I’m not a feminist but I play one on TV: Louis CK’s (unwittingly) feminist autobiographical comedy

A SYTYCB entry

Comedian Louis CK has recently gotten some heat from feminists for his support of Daniel Tosh in the aftermath of Tosh’s atrocious rape joke scandal, and for then explaining himself with a caveat on “The Daily Show” about how feminists and comedians are “natural enemies,” because, “stereotypically speaking, feminists can’t take a joke, and comedians can’t take criticism.”

I’m personally a huge Louis fan—and an even huge-er feminism fan—so I found this whole debacle particularly frustrating. It’s disappointing when the celebrities we like make tired, predictably ignorant comments about feminism. We want to expect more from them. But in Louis’s case it’s particularly frustrating, because I think so much of his project as a comedian is aligned with feminist ideas.

I’m particularly interested in the idea of political autobiography; autobiographical texts in which the author deliberately places her/his/hir experiences within larger social contexts of race, gender, class, sexual identity, etc., and along the intersections of these systems. The idea is that, by defining identity and experiences as inextricably tied to one’s social contexts, these works inherently reveal that autobiographical works created by straight, white, middle-to-upper-class men—those most likely to be canonized and seen as “representative” of human experience—are not really representative at all. When at its best, Louis CK’s comedy reminds me of this notion. I get a special rush of feminist excitement when I hear a straight, white male comedian reflecting extensively about his personal life (real or fictional) as it relates to larger social systems. Here are some of my favorite examples:

Unraveling the Manic Pixie Dream Girl:

We’re all beyond tired of seeing one-dimensional female characters parading as complex because they’re so quirky/weird/fun/childlike; shown as interesting & unique when really they’re just the same old tired love objects whose sole role is to help male protagonists get in touch with their deeper selves. On a recent episode of CK’s FX sitcom “Louie,” the show’s protagonist goes on a date with an enchanting bookstore employee played by Parker Posey (A reference to Party Girl? I hope so.), during which she coaxes Louie to try on a dress in a thrift store, eat copious amounts of baked goods, break into a building, watch her sit on the edge of the roof of said building (grinning, “I don’t want to jump, so I’m not afraid!”), and convinces him that her first name is Tape Recorder. But unlike cinema’s typical MPDG, Posey’s character shows her cracks. Before the date begins, we see “Tape Recorder” bring Louie to a bar, where she orders two shots, and is denied them by a bartender who references how she “acted last week.” At the end of the date, Posey snaps out of her dream girl-state, looks Louie square in the eye and says, “My name’s Liz.” Coupled with the bar scene, this adds dimension and complexity to Posey’s character beyond the MPDG as experienced through the male gaze, and comments on the stock character trope itself.

Class & Parenting:

CK deals a lot with his experiences as a single dad of two girls in both his stand-up and in “Louie.” Scenes of him encouraging his daughters to be good people who think critically about the world are in and of themselves inherently feminist. But one of my favorite moments in Louis’s comedy is one where he touches on class as it relates to parenting. During a bit about how he thinks it’s insane to hit your kids, CK then mentions that his mother hit him all the time, explaining:

“It’s cause she was poor and I have money. That’s really all it is. My mom worked really hard, she was single mom, and she’d come home all hunched over after 15 hours… and I’d be like [annoying kid voice:]‘Mommy!’… I work two hours a week, sometimes, so it’s not really fair.”

This awareness of his own class privilege shows a feminist-allied consciousness that one’s own experience does not represent the complexly varied experiences of everyone else in the world.

White Male Privilege & Exoticization of Black Women:

Not one to shy away from controversial topics like race, Louis CK talks directly about his own white privilege in his comedy act:

“If you’re not white you’re missing out. I’m not saying that white people are better; I’m saying that being white is clearly better. Here’s how great it is to be white: I can get in a time machine & go anywhere, and it’ll be awesome when I get there. That is an exclusively white privilege.”

While he could certainly take this examination of white privilege further—pushing himself to examine how it negatively affects other racial groups, for example—I think acknowledging it in this way is an important first step. CK takes this examination of race in a feminist direction with a “Louie” episode that deals with white men’s fetishization of black women. In the episode, Louie attempts to court a young black woman named Tarese who works in his local grocery store, first buying her flowers that she immediately rejects, and later getting on the subway with her because he “wants to get to know [her].” Tarese is not having it, and calls Louie out for fetishizing her, asking, “What do you want? You want to see what it’s like to be with a black girl?… Well guess what, you don’t get what you want. Not all the time.”

While Louis’s work is far from perfect, I think it’s smart, and that his attempts to address social institutions like race, class and gender—and, especially, to implicate himself by placing his own experiences within those larger institutions—are closely aligned with feminist agendas

With all this said, I have a message for Louis CK: You are a Feminist. Of course feminists aren’t the natural enemies of comedians, and many comedians are feminist; I think Louis is a great example. Maybe it’s time that he pushes past the tired negative stereotypes associated with the almighty F-word, and be brave enough to embrace the label himself.

Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

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