Everyone’s a Little Bit Rapey?

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Let’s get this out of the way: I love Louis CK. I’ve watched (and enjoyed) all of his stand up concert films and every episode of his FX series, Louie. Louis CK’s humor appeals to me because it makes me squirm: it makes me examine the terrible parts of myself and question my belief systems. He does what, in my opinion, all great comedy should do: “it walks the line between hilarity and horror; make me laugh when my first instinct is to cry.” (yes, I just quoted myself; don’t judge me). A great example of how Louis CK achieves this fine balance of horror, humor and humility can be found in the lengthy stand-up segment of last night’s episode, “Pamela Part I,” a bit which I first saw back in March, when he delivered it as part of his opening monologue on Saturday Night LiveIt’s a great bit, reeling us in with the funny, then surprising and shaming us, then finally, making us laugh. For example, CK talks about how the Bible refers to God as “our Father” and as male, even though it would make more sense for God, if s/he truly exists, to be a female:

The point is: Women birthed us, women raised us. So why aren’t they running things? I think I know why. I think it’s because, millions of years ago, women were in charge, and they were mean, they were horrible! They made us walk around naked, and then they’d laugh at you and flick your penis when you walk by… They were AWFUL! But what could you do? It’s your Mom and her friends, like what could you possibly do about it? And then one guy punched his mom, and we’re like: “We can hit them!” And then we did the whole thing. 

After hearing this bit I actually turned to my husband and said “I should show this to my students to explain the concept of patriarchy!” Louis CK has that kind of effect on me. For this reason I’m willing to give Louis CK the benefit of the doubt when he takes a risk in his comedy. True,  Louie has been an uneven series; for example “The Elevator,” a 6-episode story arc focusing on Louie’s chaste courtship of Amia (Eszter Balint), a Hungarian woman temporarily staying in Louie’s apartment building, was not always successful (in my humble opinion). For example, it’s hard to understand why two fortysomething adults would hang out with each for hours on end without being able to communicate (Louie doesn’t speak any Hungarian, Amia doesn’t speak any English) and without having sex. No sex? No conversation? What were they doing all month? However, I forgave this unbelievable communication gap (have these two never heard of Google Translate? It’s free, Louie!) because it paid off very well in “The Elevator, Part 6,” when Amia takes Louie to a Hungarian restaurant and begs a waiter to translate her love letter into English.

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During the six episodes of “The Elevator” we only heard Louie’s point-of-view. He tells his friends, and anyone who will listen, that he loves Amia, despite the communication gap (and only knowing her for one month).  But we never hear Amia’s (English) words. So when the waiter sits down at Louie and Amia’s table, puts on his spectacles, and begins reading “Dear Louie…” I was almost as excited as Louie was to hear what she has to say. As the waiter reads Amia’s words, my eyes stay fixed on Louie, who is (charmingly) both embarrassed and delighted by the sudden rush of emotions he can now attribute to his love object. A month of unsaid thoughts and desires come pouring out of the waiter’s mouth until Louie grips his hand and asks him to stop. It’s too much at once; Louie can’t take it all in. He’s not accustomed to women reciprocating his desires. The revelation is bittersweet, of course, because Amia will soon return to Hungary permanently, to be with her son and friends and life. Their love is doomed.

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Of course, it’s worth pointing out that this touching love scene was preceded by Louie venturing out into the wilds of Brooklyn in the middle of a hurricane to rescue his ex-wife and two daughters from their slowly-flooding apartment building. Why did these three women need rescuing? As Louie’s ex-wife (Kelechi Watson) says, more than once, her husband is out of town! Yes, when her man is out of town, Janet, a normally resourceful, independent woman, turns into a wailing mess of panic and throws her arms around her ex-husband and sobs in relief when he shows up to save her and her daughters. This scene was so over-the-top in terms of its macho, hero-complex pacing that I almost expected it all to be just a fantasy in Louie’s head, an attempt to make up for the deflating experience of finally getting to screw the woman he loves (or at least lusts after) and then having her run off into the rain, muttering in Hungarian. Placing Amia’s love letter scene directly after Louie’s heroic rescue of his (all-female) family makes it feel too much like a “reward,” as something he earned for “manning up.” But maybe that was the point? Was Louis CK trying to demonstrate how his character has such a lowly sense of self that he can only be loved and receive love after performing an over-the-top rescue mission of three helpless women? Is this perhaps a commentary on the character’s deep neuroses? Maybe. Maybe.

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I’m willing to forgive the masculinist fantasies at the heart of “Elevator, Part 6,” however I am far more ambivalent about the key scene in “Pamela, Part I” in which Louie appears to/tries to rape his friend/crush, Pamela (Pamela Adlon). Recall that Pamela is Louie’s longtime love interest who repeatedly shot down his attempts to romance her. Let’s revisit the speech Louie makes to Pamela back in season 2:

Pamela, I’m in love with you. Yeah, it’s that bad. You’re so beautiful to me. Shut up! Lemme tell you. Let me. Every time I look at your face or even remember it, it wrecks me – and the way you are with me – and you’re just fun and you shit all over me and you make fun of me and you’re real. I don’t have enough time in any day to think about you enough. I feel like I’m going to live a thousand years cause that’s how long it’s gonna take me to have one thought about you which is that I’m crazy about you, Pamela. I don’t wanna be with anybody else. I don’t. I really don’t. I don’t think about women anymore. I think about you. I had a dream the other night that you and I were on a train. We were on this train and you were holding my hand. That’s the whole dream. You were holding my hand and I felt you holding my hand. I woke up and I couldn’t believe it wasn’t real. I’m sick in love with you, Pamela. It’s like a condition. It’s like polio. I feel like I’m gonna die if I can’t be with you. And I can’t be with you. So I’m gonna die – and I don’t care cause I was brought into existence to know you and that’s enough. The idea that you would want me back it’s like greedy.

Amazing shit, right? But Pamela isn’t into it. She only likes Louie as a friend so she gets on a plane and moves, permanently, to Paris. That is, until she returns in “Elevator Part 3,” contrite, hoping that she and Louie can “pursue something, a girl/guy kissing thing.” Pamela doesn’t sound convinced, even as she tries to convince Louie, and he gently turns her down because he has fallen for Amia.

But in “Pamela Part 1” Louie is heartbroken (“walking poetry,” according to the pragmatic Dr. Bigelow [Charles Grodin], resident sage of Louie) and decides to give Pamela a call. Like any self-respecting person, Pamela sees the rebound for what it is, and Louie doesn’t deny it. Still, Louie attempts romance once again one night, after Pamela babysat his daughters. In a scene which echoes the first time Louie and Amia kiss (and later, make love), Louie awkwardly leans in to kiss Pamela. After she ducks his mouth, he tries again. And again. And AGAIN. He grabs and pulls at her. He drags her small frame from room to room. He reminds her that she wanted to do some “girl/guy kissing stuff,” but Pamela isn’t having it. Is it because she can’t bring herself to admit that she’s attracted to Louie? Or is it because she would really like to be attracted to a “nice guy” like Louie but just…isn’t?

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Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what Pamela did or did not “truly” want in that moment. What matters is what her mouth was saying and her body was doing — both were communicating, quite clearly, no. Old Louie would have given up after the first pass. Like a turtle retreating into his shell, it takes little for old Louie to disengage. But new Louie, the Louie who can single-handedly rescue three women from a Brooklyn apartment, who won over the recalcitrant Hungarian, doesn’t retreat. He is clearly frustrated by Pamela’s hot/cold routine. He believes that if he can just fuck her, or just kiss her, then she’ll know, unequivocally, that she is, in fact, attracted to him. Louie is large man, tall and broad, and Pamela is small. After a lengthy struggle, Pamela finally frees herself and screams “This would be rape if you weren’t so stupid. God! You can’t even rape well!” After he secures a psuedo-kiss from Pamela (still under duress), she escapes his apartment and we see Louie’s expression: it is not one of shame but triumph.

Throughout this entire ordeal I was horrified, not because I haven’t seen this scene before — the trope of the woman who resists and resists and resists until finally, she collapses in a man’s arms, is a tried and true cliche — but because I didn’t expect to see it in an episode of Louie. Now I’ve read several recaps of this episode that point to Louie’s lengthy bit about patriarchal oppression (quoted above) being strategically placed before this scene. In other words, because Louis CK was aware that this scene was “rapey,” it’s okay. It’s honest and real. It’s about how date rape happens. It’s about how all men are just a little bit rapey. Maybe. Maybe. But coming in the wake of the University of California Santa Barbara shootings less than 2 weeks ago, in which a young, troubled man murdered seven humans because he was tired of “not getting the girl,” this episode felt like salt rubbed in a very raw wound.

In his (mostly) thoughtful reflections on this episode for the AV Club, Todd VanDerWerff writes:

 The thing it does more bracingly than any episode of TV I’ve seen is place us in the point-of-view of a man who would force himself—no matter how mildly—on a woman and have us see how easily that could slip over into being any man if the circumstances were right, if his feelings were hurt just so or if she lashed out at him while crying on their bathroom floor. To be a man is to remember constantly, daily, that you are, on average, bigger than the average-sized member of half the population, that your mere presence can be scary or threatening to them, especially in the wrong circumstances, and that it is up to you to be on guard against that happening, no matter how unfair that might seem.

But here’s the thing: I’m tired of trying to understand the man’s point of view in this situation. I don’t want to know anymore about the PUAHaters and their hurt feelings. I don’t want to hear about how men think about sex all the time (newsflash: SO DO WOMEN). I don’t care what led up to Louie’s attempted rape of Pamela. I don’t care about his low self esteem or hurt feelings. I don’t want to sympathize with this point of view anymore. Louis CK and other well-meaning men want to tell us how hard it is to be a big strong horny man who just wants that cocktease to finally…give…in. But damn, Louis CK, I’m just not here for that.

I know lots of men who would rather die than force themselves on a woman. I know lots of men who are not in the least bit rapey. I know lots of men who can control themselves. So let’s do ourselves a favor: let’s stop pretending like rape is a man’s default setting when a woman says no because it’s not. I want think pieces about men who don’t rape women. I want to see entire episodes of television in which a man does not rape a woman, or attempt to rape a woman. I would like a rape-free TV this summer. 

But, as Louis CK says, “…we’re like’ We can hit them!’ And then we did the whole thing.” 


10 thoughts on “Everyone’s a Little Bit Rapey?

    Greg Boyd said:
    June 3, 2014 at 5:15 pm

    Okay, so I didn’t really read this episode as trying to understand or sympathize with Louie’s POV at all. One of the things that I kept seeing when I was reading the Yes All Women hashtag is the idea that women ALWAYS have to worry about what might happen if an encounter with a man (friend, date, stranger, doesn’t matter) goes wrong. Of course most men aren’t rapists, but enough are that it is absolutely a threat that hangs over women’s lives.

    It hangs over what they say as well. In that earlier episode, Pamela is receptive to the idea of a romantic relationship with Louie. Here, though, she rejects him: and not particularly gently. I imagine that most women who wish to break up with a dude probably would not do it the way she did, but Pamela is secure enough in her friendship with Louie that she thinks she’s safe ribbing him this way. But the words begin to eat away at him: a man, conditioned to respond aggressively to taunts and/or threats to his masculinity. I don’t think the episode is sympathizing at all with him here; rather, I think it’s commenting on the fact that women are forced to watch what they say, even to men they know very well.

    I can’t argue with most of your other points. I too am sick of seeing this on TV. But I think the fact that I see this as an episode about how sexual violence can arise in a relationship where it would seem to be the most unlikeliest thing ever (as opposed to an attempt to get inside the head of the man committing the violence) means that I don’t see it as part of the trend of (as you put it) “pretending like rape is a man’s default setting”. It’s not. But having to worry about it in their interactions with men IS often a woman’s default setting. That’s what I think this episode was getting at. And that’s something that I think it’s really important to depict, if things are ever going to change for the better.

    Greg Boyd said:
    June 4, 2014 at 1:49 am

    Just reread my comment, and I realized it may have sounded a bit like I was being dismissive of your overall point. That wasn’t my intention; I was simply trying to explain why I feel this episode has some really important things to say. Obviously you read it differently, and I wasn’t trying to suggest that my reading was somehow more valid. So apologies if that’s how it came off.

      Amanda Ann Klein responded:
      June 4, 2014 at 11:07 am

      Hi Greg, thanks for reading and commenting!

      I don’t disagree with anything you’ve written. My point is that what happened between Louie and a woman he (presumably) loves was not an accident or slip up. Louie is not the Incredible Hulk who just needs a slight trigger to go from nice guy into rapist (sorry I know nothing about the Hulk so that may be a terrible metaphor). I don’t think this scene worked for the character, especially since the scene ends with triumph instead of contrition.

      I get that this season is about the disconnect between men and women but I don’t think having Louie attempt rape is great example of that. Rape is about power and control.

        Greg Boyd said:
        June 4, 2014 at 12:06 pm

        All good points. I never thought about it from a character perspective. But you’re right: it doesn’t really fit with what we know about the character. And that in turn kind of undercuts the larger points I think the show was trying to make here. I really thought this was a great (disturbing, but great) episode of TV right after I watched it, but after thinking about it and discussing it, I’m less convinced it achieved it what it was attempting to do.

    cousinbrandon said:
    June 4, 2014 at 10:22 am

    Really, really well-written piece, Amanda, particularly considering how quickly you turned it around.

    While I can certainly see where you’re coming from in terms of essentially not giving a fuck as to how the mind of the typically horny male works, I think it’s necessary (at least in this particular case) all the same. Let’s be clear: I’m not suggesting that most men should be applauded for their ability to show restraint and NOT rape women. That’s just disgusting, and in fact reminds me of the great Chris Rock bit about men being self-congratulatory when it comes to raising their children. We’re talking about human beings, not animals. It’s not a question of restraint; rather, it’s a question of the most basic tenets of right and wrong. If a man needs to “restrain” himself from forcing himself upon a woman, he’s a fucking animal.

    Yet despite my agreement with your take on this point, as well as your desire to NOT have to be subjected to it, I don’t know that I agree that you shouldn’t be. That is, Louie, as you rightfully point out, is made to make you squirm, as it’s a show that isn’t so much interested in comedy, but honesty. It’s awkward and, at times, hysterically funny because life and how Louie (WE!) responds to life is awkward and, at times, hysterically funny. The scene in which he forced himself on Pamela was difficult to watch. There’s no denying that. However, I would add these two things: A) it was necessary; and B) it may or may not have happened.

    To my first point, it was necessary because, in the world of Louie, we have repeatedly watched him tackle the taboo not because HE, Louis C.K., necessarily feels and does all of these things, but because these things happen. What we’re seeing, particularly in this season, may or may not have been true to Louis C.K., but are certainly true to SOMEONE. To present that scene with his attempt to force himself upon Pamela is a fantastical manifestation of real life. It forced us, like so many events in this show, to confront what absolutely exists. What’s more, I think you might be able to argue that we saw relatively the same Louie when he “forced himself” upon Amia in episode 5 of “The Elevator,” but we also realize, despite not understanding her, that she is upset, perhaps, because she knows their relationship can’t last, NOT because she is being forced to have sex with him. Do we judge Louie differently in these two scenes? Is one worse than the other? Or do we think both are okay, because Louie has professed his love for both women, and both women, to some extent love him, too? (And, no, I’m not suggesting rape is okay if two people love one another. It’s not.)

    My second point speaks to something you wrote in your piece, pertaining to Louie’s rescuing his children during the hurricane:

    “This scene was so over-the-top in terms of its macho, hero-complex pacing that I almost expected it all to be just a fantasy in Louie’s head, an attempt to make up for the deflating experience of finally getting to screw the woman he loves (or at least lusts after) and then having her run off into the rain, muttering in Hungarian.”

    I would argue that nearly this ENTIRE season of Louie has been a fantasy — that what we’re watching isn’t actually happening, but is instead his psyche on display. Of COURSE Amia is Hungarian and doesn’t speak a lick of English. It simply allows for Louie to have yet another moment in which he can’t connect with a woman. Earlier this season, Louie is in a coffee shop with Todd Barry, and a customer wearing headphones and drinking coffee continues to walk into Louie. It isn’t until Louie PHYSICALLY moves the customer around him that the customer is able to pass. It’s more a commentary on the zombie-like consumerism of America, yet it’s so subtle it practically went unnoticed. And the garbagemen in his bedroom? Again, it’s just a physical manifestation of what they sound like to a man who’s trying to sleep. They’re not ACTUALLY in his apartment. The list goes on and on. I’m not sure the benefit show with the model ever happened. Chances are Louie accidentally broke his nose and concocted some type of story in his head (played out with the benefit show and the model) that would impress the waitress at the comedy club. Did the hurricane happen? Of COURSE not, but it’s a way for Louie to make himself out to be the hero, and to once again “disconnect” from a woman in the process (remember, he leaves his conversation with Amia and her aunt in the apartment as she’s translating his love for her).

    So, in the end, I guess I really don’t know that the attack on Pamela happened, or was actually his psyche on display. But I do know it’s the honesty and attempt at something “more” that keeps me fascinated by the show and absolutely intrigued by Louis C.K. himself.

      Amanda Ann Klein responded:
      June 4, 2014 at 11:17 am

      Thanks for reading and for the thoughtful comment, Cousin Brandon.

      Let me tackle “b” first. What if it was all a dream? Fine. It’s possible. But this post is about this episode and what was depicted there. So let’s go back to “a.”

      1. “What we’re seeing, particularly in this season, may or may not have been true to Louis C.K., but are certainly true to SOMEONE. To present that scene with his attempt to force himself upon Pamela is a fantastical manifestation of real life”
      Well of course Louie is NOT Louis CK. But Louie is Louie, a character we have come to know across 4 seasons of TV. This Louie is nuerotic, self-loathing and, for the most part, passive (which is why that rescue scene was crazy). So this scene with Pamela felt way too out of character, as if Louis CK and the other writers were like “Hey, what if Louie tried to rape a woman–how would that play out?”

      2. “What’s more, I think you might be able to argue that we saw relatively the same Louie when he “forced himself” upon Amia in episode 5 of “The Elevator,” but we also realize, despite not understanding her, that she is upset, perhaps, because she knows their relationship can’t last, NOT because she is being forced to have sex with him. Do we judge Louie differently in these two scenes? Is one worse than the other?”
      I think Louis CK wanted these two “seduction” scenes to look similar, but to highlight the differences between the 2 scenarios. With Amia, sure she did push him away, but very quickly she reciprocated. This bordered on the trope of “she wants it, you just need to make her realize she wants it.” But it ended up working, giving the ambiguity of their relationship. But with Pamela, they weren’t seeing each other. They weren’t courting. And she was SO. NOT. INTO. IT. I mean, why did Louie even want to keep trying, giving how clearly repulsed she was by it. Yuck.

      3. “To my first point, it was necessary because, in the world of Louie, we have repeatedly watched him tackle the taboo not because HE, Louis C.K., necessarily feels and does all of these things, but because these things happen.”
      Being taboo for taboo’s sake is bullshit, particularly when it comes to shit like this, particularly in the very problematic rape culture that is being steadily cultivated through popular culture.

      So, no, no “taboo pass” for Louie on this one, I’m afraid.

        cousinbrandon said:
        June 4, 2014 at 11:51 am

        I have to disagree with your point that he and Pamela “weren’t courting,” when, in fact, they’ve essentially been courting for quite some time. Sure, maybe not physically, but there’s no way to look at the speech you quoted above and deny that they’ve been courting to some extent. He professed his love for Pamela. Pamela once offered to take a bath with him. Just recently she said she was interested in pursuing the whole guy/girl kissie thing. She spends time with a man (Louie) who she knows is in love with her, and she clearly has some type of love for him, too. Furthermore, why would it be out of character for a man who has been beaten down in this case — who just had his heart broken (again) — to pursue Pamela so “neurotically” in this instance? Again, he’s in love with her, and he has been for quite some time. After watching Amia leave, he finally realizes that being passive gets you nowhere. (And, maybe, being active gets you nowhere, either, as he professed his love for Amia and she STILL left, just like Pamela a while back.) Is it out of character from what we’ve seen of Louie? Maybe. But what’s wrong with a character progressing, even if it’s actually regressing, in this case, to a more base form of behavior? Finally, I don’t see this as being “taboo for taboo’s sake.” Not one bit. I think it made sense in the context of the show, and I think Louie’s stand-up segment that preceded this scene was obviously there quite purposely.

    Beach Pillows said:
    June 4, 2014 at 1:39 pm

    I think this a well written and considered piece. It brings up great points and true, valid feelings of the author. But just because the scene is uncomfortable or portrays bad behavior doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be explored in art. If Louie were only good, the show would not be. This is a person learning and growing, constantly trying to shine light onto darkness, as we all should aspire to until we die. You may be tired of trying to understand the man’s point of view, but Louis CK is a man, and he’s creating this stuff. It will all be from his point of view. That said, I think he does more to show and empathize with the female perspective than most modern male artists I can think of. But he’s also brave enough to be the foil. To be the bad guy. To show his confusion and flaws. The idea that we’re condoning all we portray is an old but for some reason recurring argument and doesn’t work on Louie any better than on Scorsese. I suppose he’s more susceptible to such criticism as the star. But judging the character in a personal way, or feeling let down, just doesn’t track with me. I condemn the behavior of the character, as it’s clear to me that Louis CK does–you can’t watch Pamela and feel anything but in her corner here, sad or scared for her and repulsed by Louie’s actions. But I applaud the bravery of the artist and the truth of the work. The fist pump was a heartbreaking and hilarious display of Louie’s confusion. As you said very well up top, “It makes me examine the terrible parts of myself and question my belief systems.”

    And I respect your opinion very much. I think the idea is the work is so strong and provocative, people are going to have opinions, and that’s okay. That’s the way it should be.

    Coral said:
    June 4, 2014 at 6:19 pm

    Amanda, I finally got caught up on my Louie’s last night, just so I could read your article. I was super uncomfortable too during that scene. It was just so awkward and desperate and sad. And I don’t like Pamela. Not for Louie anyway. She’s a major head-case. She left him for the ex-husband originally, so coming back to NY, Louie was basically as much a rebound to her as she is to him after the Hungarian woman goes home. So why should the “ship have sailed”? Why is it okay for her to pursue other men and then come crawling back to him and not the other way around? Bullshit in my opinion. Also, when they were at the restaurant, she made a comment, “Maybe it’s your balls calling you.” (What I wanted Louie to do was to stand up and leave. “Don’t take that shit, Louie!!! You can have any woman you want! Screw her crazy ass!) She’s basically challenging him to be more forceful in that moment, take control. And I feel like coming on a little too strong for that kiss really wasn’t so bad. She insinuated to him that she wants him to be more assertive, i.e. forceful. I didn’t see it as rape. He’s not going to rape her with his two daughters asleep in their beds. I’d rather he not have done it though. I want him to do the right thing, which is just totally dismiss her. Be strong, Louie!. Show her you have balls by blowing her off! Tell her you’ll give her a call the next time you need a babysitter. I really enjoyed Beachpillows and cousinbrandon’s comments too.

    cbats said:
    June 4, 2014 at 11:52 pm

    I love the article Amanda and agree with almost everything you said. The only thing I would say is that I’m not convinced we’re being asked to understand the mindset of men like this, I think it’s going to end up being the opposite (obviously speculation because we haven’t seen the end of the story yet). I don’t think Louie is really trying to make YOU understand how this happens, I think he’s forcing the men who watch the show who sympathized with Louie here to realize how wrong they are. The men who are so oblivious to how their actions come across as creepy and predatory that they fistpump after something like this.

    That obviously doesn’t mean that you can’t be worn down by having to see this depicted in pop culture over and over again though. I think that’s a very reasonable reason to struggle with what he’s trying to do here. I just hope that in 2 weeks Louie’s character realizes how fucked up his actions are and doesn’t get let off the hook.

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