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On Louis C.K. and the crumbling idea of the 'good man'

Men can present themselves as feminists, but that doesn't mean they can't also be abusers

On Louis C.K. and the crumbling idea of the 'good man'
10 November 2017

It wouldn’t be an understatement to describe the #MeToo movement as a defining historical moment, the outpouring of previously untold stories causing a sea change in the way we think about abuse. At the sharp end of this: men who have been allowed to flourish with impunity, with no consequences for their behaviour as long as they were rich, powerful or influential enough.  

This time: Louis C.K., who has been accused of sexual misconduct by five women. “After years of unsubstantiated rumours about Louis C.K. masturbating in front of associates, women are coming forward to describe what they experienced,” a New York Timesinvestigation began. According to nearly 20 sources, women had not only been subject to abuse from C.K. himself but also threatened and blacklisted from comedy jobs by his influential manager, Dave Becky.

As with any allegation of rape or abuse, conversation has immediately turned to that well-trodden question: can you separate art from artist? (See also: Woody Allen, Roman Polanski or Eric Gill). Can we still enjoy his work? Now is obviously not the time to ask this question, as Emily Nussbaum elegantly explored in a New Yorker piece on the allegations. “For many of C.K.’s fans, he’s been more than a creative figure… he’s been a role model too – 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.”

With C.K., this question is even thornier. Many fans are shocked by the gulf between his on-stage persona and his real life behaviour: the ‘feminist’ man decrying sexism and harassment on stage while allegedly abusing women behind closed doors. As Nussbaum reminds us, C.K.’s standup “is not merely confessional… it’s also focused on sex and ethics, as well as on questions of decency, fatherhood, masculinity, and, at times, feminism.” Slate’s Willa Paskin agrees:

“[In the light of allegations] What really creeps me out is the way that C.K. so comfortably inhabits the role of feminist comedian, the guy who’s willing to say that men are bear-lions, who comprehends women’s fears. This sort of subtle aggrandisement seems to me to be all over Louie, this way the show burnishes Louis C.K., often at the expense of Louie, as a guy who gets the complexities of male and female experience.”

The “bear-lion” refers to one of C.K.’s best known and most celebrated routines, which revolves around the idea that men are the “greatest threat” women have. “We’re the number one threat! To women! Globally and historically, we’re the number one cause of injury and mayhem to women… we’re the worst thing that ever happens to them.”

“If you’re a guy, imagine you could only date a half-bear, half-lion. ‘Oh, I hope this one’s nice!’”. 

In this, I think, is the really troubling thing: in that shock is also complacency, the misplaced notion that any man expressing the vaguest feminist sentiment must be unimpeachably good themselves. The idea, in short, that performative ‘wokeness’ was enough. 

Overt themes of respect for women were not always the mainstay of C.K.’s routines, either. Throughout his career, he’s made jokes about rape, sexual assault and more – and not always in the self-deprecating register that many feel set the tone for his comedy. In one routine, from his show Louie, C.K. tells a female heckler that she “wouldn’t even exist if your mom hadn’t raped that homeless Chinese guy”; later, he asks the audience if “anyone [with] AIDS can just put their dick in her face and get her started on that?”. He finishes the set with “I called you a c*nt because your mother is one and she had one”. 

Jokes about masturbation – the very act he used to assault women – were also frequent: with no privacy at home, he said in one routine, “I’m on the streets now, I’ve got nowhere to go”. He was a “prisoner” to his “constant perverted sexual thoughts” – at this, he mimicked masturbation – “It makes me into a moron.” It’s a far cry from his mega-respectful ‘good guy’ routine: his sexual misconduct writ large, and an indication that his loud, over-the-top defence of women’s safety was less genuine than we might have hoped.

None of this is to say that anyone should have suspected C.K. was abusive – men of all kinds abuse women, and this should not be lost in the ongoing debate about media and Hollywood harassment.

What we could learn from this, though, is that simply calling yourself a supporter of women does not mean you are one. Being nice doesn’t mean you can’t also be abusive; neither does calling yourself a feminist or declaring men dangerous. Believing that a man expressing feminist sentiment – or being your friend, or seeming like a nice guy, or “never doing anything to you” – means he can’t be abusive does a disservice to the complexity of abuse: the two things are simply not related.

I’m not saying we should suspect every man of assault, nor that every man who calls himself a feminist is doing it to hide abuse: of course that’s not the case. But if you spend your life loudly and self-consciously declaring yourself one of the good guys, chances are that you’re probably not.