Photo: Courtesy of FX.
Trigger warning: This post describes sexual assault as depicted on television.
Louis CK, though universally adored, is not perfect. Nor is the titular character on his semi-autobiographical show Louie. Last night, one of them did something spectacular, and the other one something shocking and awful.
Episode 10 followed Louis as he navigates out of a breakup. He is sad and desperate and heartbroken, which doesn't look all that different from the comedian on a good day. At last, Pamela, his best friend and longtime unrequited love interest, texts him, and he cracks a smile. There had been hope for Pamela and Louis when, just weeks before, she returned to New York and offered to finally give him a shot. But, at the time, he was involved with Amia. Now that he's been dumped? He'd like to take Pamela up on it. Unfortunately, "that ship has sailed," she says. Fair enough.
Louis is disgruntled at Pamela's rebuff, but as ever, she throws a middle finger up and moves on. She even offers to babysit his kids while he does a show. And, it's upon returning from that show (where he delivered a set about the marginalization of women that somehow managed to be true and funny), that Louis, the character, commits an attempted rape.
The scene finds Pamela asleep on Louis' couch. He smiles, and she wakes up, says goodnight, and tries to leave. Louis first leans in to kiss her, then, when she says no, grabs her by the arms and wrenches her toward him. What started with a rejected kiss immediately spins out of control. Pamela repeats "No" and "I don't want this" and "Stop!" but Louis won't let go. He first tries to take off her shirt, tries to pull her toward his bedroom, then drag her as she grabs onto a doorframe, still saying "No," loud and clear. At one point, she pushes his face away, yelling, "This would be rape if you weren't so stupid!" It's a clumsy, ugly Louie scene and not without the whiff of comedy, if only because we are watching comedians. But, the scene, as a whole, is nauseating.
We're used to Louis CK going dark. This is a comic who made a career out of revealing his own ugly truths, and that's the envelope he seems to be pushing even further in this season of his show. For the viewer, this scene was awful, of course. In fact, it's somehow more than that because it is a murky kind of awful. We love Louis. Flawed and complex as he is, Louis is the protagonist, and our experience is designed to keep us on his side — or, at least, to understand his side. And, in this moment, we almost do. That's where the nausea comes in.
We understand his perspective because we know the history of this relationship. We know the boundaries these characters have crossed with each other, and we do know that not long ago Pamela did express an interest in Louis and then retracted that interest in a totally fair way — but a way that felt unfair to Louis. And, because we're bound to Louis' side, feeling his heartbreak and wanting his happiness, perhaps it felt a little unfair to us.
But, none of that matters. What matters is that she said no and he didn't stop. Make no mistake: This was an attempted rape. Louis CK knows it, and in airing this scene, he changed the landscape of television for the better.
Photo: Courtesy of FX.
Sexual assault is not always as straightforward and simple as we'd like it to be. The Law & Order scenario is a lot more rare than what happened between Pamela and Louis. But, that is the story we're told on TV. With rare exceptions, rape is not that nuanced on television. For fear of misunderstanding, the industry sticks to the cut-and-dried — the gun, the alley, the faceless stranger. But, we all know that assault plays out in myriad ways. Sometimes it's your boyfriend, and sometimes it's a friend you trust.
Furthermore, sometimes it's a woman. Last night's episode has the Internet buzzing with horror and praise that Louis CK went there. But, he's been there before. Last season featured a scene where Louis himself is forced into sex by a woman. That scene also began with ambiguous motives and ended in physical violence. It raised some eyebrows, and many critics noted the "uncomfortable sex scene," but fewer called it out for what it was. While Louis didn't end up in a courtroom, the sex in that scene was clearly nonconsensual. He says no, and she ignores it.
It's a clear testament to our cultural perception of rape and the way we're used to seeing it on screen. In either case, replace Louis with your brother, your boyfriend, or your best male friend, and the scenarios come into clearer focus. Rape isn't always about dark-alley strangers, drunken frat parties, or psychopathic criminals. It's about the violence of not listening when someone says no.
If you or someone you know has been affected by sexual violence, it’s not your fault. You are not alone. Help is available 24/7 through the National Sexual Assault Hotline: 800-656-HOPE and online.rainn.org.