How Louis C.K. helps the domestic workers’ movement by showing that parenting is work

Ed. Note: This is a guest post by Sheila Bapat. Sheila is a former employment attorney who now writes about gender and economic justice. Her book about the U.S. domestic workers’ movement will be released by Ig Publishing in 2014.

Louis CK with his kids in his FX Show Louie

I saw American Hustle on New Years Day. I was pleasantly surprised when comedian Louis C.K. popped onto the screen. In the film he plays the role of police chief Stoddard Thorsen who spars with an overzealous cop Richie DiMaso (played by Bradley Cooper).

This role comes just months after C.K. showed up in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine. Meanwhile, his critically acclaimed FX television show, Louie, is about to begin its fourth season.

Louis C.K.’s cultural capital is rising alongside a social movement that is also taking off right now: the domestic workers’ movement in the United States. Few would think to connect the comedian with an immigrant women-led movement focused on improving labor protections for workers who care for children, clean homes and serve as companions to elders. Most of these workers are women of color who toil in private homes, and whose labor for decades has barely earned them a minimum wage. The movement has secured a domestic workers’ bill of rights in three states — New York, Hawaii and California – as well as reversed longstanding Fair Labor Standards Act regulations that excluded home care workers from minimum wage and overtime pay.

While its policy objective is to improve wages and working conditions, at its root, the domestic workers’ movement seeks to transform how we value domestic labor. The movement sends the message that work that takes place inside the home is challenging, exhausting, high-stakes, and thus needs to be valued more in society generally.

It is not a leap to connect this movement with the self-proclaimed maker of masturbation jokes. Even more than the topics of masturbation, his unhealthy eating habits and lack of dating mojo, Louis C.K.’s comedy consistently and thoroughly tackles the challenges of parenting. He deconstructs it in a way that makes the frustrations of being a parent hilariously funny and profound.

By picking on his kids — who, based on what papparazzi have shown us, he does seem to spend a lot of time with in his real life — Louis C.K.’s comedy reveals parenting as work, which is exactly what it is. 

C.K.’s FX show Louie, in which he plays a fictional version of himself, centers around his role as a single father and all of its daily mundanity. He takes his two daughters to school every day, cooks dinner for them at night, organizes play dates, chaperones school field trips. And he feels depressed when his daughters are away from him.

This is not a topic he began discussing just three years ago when Louie debuted. C.K. has long devoted his comedy to talking about the work of parenting. For example, in 2008, soon after Father’s Day, Louis C.K. appeared on Conan’s show to promote a new HBO special. The conversation went like this.

Conan: How was your father’s day?

Louis C.K.: I got to spend it with my kids which, you know, yahoo. It’s like hey you’re employee of the month, mop up. It’s what I have to do, I have to be with my kids. <audience boos> Oh shut up, none of you have kids. Here’s the thing, parents never get to say that it’s hard. And it’s the hardest thing in the world. When you’re a parent, it’s impossible…you make huge mistakes constantly….the entire nation depends on our success as parents and you don’t even get to say it sucks. You have to say things like “I couldn’t even imagine my life without my children….” I can totally imagine my life. That’s actually all I ever I do. It’s not a big fantasy, I’m not in the world series of poker. I’m just sitting in a chair, jerking off and eating chocolate.

In the same interview, C.K. goes on to talk about how “If you get sick, nobody cares. You can’t call in sick to having kids,” because the job never ends. He tried, though: when his (now ex-) wife wouldn’t let him stay in bed with a stomach ache because she needed his help with the kids, he went to a hospital to prove that he was really sick. To calm him down, the emergency room doctor sent C.K. home with opiate suppositories that are to be applied anally, which he initially balks at. “Finally I cram it in there, and I think that was probably the greatest moment of my entire life. It was pure opiate pleasure that begins at your anus. It just explodes and you just thank god..more things in my ass, please! So that’s what it’s like having kids.”

It’s not uncommon for comedians to be so crass, but such talk in relation to the hard work of parenting is unique to C.K. In another stand up routine (presumably from 2007) he talks about how he never criticizes how parents do their job. “Here’s the thing, I never judge parents anymore. You know when you see a mom in a store and she’s just melting down on her kid? Any parents who are in that store are thinking, what did that shitty kid do to that poor woman? That poor woman, I wish I could help.”

He talks about a parent’s instinctual need to feed his children. In 2008’s Chewed Up comedy special he discusses his frustration when his young daughter makes a face and refuses to eat the food he has cooked for her. His daughter says “Daddy I don’t like chicken.” And he responds, “I don’t like you, okay? I don’t like you. I don’t like people that make me work and don’t appreciate what I make for them.”

Other male comedians mention their kids — Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld certainly have — but they do not talk about parenting as work. This is consistent with statistics showing that, as compared with women, men are still not taking parenting on as work. An October 2013 study about men and domestic work revealed 65 percent of surveyed men wanting to share equally in domestic work, but 30 percent actually doing so.

But, would a woman comedian be able to make acerbic jokes about her children and get as many laughs as C.K.? Would audiences be too offended by such a thing? Hard to know, though legendary comedian Joan Rivers (who actually appeared in one hysterical episode of Louie) has tested those waters a bit over the course of her career in fairly benign jokes about her daughter, Melissa. And in a field where shock value yields success, picking on her daughter has not hurt her career.

C.K. has actually received props from feminists recently for comments he has made unrelated to parenting. Last year as controversy over rape jokes erupted, with most male comedians incredulous over the idea they should be aware of the impact of their language (and some disgusting Twitter conversation cruelly advocating for the rape of Lindy West), Louis C.K. paid a visit to The Daily Show and pointed out something a woman had told him recently: that fear of rape and assault “polices” her life. He has also incorporated the problem of violence against women in his comedy.

Certainly not all of C.K.’s work is particularly feminist. But lately — just as his star is on the rise — Louis C.K. is proving to be one of the more thoughtful performers out there who cares about comedy’s impact on the broader culture. And amid all these depressing stats about men who still do less work around the house, the king of masturbation jokes is shedding light on the value of parenting labor. As the movement for domestic workers’ rights is breaking through centuries of policy that has devalued the work of the private sphere, C.K. is inadvertently helping out — just by talking about how tough, and critical, domestic work really is.

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Sheila is a former employment attorney who now writes about gender and economic justice. Her first book, Part of the Family, was released by Ig Publishing in 2014 and chronicles the U.S. domestic workers' movement.

Sheila Bapat is reviewing books related to gender, domestic work, and economic justice for Feministing.

Read more about Sheila

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