Louie C.K.: The Feminist behind the Funny Man

louie ck

LOUIE C.K. is a feminist.

I know, I know, everyone thinks he hates women because he talks about having sex with lots of them which, given his looks, only implies the star-f**king mentality he must think women have in order to want to have sex with him. Yet, for all of the television shows I watch (a lot, but it’s part of my job, okay?), one of the shows that stands out to me the most as having honest, interesting female characters is Louie, written by Louis C.K. Unlike old-shoe Seinfeld, C.K. doesn’t just have a girlfriend-of-the-week with some shallow, projected neurosis. Usually the women in his show service as a reminder of why their plight as either divorced/single moms or women deemed “unattractive” by society’s standards makes them stronger than he is; stronger than the general male population. These characters giving Louie a run for his money appear as family members, romantic interests, and those very special, single-episode characters.

In real life, Louis C.K. is divorced and has two daughters. A lot of his stand-up has to do with the real-life circumstances of single-parenthood and, since art oftentimes imitates life (or is it the other way around?), many of those issues end up being examined on the show. To begin with, in almost every storyline featuring his ex-wife Janet, Louie plays the role of the idiot — like the time he buys a motorcycle and gets in an accident and can’t pick up his daughters. Janet calls him out for being irresponsible and he recognizes it, but continues to drive the bike anyway. Sounds like a spot-on portrayal of the interactions between a divorced couple. But there’s tenderness between them, too; Janet is incredibly supportive of Louie when he is up for the Late Night gig, even if he goes to her hoping she’ll be unsupportive so he can find a way to back out. And Janet isn’t the only single mom to grace Louie‘s screen. In the latest season of the show, he flashes back to when he was a young teenager living at home with his single mom. In this story, he reflects on what an insensitive, angry kid he was by stealing weights from the science lab in order to effectively deal weed, which his mother desperately tried to discover through typical mom detective work: asking him what’s wrong and searching his stuff. Young Louie is so stubborn in his silence, she inevitably breaks down, begging for him to understand her hardship and to give her a break and communicate with her. By exploring these experiences in his show through the lens of fatherhood, he shows the respect he has in hindsight for his mother raising him as a single mom and how that experience informs his romantic relationships as an adult.

And then are his love interests, which are some of the more complicated characters on the show. The storyline he created for the character of Delores, played by Maria Dizzia, is one of the crazier female characters I’ve seen in television. Yet, just as much as she is crazy, she (sort of) represents “every modern woman” at the same time. In her first appearance on Louie, she meets him at their kids’ school and suggests they have casual sex back at her apartment, where she immediately pegs Louie into this “husband” role: she dons a nightgown and slathers lotion on while discussing the tribulations of their kids’ school, and then asks him to go to the pharmacy to pick up lube, condoms, and Vagitine. Like a courting gentleman, he offers to pay, but she goes into defensive mode and insists she pay for her own Vagitine, making quite clear that the only thing she needs Louie for is sex. When they finally get down to it, she begs him to spank her and calls him “Daddy,” but then starts apologizing to “Daddy” and sobbing. The next time we see her, she invites him to therapy and then throws in an offer for a blow job in exchange for help at Ikea. While this doesn’t necessarily represent the “every woman”, what’s refreshing to see is that Delores is completely and un-apologetically in control of her sexuality — the show gets its laughs by pointing out how crazy she is, but doesn’t fault her character for wanting sex. In a culture that’s still squeamish about admitting that female desire exists, Louie acknowledges it as just one of the many things that make up a person — male or female, sane or arguably bat-s**t crazy.

Then there are the one-off characters — the flash-in-the-pan types. When Louie creates character for just one episode, he makes sure the character is impactful, representing or saying something that is important for the audience to know. When he meets Joan Rivers, he’s in the midst of a career crisis and she calls into question his passion and determination to be a successful comedian. She rips him right off his soapbox and puts him in his place. By the end of her rant, you’re on Joan Rivers’ side. And when in your life did you ever think you would be on Joan Rivers’ side? But he writes her on-screen persona in a way to highlight the true depth that she has as a female comedian and trailblazer in the comedy world. Then there’s the episode, “So Did the Fat Lady,” in which a waitress named Vanessa tries to get Louie to go out on a date with her. After giving him play-off hockey tickets, he finally agrees to go out with her — as friends. They have a great time, but when he casually argues with her, saying “You’re not fat” in that awkward, pitiful manner people often do, she loses it on him, explaining that denying she is fat is the worst thing you can say to a fat girl. She calls him out for being shallow because he’s fat too and in what world does he think he deserves better than himself? She points out his obvious insecurities and reminds him that a real man, a confident man, would have no problem flirting with her. While she is completely right, I would argue that it takes a real man, like Louis, to write about his shallow insecurities in a way that ultimately celebrates her and her honesty and points out some of the hypocrisy that characterizes gender dynamics today.

For all the tales of his pathetic sex life in his stand-up, the stories Louis C.K. writes for his show Louie reflect a much deeper respect for women and the burden women carry in their day-to-day lives than one would be led to believe at a glance. His empathy and respect for women is clear in the show’s exploration of issues like the double standards our culture puts upon women. On Louie, female characters deal with the struggles of being single moms and divorced, middle-aged women, but they never shy from calling call him out when his male privilege and experience get in the way of being a decent human being. As a result, I have no problem calling Louis C.K. a feminist — for seeing things through the otherwise limited lens of the male perspective.

Follow Diana Levy on Twitter @dianaeloiselevy

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