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 Live. It’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.
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.
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.
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?
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.”
When my 4-year-old son asked me if I would take him to see The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (Marc Webb) on Memorial Day, I’ll admit that I wasn’t even aware the sequel (to the reboot) had been released. I was also unaware that X-Men: Days of Future Past (Bryan Singer) or Captain America: Winter Soldier (Joe Russo) were playing in the same theater. I guess I’ve lost my taste for super hero films. I used to love them. In fact, when I was 13-years-old I became obsessed with Batman (1989, Tim Burton). I had posters and collected trading cards and listened obsessively to the soundtrack:
My interest in films like Tim Burton’s Batman and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002) was due less to their super hero antics (the amazing weapons, the acrobatic fight scenes, the spectacle of urban destruction) and far more to do with the idea of normal people who feel an obligation to act on the behalf of others. Because I loved these dark, brooding, almost-noirish heroes, I forgave these films for their lifeless female characters. Or rather, I never thought much about them. I never once identified with Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) or Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst). I didn’t want to be rescued by Batman (Michael Keaton) or Spider-Man (Tobey Maguire), I wanted to be Batman and Spider-Man and rescue folks myself. Now, it’s no secret that super hero movies have a major gender (and race and ethnicity and sexuality problem). Almost all of the major stars of the super hero franchises are white, heterosexual, cis men. And after a while, the white male fantasies of control and power over a chaotic and inherently evil world were no longer interesting to me. I stopped going to see super hero movies.
Though I did not see the first film in the franchise reboot, The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), I wasn’t expecting to see anything other than 142 (!!!) minutes of CGI fight scenes, smashed cars, franchise-building, and pretty girls who need rescuing — and that’s exactly what I got. Now I don’t want to shit on Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone). She’s adorable. Her outfits are amazing (amazing!). She’s the valedictorian of her graduating class. Her hair curls in all the right places. She snagged a sweet job (internship?) at Oscorp Industries immediately upon graduating. She wrinkles her little nose when she laughs. She even got into Oxford to study sciency stuff. She also uses her knowledge of high school science to help Spider-Man magnetize his web shooters, a key trick allowing Spider-Man to wrangle with Electro (Jamie Foxx).
All of these character traits and plot points appear, on the surface, to elevate Gwen above the usual superhero girlfriend role. Indeed, when Gwen finally decides to leave New York for England (Oxford! Science stuff!) Spider-Man cribs a move from Charlotte’s Web, by writing the words “I Love You” in giant web-letters. He then tells Gwen that he will follow her to Oxford. He will follow Gwen anywhere. He will be her trailing, Spidey-spouse, doing fixed term work across the Pond. OMG, swoonsville, right ladies?
But even as someone who knows nothing about the Spider-Man I know that shit is not going to happen. Spider-Man cannot give up his gift, his “great responsibility,” for the love of a woman. He can’t be secondary because he’s primary. He’s the protagonist. And Electro is totally sucking up all of New York City’s power so Spidey basically says “Now I’m gonna tie your ass this police car with some of my webs. Bye.”
This enrages Gwen, who is all “Fuck off, Spider-Man,” because she is a modern postfeminist woman (with GIRL POWER!) and she makes her own choices, and no one, not even fucking Spider-Man, is going to tell her what to do. She yells something to this effect and it is adorable but pointless because as we all know, this is not Gwen’s movie. Still, Gwen pulls out some scissors or a Swiss Army knife or something and hacks away at those sticky webs and then shows up at the big show down between her boyfriend and Electro at some magical place in New York City where all the electricity is kept. Gwen uses her vast knowledge of New York City’s power grid (what?), to help Spider-Man destroy Electro and save New York City from a black out, which is a super dire situation because then planes crash.
Despite Gwen’s key contribution to this epic CGI-battle, the whole scene felt a lot like the scene at the very end of the film (SPOILER ALERT!) when a little boy, dressed up in a Spider-Man costume, attempts to face off against an Oscorp-generated villain, Rhino (Paul Giamatti). It’s admirable and it’s adorable (his costume is too big for him!), but ultimately, we take a deep sigh of relief when Spider-Man finally appears on the scene, thanks the little boy for his bravery, pats him on the head, then delivers him into the arms of his weeping mama. Gwen is like that little boy: we admire her, she’s adorable and brave, but ultimately, she needs to move aside so the real heroes can do their work. Superheroing is a (white) man’s game. It is not for women and children. It’s not for poor, lonely, invisible Electro either.
This became most apparent in the final battle of the film between Spider-Man and the newly villainized Harry/Green Goblin (Dane DeHaan, looking like a cracked out, lost member of One Direction). Because although Gwen reminded Spidey about how magnets work and knew how to access New York City’s power grid (again, I must ask, how does an 18-year-old who jut started working at Oscorp know this?), she is, at the end of the day, just a woman. And a woman’s main value in cinema, especially a summer blockbuster reboot of a successful comic book franchise, is in her to-be-looked-at-ness. That is, Gwen’s purpose is to be an object of the Gaze: Spidey’s gaze, Green Goblin’s gaze, and the audience’s gaze. Her greatest value and power in the film lies in what she means to Peter Parker/Spider-Man. Gwen’s photograph appears all over Peter’s bedroom. She is an image to be adored. She is Peter’s everything. She is his crime-fighting muse. After they break up, Spider-Man sits atop New York City buildings,
stalking watching Gwen going about her day. We watch her too. Her outfits are amazing.
Gwen exists to be looked at and she exists as an object of exchange. Harry/Green Goblin values her only because Peter values her. That is, Gwen’s worth is determined by the men around her. As Gayle Rubin argues in her seminal essay, “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex” (1975):
If Harry possesses Gwen, he can exchange her for something he values, in this case, the blood of Spider-Man (which Harry believes will save his life). Gwen gains nothing in this exchange of her body (other than, she hopes, the opportunity to remain alive) because she is the object, the gift, that the powerful white men toss back and forth like a beautiful little rag doll. In the film’s (almost) final battle scene, Harry, now in full Green Goblin mode, scoops up little Miss Gwen and carries her off to a Dangerous Place. Spider-Man, predictably, chases after his love, intent on both saving her life and stopping Green Goblin.
And so, near the end of Spider-Man 2 we find ourselves in a familiar situation: our beautiful damsel, our muse, the gift/ransom exchanged between two men (one selfless, the other selfish), is literally dangling by a string. Here Gwen becomes more valuable than ever because she is now the audience’s gift. Because we identify with Spider-Man, the protagonist, Gwen’s peril is intended to fill us with the worst kind of dread. If she dies, how will Spider-Man feel? I mean, it’s gonna really fuck him up, right? Gwen’s life is the film’s climax.
Look, I get it. The movie’s title is The Amazing Spider-Man 2, not Gwen Remembers How Magnets Work or Gwen Goes to Oxford. Of course every supporting character’s role is there to do just that — to support the story of the Amazing Spider-Man. But I suppose it’s Gwen’s postfeminist accoutrement that leaves a sour taste in my mouth. I almost wish Gwen were more helpless and passive, stupider and more frightened. But it’s the fact that Gwen is so damn capable: she’s pretty and smart and plucky and brave and has the love of a good man. She is living the postfeminist dream (until she dies, that is!) and for that, she gives the film an appearance of some kind of gender equality. “Look, she helps Spidey! Look, she’s pursuing a career!” At the end of the day, these stories belong to the same white men they’ve always belonged to.