There are a lot of people who want to forgive Louis C.K., but he's done little to earn it.
Over the weekend, Louis C.K. announced the surprise release of his new stand-up special, Sincerely Louis C.K. on his website.
*****TRIGGER WARNING: Depiction of sexual assault*****
He said it was for people "who need to laugh" amid the on-going coronavirus pandemic—though he's still charging money for it. Once upon a time, that news would have genuinely excited me. It would have been exactly what I needed to help me through a stressful, lonely stretch of time like this. Now, I doubt I'll ever see this new special—I'll just let my morbid curiosity drive me to keep reading about it.
He was my favorite comedian for years. Maybe my favorite artist, period. His comedy wasn't just hilarious—it was insightful and smart and managed to be somehow cheerful in a way that included all the sadness in the world. Most of all, it seemed to be informed by a strong capacity for self-criticism. He wasn't one of those toxic, egocentric comedians who targets other groups to mock. There were always some cringey exceptions when he showed his blind spots, but more often than not his jokes were at his own expense, or aimed at institutions of power that benefit straight white men. He seemed like someone who was operating from a strong moral foundation...
While a lot of other comics emulated his style, I didn't think any of them could match his skill. And there definitely wasn't another show like Louie at the time. It blended the surreal and the mundane in such a satisfying balance. It felt more like experimental cinema than just another sitcom. I thought that Louis C.K. was a genius. To be honest, I still do. But genius is not a free pass from accountability.
It was on a podcast with LA comedians that I first heard rumors about C.K. exposing himself to young female comics. I don't recall exactly what they said about it, just that they made it sound like common knowledge within the stand-up community that C.K. was kind of a creep. Still, it was all vague enough that I was able to watch Horace and Pete—his bizarre and compelling anti-Cheers play about the world's most depressing neighborhood bar—without getting too hung up on the thought that he might be a sexual predator. A few months later, in late 2017, the full story came out.
Here's what I learned: For years, Louis C.K. was seemingly in the habit of taking any occasion when he was alone with a young female admirer as an opportunity to masturbate. In the cases we know about, the women he targeted were comedians who wanted the chance to tell him how much they liked his work and to ask him for industry advice. Before they had a chance to do much of that, he would take advantage of the power dynamic between them to ask if he could masturbate in front of them.
Some of the women took that question—coming so out of the blue—as a joke, and laughingly agreed. C.K. was not joking. Once they consented (to the extent that term applies in this scenario), he would immediately get started. He would position himself between them and the door and stand there until he was finished. For years after these events took place—while they existed as rumors and unsubstantiated accusations—C.K. denied what he had done and discredited the women involved. That continued until a 2017 New York Times report compiled the stories of five women whose stories corroborated one another.
At that point, C.K. issued a public apology that acknowledged some of the hurt he had caused, but many people criticized it as downplaying the abusive nature of what he had done—"asking [women] to look at [his] dick"—and making the issue about himself and his regret rather than the women he had traumatized. In his new special, C.K. once again addresses the scandal while shirking much of the responsibility for his actions, saying, "Men are taught to make sure the woman is okay. The thing is, women know how to seem okay when they're not okay."
The struggle I have with all this is that, back when the story broke, I felt I had gotten to know C.K. through his work. It was like finding out a good friend had done something awful years ago, and I was ready to hear my friend's side of the story—to take his account of events seriously. So when C.K. says that he didn't realize how he was taking advantage of his power, and that he really thought the women involved were okay with it, I can believe that he was that blind. When he claims in his new special not to have realized that, even after someone consents, "you need to check in often," because "it's not always clear how people feel," I believe him.
I can believe that an unattractive and awkward man who grew up absorbing the twisted cultural messages of the U.S. in the '70s and '80s could have misunderstood consent that thoroughly. I can believe that he failed to imagine the pressure those women must have felt to go along with his outlandish request. I can believe that the way he positioned himself to block the doorway was unconscious. I can believe that he downplayed their discomfort in his own head to erase the lasting damage he was doing—that he may have even felt betrayed when some of those women told others what he had done. His behavior was much the same in the rare instances when he actually did have real consent. I may be wrong to give him this much benefit of the doubt—at least one of the women he victimized has said that she believes the fear C.K. caused those women was the point for him. But even if he was able to convince himself that it was all okay—that he wasn't hurting anyone—so what?
Failing to see that you're hurting someone does not erase your fault in hurting them—it just means that you have to address that blindness, as well as the hurt you've caused. By ascribing his failure to empathize to women's ability to "seem okay when they're not okay," C.K. is essentially blaming them for his crimes. He treated young women who admired him professionally not as equals or colleagues or even mentees, but as objects of lust whose autonomy was a minor barrier to be overcome before satisfying his sexual impulses—just blurt out the request as soon as you get a chance, and if they say "yes," then you're good to go.
Along with his apparent insights into the nuance of consent, C.K. made some jokes about his skill as a masturbator that further reveal his failure to empathize. They try to make light of the situation in a way that quickly becomes grotesque when you imagine any of the women he hurt hearing C.K. say, "I like company. I like to share. I'm good at it, too. If you're good at juggling, you wouldn't do it alone in the dark. You'd gather folks and amaze them."
Even worse, he still isn't acknowledging the way he covered up his crimes for years after he had supposedly learned his lesson and stopped traumatizing women like that. He lied to protect himself, and he undermined those women's careers in the process.
Maybe, if he finds a way to repay the women he hurt for the trauma he caused them and for the damage he did to their careers—if he takes enough real responsibility that they can forgive him—maybe it will be possible to enjoy Louis C.K.'s work again. Until then, his actions and his failure to take responsibility for them have undermined that sense of a moral core that once made his comedy so compelling, and those of us who want to forgive him have to come to terms with the fact that we were wrong—that despite his talent, he really is just another toxic, egocentric comedian.
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