Aggressive misogyny has been a central ingredient to standup

Emily Nussbaum on Louis CK and the whole damn thing.

We are all going to be writing pieces about how these scandals change the way we look at art—at Louis C.K.’s comedy, but also at the movies that were produced by Harvey Weinstein, or that star Kevin Spacey, or are directed by James Toback, as well as the TV shows and albums created by Bill Cosby. That’s a critic’s issue; it’s an issue for fans and philosophers. It’s certainly a particularly pungent question when it comes to a show like “Louie”—an auteurist sitcom on FX in which the main character is explicitly based on its creator, or C.K.’s independent streaming project “Horace and Pete,” which had a whole episode devoted to a female character talking about exposing herself in front of a man whom she wasn’t certain was consenting. C.K.’s standup is not merely confessional, it’s also focussed on sex and ethics, as well as on questions of decency, fatherhood, masculinity, and, at times, feminism. That’s why, for many of C.K.’s fans, he’s been more than a creative figure. He’s been a role model, too, specifically because he tells the kinds of stories that are taboo and shameful—his brand was telling the stories you weren’t supposed to tell.

As it turns out, other people have those stories, too. As far as I’m concerned, before we talk about art, we should listen to them. And we should talk about something else, something bigger, that extends far beyond today’s news story: we should talk about the many ways in which comedy itself (in sitcoms, in standup, on the tour scene) is a deeply sexist world, and not only because some people within it act in predatory ways. Back to the age of Johnny Carson and the Borscht Belt, aggressive misogyny has been a central ingredient to standup, a phenomenon that was difficult to speak openly about because it would make any woman who tried to do so sound uncool, like a prig and a censor—like the comedy-killer, not the comic. Tell the wrong story and you might lose a rare opportunity to be one of the guys, as all of these stories make clear.

It’s a satisfying irony that as these stories begin to get told, some of that telling is happening in art. There’s another television episode that came out this year that also struck me as based on the rumors about Louis C.K.: an acute, nuanced episode of “Girls.” Although I tried to hint at that fact in my response (in which I wrote that the character “feels like a familiar figure”), I didn’t want this vague I.D. to swamp my bigger point, about how much the episode captured these deeper questions about storytelling. In “American Bitch,” a brilliant artist pulls out his penis in front of a younger woman. She’s been sedated by his praise, and by a complicated mind game, a manipulation in which she ends up feeling complicit, despite all her best attempts to stay above the fray. She knows that if she tries to tell anyone the details of what happened, it will expose her more than it would him. Maybe, these days, that story could end in a different way.

I thought the same thing about that episode of “Girls” when I read the Times story – that episode which is the only one I’ve seen (though I’ve seen a few fragments of others). I thought that and also thought I was probably wrong, because maybe all episodes of “Girls” are like that. But yes: Louis CK sounds like the manipulative shit in that episode, or the other way around.

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