Last week, we heard our Republican presidential nominee brag about grabbing women “by the pussy” and kissing them without their consent. In an election that has caused us to recalibrate our moral compasses and recalculate the number of horsemen that will usher in the apocalypse, this unapologetic and hardly apologized-for tape marks a new rock bottom.
As Trump reaches historic nadirs of deplorable, the common urge is to distance ourselves entirely from the neon-orange glow of his campaign’s implosion. From high-ranking GOP officials to Tiffany Trump herself, even former supporters are curving Trump’s toxic touch. But amid all this ship-jumping, it’s important to remember that neither Trump, nor his odious comments, exist in a vacuum. Donald Trump is our Republican presidential nominee, and his “locker-room banter” is our problem. Far from the disgusting ravings of one raging misogynist, Trump’s tapes exist on a spectrum of rape culture and toxic masculinity that can’t be defended or denied.
Somewhere along that spectrum stands Louis C.K. At first, you might be hard-pressed to name a single similarity between the beloved comedian and the real-estate tycoon. C.K. is an ardent Clinton supporter, a hands-on father of two daughters who has often been praised for his feminist-leaning art and social commentary. C.K., whose near-eponymous FX show heavily featured Manhattan’s comedy clubs, alleyways, delis and diners, is as revered by New Yorkers as Trump is detested. But on the issue of sexual assault and consent, these two powerful men might have more in common than we’d like to admit.
At Sunday night’s debate, moderator Anderson Cooper grilled Trump on his tapes, insisting, “You called what you said ‘locker-room banter,’ kissing women without consent, grabbing their genitals. That is sexual assault. You bragged that you have sexually assaulted women.” And on Friday night, in a far friendlier room full of fans, Louis C.K. seemed to stumble over the definition of sexual assault, continuing to defend his use of attempted rape as a casual character device.
Over the course of a 90-minute conversation with New Yorker television critic Emily Nussbaum, C.K. tried to speak to the thread of sexual violence and domination woven throughout Louie’s five seasons. Nussbaum pointed to one particularly controversial scene in the fourth-season episode “Pamela: Part 1,” in which Louie cornered his friend Pamela (played by protégé Pamela Adlon) against a wall despite her cries of “No I don’t want to,” eventually trapping her in an uncomfortable kiss before allowing her to leave the apartment. Louis, the writer and actor, was quick to differentiate himself from his onscreen avatar, insisting, “I’m not defending it, I think it’s stupid. It’s a bad idea.” Still, C.K. couldn’t quite name the thing he wasn’t defending, explaining, “I don’t think of that as attempted rape… Pamela and him had a lot of back and forth, she sort of said I want to be in a thing with you and he said OK and then she said not anymore and it didn’t work out.”
While Louis is clearly familiar enough with the comments section to distance himself from his character’s coercion, he seems to commiserate with Louie’s plight. In the controversial scene, mid-struggle, Louie brings up Pamela’s previously expressed romantic interest in him as justification for using brute force. C.K.’s IRL invocation of this “complicated” relationship stops just short of justifying this terrifying train of thought. The comic continued to imply that Pamela, despite having told Louie that she was no longer interested in him, was just too emotionally closed-off to admit that she wanted it. As proof of this imagined assault ambiguity, C.K. offered up his own play-by-play of the scene: “So I’m trying to make her do something with me. She’s not into it. So I’m going, ‘No but you have to’… And then finally we have this bizarre truce with a kiss on the side of her mouth. Which I see as a consensual, shitty, fucked up kiss.” He added, “For me, that’s a fun train wreck of a ride.”
Like Anderson Cooper, I feel the need to state some basic truths for the record. Romantic interest, and sexual consent, can be revoked at any time. When a woman says that she is no longer interested in a man, that’s not proof of her emotional failings—it’s a strongly worded invitation for that man to move on. If C.K.’s intent was to depict Pamela’s self-imposed romantic block, there are a million ways he could have gone about that without implying that resistant women just need to be told what they want. Furthermore, when a woman finally agrees to kiss her friend because he’s physically blocking her from leaving his apartment, that’s not a consensual sexual interaction. This scene could have played out as a commentary on or critique of rape culture. Unfortunately, its creator’s inability to understand what he was showing prohibits a sympathetic reading of a scene that clearly wasn’t as self-aware as fans have hoped.
Louie uses sexual assault as a device to illuminate its protagonist’s delusions and faults. Apparently, the dark depths of a male character are more interesting, and far more important, than a woman’s experience of sexual assault. In reframing rape as a narrative device, Louie insists on keeping sexual assault nebulous. In this scene, a lack of sexual consent isn’t rape—it’s just another chapter in a complicated relationship, and a window into the interiority of a complex man.
Many women would have been able to point out the possible ramifications of this irresponsible writing. In fact, one did. Louis shared that, after watching the first take of the scene between his character and Pamela, “One of the women on our crew said, ‘This is going to upset people.’ And we watched the tape and were like, ‘Yeah, maybe.’” Ultimately, Louis thought that editing or correcting the scene would be dishonest. Despite his insistence that he understood viewers’ discomfort, Louis added, “I remember reading things about the scene where people were like ‘She was terrified.’ I don’t see that at all. I see her as being annoyed and pissed off… Pamela, to me, in the show and in real life, she’s just such a tough person that I don’t see her as a victim for a second.”
C.K.’s comments are ickily reminiscent of an earlier moment in the Trump campaign, when Eric Trump claimed that his sister Ivanka “is a strong, powerful woman” who “wouldn’t allow herself to be objected” to sexual harassment in the workplace. In both of these cases, men have fundamentally misunderstood the nature of sexual harassment and assault. These are crimes, not negotiations. This notion that survivors are necessarily weak, and that they somehow allowed themselves to be assaulted, is as erroneous as it is insulting. By praising these two women as strong and therefore impervious to assault, these men are sending a brutal, victim-blaming message to survivors. Furthermore, in C.K.’s case, we’re seeing a male artist purposefully and deliberating ignoring the concerns of women in an effort to “honestly” portray a man’s perspective on an issue that he clearly hasn’t educated himself about. Apparently, we’re supposed to celebrate this man’s unflinching dedication to his own story as artistic bravery. Meanwhile, sexual assault remains woefully underreported, and women’s experiences deplorably underrepresented onscreen.
In Sunday night’s debate, Trump went out of his way to differentiate his “talk” from real “action.” Trump and his surrogates’ insistence that these tapes are just locker-room talk is mind-bogglingly dumb spin. Is any woman comforted by the notion of all-male spaces where men congregate to secretly brag about their coercive pick-up tactics? Plus, as we all know, men who talk the talk of rape and sexual harassment often walk the walk. Trump’s tape isn’t an anomaly—it’s his essence. For decades, he has insulted, objectified, and grabbed at women. His only justification, much like Louie’s, is that, deep down, they wanted it—or in Trump’s words, “When you’re a star they let you do it.”
Allegedly, Louis C.K. has also benefitted from the type of power dynamics that Trump is so lewdly and gleefully describing. In 2015, comedian Jen Kirkman levelled accusations against a “Cosby-level” “famous comic” and “known perv,” saying that the unnamed comic “didn’t rape me, but he made a certain difficult decision to go on tour with him really hard.” These allegations were quickly linked to C.K. on the strength of anonymous accusations, like the description of a 2014 incident in which he reportedly “[took] his penis out in front of uninterested and frightened girls.” A 2012 blind item had a similar description of a male comic who allegedly forced two female comedians to watch him masturbate at the Aspen Comedy Festival. Earlier this year, Roseanne Barr cited even more accusations, telling The Daily Beast, “It’s Louis C.K., locking the door and masturbating in front of women comics and writers. I can’t tell you—I’ve heard so many stories. Not just him, but a lot of them. And it’s just par for the course. It’s just shit women have to put up with.”
While Louis doesn’t make a habit of addressing these rumors, he has touched on them briefly. In a June interview with New York magazine, he explained, “Well, you can’t touch stuff like that… I do the work I do, and what happens next I can’t look after. So my thing is that I try to speak to the work whenever I can. Just to the work and not to my life.” Of course, the ability to talk around your actions—the fame and influence required to work your spin and keep on working—is a privilege. C.K. is influential enough that men and women will keep collaborating and touring with him, regardless of these allegations. To a certain degree, despite the recent influx of inclusive works and radical onscreen narratives, we’re still orbiting around the male auteur. Female comedians have to make difficult decisions to work alongside alleged abusers, and viewers have to swallow yet another obtuse, male-centric sexual-assault scene.
At the end of the day, Louis C.K. will always privilege the experience of his onscreen avatars. Answering a separate question about Jill Soloway’s criticisms of his portrayal of a trans character on Horace and Pete, Louis responded that his main goal was to show his character’s fear and confusion when dealing with a trans woman. C.K. explained, “I did not portray a transgender woman on that show. This is a woman who’s been playing a game with me. She may have been transgender. I don’t know even in my mind.” He went on, “I actually thought, it wouldn’t serve the material, it wouldn’t serve the mood that I was trying to make, to go get just the right words, and to find out just how these things would be said by a transgender person. That’s a different project; that’s not what I was doing.”
Once again, C.K. relies on ambiguity to shine more light on his male characters, instead of seizing an opportunity to tell a new and vital story. As Soloway has said, “This is male privilege.” It’s the hubris to think that delving into a male character’s psyche is more interesting, and more important, than anything else—worth insulting and talking over an underrepresented community, or trivializing and downplaying sexual assault.
C.K.’s myopic, character-based approach eschews all responsibilities to accurately represent its female and trans characters. Instead of struggling to capture these experiences, he fails to even acknowledge them—Pamela’s attempted rape isn’t sexual assault, and Horace and Pete’s one trans character might not even be trans. These characters aren’t afforded the same clarity and consideration as the male protagonist they’re there to shed light on. And while Louis is well within his rights to portray a man stumbling through experiences and worlds that he doesn’t quite understand, we have the right to question what purpose these stories serve, and what messages they send.
Let’s consider the role that “locker-room banter” plays in this pervasive rape culture—the fact that words and actions, are, in fact, intertwined, and that misogynistic, violent words have repercussions. Let’s talk about the women at the heart of these stories. At the bare minimum, let’s have the nerve to name their assault for what it is. We already have a presidential candidate who doesn’t understand the definition of sexual assault. We need TV shows, and artists, who are counteracting this ignorance, not reinforcing it.