s conquests in Girls, it has nothing to do with Louis C.K.
C.K. dwells on male sexual desire because grappling with our primal urges is an ongoing battle of the psyche. A fundamental human struggle often linked to the ebb and flow of self-esteem which, for Louie, is almost permanently set to low. He highlights how lust isn’t governed by logic through the evident unsuitability of some of his partners as well as the rapid puncturing of his fantasies either upon completion or (more often) midway through. It’s a constant source of personal shame and public embarrassment for him.
Many of Louie’s romantic interactions also take place without witness, so the disproportionate attractiveness of the women could very easily be being exaggerated by his perspective. He feels that he is unattractive and therefore most women would appear ‘too hot’ for him. Therefore their beauty is for the audience’s benefit to magnify how ill at ease he feels in their presence. This reading would also in keeping with the show’s surreal, dream-like tangents.
Rather than crying foul at the occasional aesthetic mismatch, it feels more appropriate to admire C.K.’s unique storytelling ability. Surely that’s more compelling than the standard ‘hot wife/fat (or ugly) husband’ TV tradition. Likewise the equally-hot-husband-and-wife-because-that’s-how-couples-should-work-apparently dynamic that Palmer would presumably prefer.
In the controversial scene with Pamela in season four, it’s worth remembering that C.K. isn’t just the character of Louie. He’s also Pamela. He’s the camera too. He knows what he’s doing. He wants us to feel uncomfortable. Whatever loyalty we have to his character, we are not supportive of his actions here, nor his misguided celebration when she leaves. This is the bubbling over of his, until now, complete passivity. And we see that he gets it spectacularly wrong.
Crucially, their relationship does not begin in earnest during this episode. And when it does, it is unequivocally on her terms.
As for the interchangeability of the actors, C.K. has regularly stated his preference for performance over narrative coherence. Each episode, with the exception of occasional longer story arcs, is designed to stand alone almost as a series of short films. Therefore, he favours actors who can bring the best out of a role whether or not it makes perfect sense.
He does this with the male parts as well, such as the bus driver in the first season, who is also the MC at the Comedy Cellar, or F. Murray Abraham, who has played three separate roles to date. This is not a feminist issue. As the show’s creator, C.K. is equally callous regarding the fates of all characters besides himself and his daughters. If anything, the willingness to discard plot-lines and characters in favour of something fresh is a credit to the show’s dynamism.
Some of the show’s concepts might be rawer than others. I suspect that most deliberately aim to shock. In fact, C.K. himself has said as much. Part of his self-professed remit is to throw viewers off balance, stating that his relationship with the audience is, at times, adversarial. In order to make his ideas or punchlines more effective, he deliberately obstructs us from settling into a rhythm that might lead us to know what’s coming next.
The execution and profundity are secondary to the ambition in my opinion. His efforts to subvert gender dynamics (as in the makeup scene in season five, or the dress-wearing scene during his date in season three) and deal so frankly with these ideas should be applauded if only for their invention.
Palmer concludes, “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.”
It’s not anti-feminist or narcissistic that Louie only ‘understands’ these things when they happen to him. As the central character, it has to be Louie who has these revelatory moments. It means more. Why would we want to see him as a fully-formed, omniscient person? We want to see him bumbling and making mistakes and, yes, learning.
Accuse C.K. of narcissism or a tendency towards dick-centrism, sure, but the rest of Palmer’s argument seems suspiciously straw man-ish (NB. that can just as easily be a straw woman if anyone feels under-represented).
Both C.K and his character are undeniably flawed (the latter at least by design), but his show has far less to answer for.