On November 9, 2017 The New York Times published the voices of five women accusing comedian Louis C.K. of sexual misconduct, to which C.K. replied in confirmation of the allegations that he masturbated in front of these women and apologized for causing them harm. Consequently, C.K. was dropped by his manager and television network, and a variety of his projects were cancelled, including the New York premiere of his 35mm, black and white film, I Love You, Daddy. Amidst a barrage of sexual misconduct allegations against men in popular culture, C.K. has been wrung through the feminist-frenzied echo chamber that is mainstream media, resulting in the loss of a prolific and talented stand-up comedian, writer, producer and director.
As a fan of C.K., the allegations against him were disheartening, not because I thought him gross or abusive, but because they meant, for all intents and purposes, the end of his contemporary career. Perhaps C.K.’s downfall feels like justice to the women he made feel uncomfortable or to anyone who is now disgusted by him, but, I imagine, his downfall was heartbreaking to a great deal of people because he is one of a handful of comedians whose work—in all its existential and self-deprecating nuances—challenges society’s normalization of the mutually exclusive ideal that men are predators and women are prey.
Significantly, his semi-autobiographical television series, Louie, which ran from 2010-2015, consistently shows the protagonist (Louie) victimized by both women and society for not being the economically stable, testosterone-fueled epitome of the man that our culture both condemns and enforces—Louie cares too much, seeks female attention too desperately, and should probably get a “real” job.
One of the show’s recurring narratives is Louie’s turmoil as he pines after a female friend, Pamela. After four seasons of rejecting Louie, she enters an “open-relationship” with him, and eventually breaks up with him in the episode, “Bobby’s House,” (S5, E4). In this episode, Louie is attacked by a female pedestrian whom he was attempting to help. Afterwards, he shamefully faces his daughters and Pamela as they laugh at him for being beat-up by a girl; effectually emasculating him, perhaps in the most degrading way possible. Having asked Pamela to cover his scars with make-up, she (without being prompted) also applies eyeliner on him, initiates a gender role-reversal (to which Louie plays along), and penetrates Louie from behind with a strap-on. She then proceeds to break up with him, and he cries.
C.K.’s work is important not only because it subverts the binary model of male (predator)/ female (prey), but his work is also a laying-bear to the traumas we experience on a daily basis in having to navigate a world that lacks empathy, one which rations out who gets to feel what. In this world, our current world, “Bobby’s House” is praised as an allegory for misogyny and women are considered the proprietary victims of sexual assault and emotional abuse. Chris Cabin, in reviewing and lauding the aforementioned episodic details, writes: “In one way, the sequence serves as an upending of chauvinistic behavior; a play off of the familiar misogynistic ploy to get one last lay in before breaking the relationship off.” In such a way, Louie isn’t seen as a man who is emotionally and physically degraded. Instead, Cabin reads the role-reversal and penetration scenes as Louie metaphorically becoming the women (prey), because within the popular paradigm women are never predators and men are never prey, but this obviously isn’t the factual case.
If we deconstruct our current social order into a string of binary oppositions, it becomes evident that historically subaltern sides of these pairs are being granted open arms and attentive ears. Gay/straight, female/male, black/white, trans/cis are only some of many examples of socio-political dualities being reversed in order to, ideally, combat oppression. But what happens to the now less-than side of each binary? One of the largest issues with basing civil rights movements off of binary models is that an oppressed side is innate to the conception of a functional binary, and oppression should never be okay. As is evident in mainstream feminism, revenge can be a form of savagery.
I find that C.K. addresses this issue best in his most recent Netflix stand-up special, “2017.” C.K. says: “I envy transgender people, though. I do…they figured out what’s going on with them, and they fixed it!…I would give a million dollars to just wake up, ‘Oh, I’m an owl. That’s what the thing is.’” In this joke, C.K. engages in the deconstruction of language. First, by juxtaposing envy and transgender, C.K. paradoxically places the non-trans viewer in a position to empathize with a trans subject, therefore allowing transgender to grow in metonymic meaning. Secondly, the linguistic transformation from transgender to owl questions the integrity of words as essential signifiers of self. Recently, comedian Ricky Gervais, in his Netflix stand-up special, “Humanity,” paid what can only be seen as homage to C.K..
In response to criticism that Gervais made a trans-phobic joke while hosting the Golden Globes, he says: “If you feel you’re a woman, that makes you a woman. I’m not one of these bigots that think having [sex reassignment surgery] is science going too far. In fact, I don’t think it’s going far enough—’cause I’ve always identified as a chimp.” Both C.K. and Gervais, respectively, ask: Is it not insidiously ironic to ration out who gets to feel what?
By granting a select group of people the privilege to feel what are otherwise universally defining emotions of human existence (confusion, loneliness, sadness, etc.) in terms of how historically oppressed their linguistic signifiers make them is reductive of our organic human capacity to feel empathy and in-turn marginalizes the flip-side of a binary. In the case of the jokes quoted above, this flip-side is the, presumably, cisgender individual. In the anecdote of C.K., and in the lives of men, whether gay, or transgender, or black, or poor, their maleness is that which marginalizes them.
A major tenet of post-structuralist literary theory is the idea that language is the very lens through which we view the world and experience living. Whether this is (essentially speaking) true or not is up for debate, but I do find this philosophy is present in the way society treats people based on their minority-value. Comics, specifically male comics, are combatting these unfair social schemas by making people laugh. Even though C.K. may not re-surface into popular culture for a while, I do believe that the tradition of questioning the paradigms that construct our normalized misandrous behaviors will continue and does continue through the work of his fellow contemporaries (Bill Burr, Ricky Gervais, and Michael Che are a few).
After discovering the Male Rights Movement, it has become increasingly difficult to swallow the anti-male rhetoric (protected by the impenetrable halo of feminism) that abound on the news, on social medias, in everyday conversation, even in university classrooms. Although I’m a woman (identifying as such) I find myself censored from calling out this anti-male rhetoric for what it actually is: bigoted. This censorship is no doubt what many MRAs and men perpetually face. People don’t want to stand in opposition to current paradigms (despite peoples’ desire to be the inciters of paradigm shifts).
It’s not easy having your entire worldview turned upside down (this is why I admire Cassie Jaye), yet The Echo Chamber’s refusal to welcome controversial ideas is turning us into a people (generally speaking) that not only stray from thinking for ourselves but also opt to not feel for ourselves. With our emotions now subject to cultural editing, sifting, and allocation, comedians (alongside educators, activists, and artists) might be the pioneers to turn to for sanity, clarity, and companionship.
Cabin, Chris. “LOUIE: Why ‘Bobby’s House’ May Be Season 5’s Best Episode So Far.” Collider, 1 May 2015, http://collider.com/louie-why-bobbys-house-may-be-the-seasons-best-episode-thus-far/.
C.K., Louis, performer. “2017.” Louis C.K., 2017. 00:55:40-00:56:20.
Gervais, Ricky, performer. “Humanity.” Ricky Gervais, 2018. 00:14:10-00:14:27.
Ryzik, Melena, et al. “Louis C.K. Is Accused by 5 Women of Sexual Misconduct.” The New York Times, 9 Nov. 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/09/arts/television/louis-ck-sexual-misconduct.html.
Eva Barb holds a BA in English literature. She works as a freelance journalist and can usually be found playing video games and hiding from humanity with her husband in their tiny NYC apartment.