So, About Last Night’s Uncomfortable ‘Louie’ Moment…
On the second of last night’s two new episodes of ‘Louie,’ Louis CK‘s fictional counterpart and his longtime friend, Pamela, shared an incredibly unnerving moment. ‘Louie’ is a show that has continually pushed boundaries since season 1, particularly relishing in the abstract and CK’s specific brand of darkly comedic whimsy, but there was nothing either abstract or whimsical about what transpired when Louie tried to force himself on his friend in a thought-provoking half-hour that examined the complexities and obliviousness of male privilege.
Throughout “Pamela Part 1,” CK comments on ideas of not only his own privilege, but the many shades of privilege available to all men — at one point, during an extended stand-up segment that serves as the segue from one half of the episode to the other, Louie goes off on a tangent about how women are still subjugated by men and struggling for equality, when he believes that women should rightfully be in charge of everything. His routine includes a bit about how women were denied the right to vote until 1920 — less than 100 years ago — which means that America wasn’t a real democracy until then; but his otherwise sharp and observant routine is ignorant of the regulations and laws our country stubbornly imposed on African-American citizens, created to keep them from voting — these limitations weren’t lifted until 1965, 45 years later, when the Voting Rights Act was signed into law. And while much of his routine is quite funny and insightful as usual, this omission illustrates his myopic view of the world as a white male. Even as he speaks in support of women’s rights, he speaks only from the experience of a man; even as he speaks on the subject of democracy and voting rights in America, he speaks only from the experience of a white man, whose empathies extend in this context specifically to women — perhaps intentionally, as much of the episode is driven by his own willfully ignorant privilege and the way he imposes that entitlement on the women around him.
During the episode’s first half, Louie, nursing heartbreak after the departure of his short-term Hungarian girlfriend, seeks out the advice of the doctor downstairs (the brilliant Charles Grodin). Dr. Bigelow keenly observes that “misery is wasted on the miserable,” and advises Louie to embrace his heartache. After all, it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all, and his pain is evidence of the joy he was so lucky to have experienced, and the love he was so privileged to share with another human being, however brief.
Rather than contemplate the wise doctor’s words and spend time sitting in his heartache, Louie immediately runs to Pamela, who recently returned from Europe and offered to give the whole boyfriend/girlfriend scenario a shot. But, since Louie is only coming to Pamela now that his other relationship didn’t work out, she rebukes him, and rightfully so. Who wants to be a rebound? Who wants to basically be told that they’re only wanted to fill a desolate void? What Louie is saying to Pamela without really saying it is that she’s second best, the runner-up in a game for which she was never a willing participant. It’s a classic entitlement situation, and one that Louie plays out predictably: because Pamela said she wanted to be with him that one time, then of course she’ll be there waiting whenever he finally decides he wants her. But women don’t exist for men or for their fickle pleasures, and we certainly aren’t waiting by the proverbial phone for them to finally decide to call us.
Louie’s concept of privilege, however subconscious, becomes exceptionally disturbing later on in the episode, when he returns home from his gig to Pamela, who agreed to babysit his daughters. While they sleep in the next room, Louie makes a lunge at Pamela while fumbling for the words to reaffirm his desire, and when she continually tries to leave, he awkwardly and forcefully grabs her. Is he trying to rape her in his own confused and misguided way? Pamela notes that it would be rape if he weren’t so stupid, and CK does indeed spend much of the episode making Louie out to be more idiotic than usual, from the dumbfounded and befuddled look on his face when Dr. Bigelow tells him to be grateful for his privilege, to the moment when he’s so oblivious while staring at a photo Pamela sent him on his phone that he almost gets hit by an SUV while crossing the street.
CK makes no attempt to endorse Louie’s moronic and deplorable behavior, as he never has — it’s clear during every moment of this exceedingly uncomfortable scene that what Louie is doing is reprehensible, regardless of a socially awkward and romantically-challenged Pamela relenting and allowing him to kiss her, an act she finds repulsive not just because of him, but because she resents affection. The scene itself is a horrific display of male entitlement, and given the proceeding 20 minutes of the episode in which Louie’s ideas and actions are mostly harmless and ignorant, it reads like a fluid illustration of the slippery slope of male privilege — what starts as harmless behavior can quickly become harmful if left unchecked, and because we live in a society that regularly shrugs off such casual misogyny, men like Louie don’t think they’re doing anything wrong, and their behavior has the capacity to escalate.
After that terrible moment, we see Louie on the bus with his daughters, scolding the eldest for not paying attention to their surroundings — it’s for her own best interest, he insists, that she become familiar with the bus route. As a father, he may be right, but as a man who just attempted to assault his friend regardless of the nature of his intentions, this becomes yet another moment where a man is telling a woman what he believes is best for her. His daughter knows she’s capable of taking care of something as simplistic as a bus ride, so why can’t he trust her? Just then, an African American passenger spits on the floor of the bus, and Louie takes it upon himself to play the part of the righteous man, scolding the other passenger for his crude behavior, willfully oblivious to his own exceedingly reprehensible acts; blissfully ignorant that this is yet another extension of his sense of entitlement.
What Louie fails to understand, but what C.K. captures perfectly, is that only someone with the privilege of being born a white man could be so aggressive and yet so oblivious, casually taking liberties with the rights of others in pursuit of his own narrow-minded and self-centered ideology. Perhaps his flaws are best illustrated when he extends his kindness and empathy to a man who is seemingly babbling to no one in particular about his own refusal to indulge the needs of someone else, indignantly communicating about his ideas of entitlement and self-worth, while expressing his vague resentments that sound like echoes in the chamber of Louie’s own mind. And while Louie can sympathize in this off-kilter moment, his ability to sympathize is apparently limited only to that with which he can relate: a middle-aged white male, oblivious to his innate privilege, and to the fact that it’s that very sense of entitlement that he’s using to subjugate those he perceives (whether consciously or subconsciously) as unequal.