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

by Allison Blythe
June 9, 2014 11:56 AM
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Louis promo 2

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.

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  • Steve | June 12, 2014 11:34 AMReply

    Funny how we only get Louie's perspective on a show about Louie, called "Louie".

  • Javier Hurt | June 12, 2014 1:02 AMReply

    ¿Rape? ¿Near rape? ¿Is this the first episode of Louie Blythe has seen? Louie would not rape anyone! Louie is a harmless, sweet guy. He really thought deep down Pamela wanted to be with him, but was too hurt because he rejected her before. I understand that this mentality may be how a guy could end up raping a girl, and that is awful and tragic. But this scene was funny precisely because we knew he meant no harm to her, because we have seen their relationship over the years. After seeing all the episodes featuring Pamela, we get that she really likes Louie but is not attracted to him phisically or to the whole idea of romance. ¿"Tortured resistance"? I saw more of a "tiresome resistance". Look at her face, she knows and verbally expresses that she might think it was a rape scenario if she didn't know Louie was so dumb and clumsy. So she was just bothered by it, not fearing for her safety. If you want to talk about rape, go ahead. I like what you say about how we never see the woman's point of view. But building the discussion around that scene is like writing about the dangers of crazy hidden clubs after watching Stefon in Saturday Night Live.

  • reprove | June 11, 2014 5:10 PMReply

    While I was watching that moment of the episode, which you folk adress as "the rape scene", I shall be damned if there was any slightest thought of Louie raping Pamela. Do you know why? Because I watch the show Louie from the perspective of the character Louie and try to get into his head, as the show itself demans. If you had watched all four seasons' episodes listening him with your heart and trying to emphatize with him, you would understand that he is extremely bad with women, that he really cannot understand what a woman thinks, feels; he fears there might be an implication in every word coming out of the mouth of a woman. And therefore, he is a shy and a passive man in all his interactions and relationships with woman.

    He does not really know when to make a move, for example, if you remember the previous episodes. In the first episode, he made a move on the girl that he was on a date with, and it was clearly out of place, as well as the time he made a move on Joan Rivers, which strangely, kind of, ended good for him. My point is, he cannot read the air because he cannot read the woman in front of him. Moreover, there is a woman in front of him, who just after clearly stating that she does not find him atractive, invited him to take a shower together and then changed her mind again; and a little time after that confessed her love to him.

    So, he cannot be bu sure about what to think; he feels like he is losing a chance, losing a love, again because he can't read the mood. That is why, at that very moment, on that so called "rape scene", he decides to let go of his passive role, which has made him lose lots of things until now, for once.

    Now, if you emphatize with him, you can clearly see that he is not trying to rape her, he is just trying to take the chance, which he couldn't see even when it was there and therefore his thought is "It was there before and I couldn't catch it because I couldn't actually see it. So there is a good chance that it may be there again.". Which means that he would never rape her while she was resisting, clearly showing him that there was not a chance there all along. However, things didn't go that far and Louie gave up trying to take her to the bedroom.

    And the most important thing, for your consideration, is that Pamela says "this would be rape if you weren't so stupid", which, actually, takes us to the answer of your problem, about what Pamela did/thought after the door was closed. Because she emphatizes with him, she was able to see what his real objective was and that he was never going to have sex with her against her will; thus not defining the action as 'rape', but only his 'stupidity'.

    You don't need to see another scene to know what she thinks, she tells you with her own mouth, but you won't listen.

  • Patience | June 11, 2014 1:52 PMReply

    If Pam's reaction / perspective (or the absence of it) is what bothers you, hold up for another week. The next 2 episodes - Pamela 2 / 3 are certainly going to get there.

    Like Pam said "It would be rape, if you weren't so stupid".

  • indeciSEAN | June 16, 2014 5:02 PM

    I'm intrigued; do you know something about those episodes that we do not, or is this merely conjecture because of the titles?

  • Angry | June 11, 2014 11:34 AMReply

    To the author of this piece: Please never write again. Your comments hurt the world, and more importantly my brain.

  • Marcia | June 11, 2014 9:18 AMReply

    “This would be rape if you weren’t so stupid.” - this is a show ABOUT Louie, not a show about women. It was a shot at how stupid he is. He showed that it was wrong and, within context of "look at how dumb he is" - it was a funny line. Pamela had all the power and strength even while Louie was trying to assert dominance. The fact that they she did not give in even after she offered to have sex with him earlier (no mention is made of this in the article - why?) and then rescinded the offer shows that she had all the power.

    What was on the other side of the door? A woman shaking her head at a man she loves/loved/doesn't know how she feels about but has a history with, who she sometimes finds attractive. The fact that this is being made into a black and white "he tried to rape her, I feel silenced, this is all about ME" really shows a pathetic and narcissistic writer more than anything. Not everything is about you or about your cause. Louie made a funny rape joke delivered by a strong female character, get over it.

  • Chris | June 11, 2014 2:54 PM

    Well said, Marcia!!

  • Oli | June 11, 2014 9:52 AM

    Exactly. Doesn't Pamela already offered twice a more intimate relationship and then retracted herself each time? It felt like Louis was acting out out of confusion and frustration. Yes he illustrated it as going too far. Because the situation and the comments Pamela says on the spot are just part of the malaise inducing style of this TV show, always on a blurred line.

  • Mike | June 11, 2014 9:08 AMReply

    "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."

    To be fair, this is part of the show. We only ever see Louie's point of view on just about everything. That's sort of the point of his act too. That he is this horrible person, and he's giving you the horrible person's rendition of the world, hence all his jokes about how great it is to be white, and he's done quite a few rape jokes already with a similar bent ("you could have a reason to rape someone -- what if you want to f*** them and they won't let you"). Which again, is built into his humor. He's this unassuming loser-ish looking guy saying all the shocking things that pop into his head.

  • don't discredit Louie yet | June 10, 2014 8:18 PMReply

    When I saw this episode, I thought WTF. The little fist pump was kinda a funny thing to do, but he kinda forced that kiss... but I don't think Louie is trying to be irreverent to women and rape. Pamela Part 1 sums up the entire Amia storyline which had a very similar scene: Louie forcing them to sleep with each other. BUT we don't know what she's saying (in a video translating the dialogue I found online, she says to Louie, "This was a mistake, we ruined what was good" in the morning). Anyway, we all thought it was a funny scene, and the 'connection' between them was seemingly adorable but it parallels the later Pamela scene, but this time we know that Pamela is saying 'no'. The Pamela scene is also preceded by a guy who seems to be talking to a woman on a subway, but it is later revealed that he's really just talking out loud and the woman was 'forced' to listen, even giving him some acknowledgement. This idea of forcing the audience to think in new ways is interesting, maybe it doesn't work that well... but he's doing things on TV that no one else is really doing.

  • Ugh | June 10, 2014 2:04 PMReply

    Normally I would jump all over an issue like this & support the author whole heartedly. But a quick look on Wikipedia shows that this episode - Pamela - is Part 1 of a 3 part story. Parts 2 & 3 look like they're the season finale to air on June 16th. I'm going to hold off on making any real judgement until the story itself is finished. I trust Louis C.K. as a writer & I'm confident that we will get Pamela's response to his actions in Parts 2 &/or 3. If we don't, then yeah, I'm onboard with this article 100%.

  • parsyeb | June 10, 2014 9:01 AMReply

    Yeah, Louie just revealed itself for what it is: a pretty dumb show that has moments of genuine insight and artistic gravity. This season up to this point has been rock solid, but that was a MASSIVE misfire. That's why I hate TV -- dumb shit like this is happening all the time. Most of the time, the show's failures have to do with C.K. overshooting his talent (the sequence of him nearly crying with Parker Posey on the roof is vacuous and phony) or self-aggrandizing (I saved my wife and kids from the storms, dude). This whole idea and what it purports to tell us about male-female relations comes from a really dumb point-of-view, and to play the moment out as such doesn't add complexity or nuance to Louis' character so much as make him look like another one of these pick-up artist pieces of human garbage, several of whom are well-represented in this comments section. Hey Austen, surely if you took the time to prove wrong the Koss study, you must have also taken the time to read up on how impossible these surveys are to assess and conduct. But then again, rape is something that women invent, like men who regret having sex, right?

    The only excuse I could think up for you is that you're under 20. If you're older, well...

  • Austen | June 10, 2014 2:25 AMReply

    I never thought for a moment that Louie's intention was to rape Pamela. Rather, I thought two things: "People (especially feminists) are going to see this as an attempted rape to add to all their rape hysteria" and "Jesus, Louie! Why are you trying to get with Pamela again?! Forget her. She sucks, and she's not into you!"

    As far as the "1 in 5" (sometimes 1 in 4 or 1 in 6) statistic goes, it refers to a Mary Koss study that's long been debunked for its misleading questions, self-selection bias, and being not at all random. In fact, she included post-coital regret as rape, which is clearly stupid. A man regrets sex with women all the time. It never occurs to him to call it rape or press charges, nor should he.

    No offense to Pamela Adlon. She's had a great dynamic with Louie on the show in the past. I'm just tired of Louie being a pathetic puppy around her. Even when he is trying to be aggressive and show he can take charge, it's pathetic. That is, at least with Pamela, who isn't into him. When he made the move on Amia, that was beautiful and full of love. Some people are even saying that that was him raping Amia. These people lose respect from me. They're clearly sacrificing intelligence for feminist ideology.

    Ms. Blythe, I haven't looked into your history on writing about Louie, but what did you think about the episode where Melissa Leo's character assaults and orally rapes Louie?

  • Penny White | June 11, 2014 11:10 AM

    I am very much a feminist and I agree with you. The hype over the Louie episode reminds me too much of people claiming that the song "Baby, It's Cold Outside" is about rape, or that "The Honeymooners" glorifies domestic violence. These issues are focused on by privileged women who aren't effected by REAL issues hurting women, like the lack of federally funded daycare, the gross wage disparity between caring jobs and tech jobs, the lack of paid parental leave, and a criminal justice system that does not take domestic violence/sex crimes seriously. These are real issues. Ludicrously broad definitions of sexual assault hurt real survivors. If everything is rape, nothing is. A reluctant choice is still a choice. And it is just as important that we respect a woman's "yes" as it is that we respect a woman's "no".

  • richard | June 9, 2014 3:07 PMReply

    perhaps you are confused, the name of the show is "Louie", not "Pamela" so no one cares about her thoughts --

  • Tendai Harris | June 9, 2014 2:47 PMReply

    I'm sure the arc is not over so maybe we should wait for the rest of the eps before we write think pieces on if her voice is ultimately silenced. It was in the moment and it was a troubling scene but I doubt it's going to disappear as it did in Game of Thrones

  • Elcoolguy | June 9, 2014 12:21 PMReply

    Have you ever asked for or tried the Animal Style fries at In-N-Out?

  • Pete | June 11, 2014 9:21 AM

    A trusted long term friend that you offered to have sex with while he was dating someone else.

    Do you even watch the show?

  • Kathleen Brennan | June 11, 2014 12:10 AM

    Brendan, yes, Louie does ably address, usually, the perspectives of the many female characters surrounding Louis CK's partially fictionalized self, even when his alter-ego doesn't totally understand them. I'm not sure why you would think I was saying otherwise --- a previous commenter had stated that "no one cares" about Pamela's thoughts, which obviously isn't true --- but the idea of not overreaching a character's limited perspective or psychology is problematic, especially in this case, if only because the show *has* illuminated other (female) characters' psychologies so well in the past. As a viewer, I would expect it to explore Pamela's experience during and after such a startling scene, which it failed to do. I do think that Louis CK as a writer is comfortable with creating women and girls who speak for themselves --- the show wouldn't work if he were laboring under the deeply misguided idea of "speaking for" an entire group of people, particularly one that comprises half the world's population. The above discussed episode, though, was surprising and distressing in this respect because both Louis CK the writer and Louie the character appeared willing to shut the door on a traumatized Pamela. This season has indeed done an especially amazing job of investigating Louis/Louie's flawed ability to communicate with women, or at least non-comedian women (note his friendship with Amia's aunt, a former comedienne in Hungary), but not always by making them inscrutable; hopefully a scene, or a whole episode, as honest and well-written as Vanessa's monologue is in the near future for Pamela. If not, than Louie as a show would be disappointingly and uncharacteristically reiterating a male-dominated narrative of what rape is, rather than challenging embedded ideas surrounding assault, whether they exist within Louie the character's own limited psychology or no.

  • Brendan | June 10, 2014 8:39 PM

    Kathleen, certainly myself and many others are interested in the perspectives of the show's many female characters, but I certainly think the show is addressing this. While Louis CK grew up around many women and respects them greatly, I don't think he feels comfortable speaking for them. Most of this season has actually been about Louie's inability to understand the women in his life, starting with the model and waitress, but epitomized especially by Amia. A key component of the "Elevator" arc was Louie's inability to fully connect with Amia, which for a while was beneficial for him, but eventually that lack of understanding led to conflict. I think that their relationship was in many ways was meant as a critique of men's perception of and interaction with women. Louis CK chose to create Amia as a character who spoke a fairly obscure language (if the language is actually consistent, which seems dubious) and never once subtitled a line of dialogue, thus making a central joke and motif of the arc our (and his) inability to understand Amia's thoughts. The arc couldn't be more interested in what Amia is thinking, as that is a major dramatic component, but what Louie is doing is recognizing the limitations of his own perspective, as he did in the Pamela episode. I'm in agreement that the ending of that episode was heavy handed, but I don't think Louie is doing anything more than trying not to overreach his psychological bounds.

  • Kathleen Brennan | June 9, 2014 10:18 PM

    Interesting point. I've never been to In-N-Out, but I am going to LA next month --- are the Animal Fries as delicious as being assaulted by a trusted long-term friend?
    Having experienced all three forms of random abuse Allison listed in the last paragraph, just within the past decade, and just by virtue of being a woman having the audacity of living in New York City (or, perhaps, just living), this is a terrific point. I imagine --- or, I hope --- the arc will be continued in tonight's or future episodes, especially since Louie's idea of "taking control" is an adoption of an important factor in the perpetuation of rape myth: subduing the ambivalent and aggressive potential partner. But it's also essential food for thought: Why is Louie CK's albeit amazing stand-up bit about men being the greatest threat to women more widely recognized and shared than the perspectives of women and girls involved in rape cases reported nationally, much less locally? Yes, the name of the show is "Louie," but I'm also interested in Vanessa's perspective, and Amia's, and Janet's, and Jane's, and Lily's. Anyone who doesn't "care about her thoughts," in reference to any of these characters, isn't paying any attention, at best.

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