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A Closer Look at Louis CK's Shocking Rape Scene

In a week when comedians were failing majorly on rape (Tosh, looking at you), "Louie" brought nuance and subtlety to the issue
 
 
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Stand-up comedian Louis C.K.’s brutalizing, dark comedy Louie has a tendency to buttress sex scenes with taboo. In the first season, he makes a play for a young black cashier at his grocery store because he’s interested in bedding a woman of color. She is appalled, but he follows her home, only to end up with a neighbor interested in fulfilling the reverse desire. Perhaps even more awkward (albeit, this time for Louie and not the woman he’s offended), was another episode in which he enters a tryst with a 26-year-old woman. She tells him that older men feel beholden to young bedmates and that’s how she gets off. The encounter is predicated on Louie’s loneliness, especially evident when she’s put off he thought her proposition ultimately required a relationship, which he feels unable to enter with someone so young.

Consent and humiliation can often go hand-in-hand, vulnerability becoming more prickly when walls come down to strangers. But more often than not, sexual humiliation is the result of coercion. Last week’s episode concludes with a date rape scene, only Louie is the one being attacked.
Louie is, without warning, set up with Laurie, a friend of stand-up Allan Havey and his wife. They are invited to Havey’s home on Long Island for dinner, a sit-down which portends Laurie (huskily played by Oscar winner Melissa Leo) as an aggressor—she carves at her plate like she must get through the china and eat it, as well, to enjoy her meal. Despite lacking chemistry, Louie and Laurie retreat to a bar after their married hosts begin a tiff. Over beers, the two bond via their similar curmudgeonly attitudes, particularly adamant ones against marriage.


At the end of the night, instead of taking Louie back to his motorcycle, Laurie, undoubtedly drunk, drives him to an alleyway where she demands he “whip it out!” What transpires after they are finished is one of the most disturbing sexual encounters on a network comedy in recent broadcast, if not ever.

Laurie expects measure for measure, requesting Louie “strap on the feedbag” but he does not want to. He says it’s too soon and too intimate. It turns into a debate about values and comfort for Louie and about the necessity of (even undesired) reciprocity for Laurie. “You want to know how many dicks I sucked I didn’t want to suck?” she asks. “Because I’m a good kid. Because I do what’s right.” In this circumstance, the right thing to do is to accept your partner’s value system and move on. Louie asks her, "Would you really want me to do that to you if I didn't want to?" and she tells him, “I don't give a shit. I just want to get off,” and then proceeds to bet him that within the next three minutes he will have acquiesced to her.

Louie accepts the bet, confident he will leave her pickup truck the victor. Instead she becomes menacing, going on a tirade that he must be gay if he does not want to proceed. This is the beginning of sexual coercion, or unwanted sexual intercourse or contact brought upon by the use of verbal encumbrance or inappropriate assertion of authority. It escalates into acquaintance rape, more commonly known as date rape, when Laurie cold cocks Louie in the face so hard that his head shatters the passenger side window, upon when she climbs onto his head while pulling up her skirt, grabs his fingers and threatens to break them if he does not perform. The camera then cuts to a shot of Laurie’s pickup rocking back and forth.

Louie ultimately agrees to see her again. His character is consistently thwarted into things he does not want to do—smoking marijuana with an obnoxious neighbor (S1, E8, “Dogpound”), attending a dive-y open mic with a depressed comic pal (S2, E9, “Eddie”). Because this is a theme throughout the show, a narrow amount of critical reception has denied calling it actual rape. Willa Paskin at Salon writes:

“What’s so brilliant about this scene — my favorite of the year so far—  is that it is and is not a complete gender reversal. If Laurie were a man, and Louie were a woman, this would be understood as rape.”

The key word in this passage is “understood.” Paskin is not saying that there is an issue with the societal understanding that this can, in fact, happen to men by women, but that because the violence was committed by a woman she feels for and who lacks gendered power, it is essentially not rape. She goes on to say:

“But the portrayal of Laurie is far too sympathetic for her to just be another date rapist. The gender roles may be largely reversed, but the genders haven’t been, which means the power hasn’t been entirely redistributed. Though Laurie does, in fact, physically assault Louie, almost up until the moment she does, he is not scared to be in a car with her. He’s not physically threatened. Moreover, Laurie may be demanding what she wants after the fact, but she has already made herself vulnerable by doing the giving. It’s impossible to imagine a woman calling a man who had just gone down on her a whore, as Louie does Laurie. And Louie’s hesitance to perform oral sex does seem caught up in some societal squeamishness about this particular act.”

It’s certainly a fair point, whether a viewer finds Laurie sympathetic or not. While Louie is a fictional character, the show’s narratives tend to reflect his own life, as well as bits from his stand-up act. In his 2011 special, Hilarious, he closes his set with a joke about young men’s fussiness over menstruation, stating with no bugaboos about women, “I don’t give a shit. If you’re having your period, come on over. I’m forty-one. I’ll fuck the shit out of you. I’ll drink the blood. Let’s party.” And then he thanks the audience and leaves the stage.

Paskin does go on to say that she assumes that Louie would have intercourse with Laurie, which she says is just as intimate (again, fair point). But it’s the nature of the sexual encounter that matters: He said no, she did it anyway. It was date rape and Louis C.K. got people talking about a topic people are insistent to avoid.

Claire Lobenfeld is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. Find her on Twitter at @clairevlo
 
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