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Louis C.K. On Rape: Why Are We Listening to Him, and No One Else?

Press Play By Allison Blythe | Press Play June 9, 2014 at 11:56AM

Why are we paying so much attention to Louis C.K.’s attitudes towards women and rape while ignoring women who have expressed the same sentiments for years?
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Much has been written about this season of Louie, including pieces from Heather Havrilesky on Louie’s manic bossy nightmare girls and Kathleen Brennan on "fat," "not fat," and holding hands. Last week’s episode was no exception, as it triggered commentary from Amy Zimmerman at The Daily Beast, and Madeline Davies at Jezebel. Louie and its subsequent commentary offer poignant insight into a range of issues, and most recently gender relations. But why is it, exactly, that viewers take so much notice when Louis C.K. says something, and not other times? In particular, considering last week’s near rape of Pamela, why are we paying so much attention to Louie’s attitudes towards women and rape while ignoring women who have expressed the same sentiments for years?

In the last episode, Louie’s perspective was clear as he decided to try a “guy/girl” thing with Pamela, which consisted essentially of his taking control in every sense. As I watched him discover Pamela half-asleep on the couch, and then nearly rape her, I grew increasingly angry because, once again, I felt silenced. We only see Louie’s point of view as he chases and repeatedly grabs Pamela. Initially, Pamela is allowed a few refusals before quipping, “This would be rape if you weren’t so stupid.” Then, once she is cornered in the doorway, she is effectively silenced as Louie asserts control.

Finally after a resistant kiss, Pamela escapes and Louie shuts the door on her—and with it, her response. After Louie’s perceived success at his version of a “guy/girl” thing, women are denied a way to deal with the experience of watching Pamela being nearly raped. We have no idea what it’s like on the other side of the door.

During or after an assault, people are denied self-preservation by not being allowed to run, ignore, seek revenge, or learn from the event. This episode not only denied a reaction from Pamela, but also the opportunity to learn from it. It follows the predominant narratives that offer nothing new and focus on the assailant. In the recent rape case in Calhoun, Georgia that is getting attention from local and national news outlets as well as blogs, we watch the police as they do their jobs by investigating the case and charging suspects. And while local columnist David Cook deserves respect for pointing out that rape mentality causes rape, it’s problematic that these are the narratives. By not empowering the woman involved, it makes it seem as though the immense amount of courage it took for her go to the police was outweighed by praise for people doing their jobs, or being human.

Certainly when comparing the Calhoun case to a situation like Steubenville, it can seem like the reproduction of rape myths might have momentarily lessened, and we might be making some progress in the acknowledgment of the realities of rape. Sure, we know from press coverage that the students were drinking in Calhoun, Georgia that night, but we haven’t yet heard about her prom dress, or how she might have been asking to be assaulted to the point of hospitalization. Additional hope that we might be making progress might be found in the formation of the first White House task force to study rape, and now the subsequent federal investigation into over 50 universities for their sexual assault policies on campus. But we still have a long way to go.

Rape occurs off campus too, and it’s estimated to happen to one in five women in their lifetimes. So given the frequency of rape, it’s consistently disheartening that the male perspective is the dominant perspective in popular culture. What possibly is most upsetting is that while we continually see rape from a male perspective, as if it’s something men to do to women (which it is 98% of the time), we don’t seem to address men’s behavior that leads them to rape. And television episodes like this, as well as most rape narratives in popular culture, just play into that by ending it with closing the door and not focusing on Pamela. 

So, again, why are we taking notice when Louie offers commentary on rape? Perhaps we are sticking with what is safe, or what doesn’t drastically challenge our power dynamics. However, when we allow men to continue to control the commentary, they also get to reinforce entitlement over women’s bodies. I suppose that having men define our experiences prohibits us from incessantly flicking men’s penises, seeking unlimited abortions, or generally taking control of our lives.

Or maybe women’s perspectives on rape are too real and ugly for a mainstream audience. In this episode, Pamela did a fine job of exhibiting tortured resistance, but it ended there. It has been a long time since Thelma and Louise showed us that when a woman cries like that, she isn’t having any fun. In popular culture we don’t often experience, in a non-fetishized way, the complete violation that accompanies forced penetration with objects or body parts, and the blood and bruises that may result. Even more messy are the complicated emotions one might experience: denial, bargaining, fighting, acceptance. While I certainly wouldn’t want to fetishize rape, the acknowledgment of these horrific experiences can enable us.

Consistently showing the male perspective of rape also conveniently absolves us of the consequences. Not only do men often get away with it—98% are never incarcerated—but women are also forced to navigate a culture that has historically blamed or not believed them. So when the Louie episode ends with the door closing, we don’t have to experience what goes through Pamela’s head, and how she processes the experience. In the episode, if things went further, we wouldn’t have to consider whether or not she would report it. And if she did, we wouldn’t have to feel the shame or fear and consider how she will deal with it when there might not be any justice.

Ultimately, maybe women’s perspectives on assault aren’t reflected enough in popular culture because they counter the pervasive acceptance of everyday violations women endure, such as being groped in public, having erections pressed on our asses in the subway, and being told to smile on the street. Perhaps our tacit acceptance of these behaviors make it easier to follow the dominant narrative. But after seeing this play out once again, especially from such a generally excellent show, I’ve had more than enough. It’s time to stop shutting the door.

Allison Blythe is an urban planner and Chicago native who currently lives in Brooklyn, NY. She tries to increase equity and improve the quality of life for New York City residents through her work. She loves to laugh, and you can have a drink with her at the happy hour for area planners that she co-founded.

This article is related to: Blogs, Louis C.K., Allison Blythe, Television


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