Scandal is way too small a word for what’s happening right now in the world of Hollywood, and Washington, and the tech industry, and the restaurant business, and—I guess it’s quicker and more comprehensive just to say “the world.” Scandal implies an aberration in a system, a disruption in a previously stable field. This is something deeper and more unsettling: the revelation that the whole system was rotten all along.
We need a name for whatever the thing is that’s happening, though, because it’s apparently just going to keep on happening. Now Louis C.K., maybe the most influential comedian of the past decade, has been felled by the scythe of sexual misconduct allegations that’s clearing a swath through our popular culture. This is an especially hard one, in part because, as has been eloquently expressed elsewhere, Louis C.K. was especially gifted at writing, performing, and presenting himself to the public as an artist engaged, to what now seems an obsessive degree, with questions of sexual exploitation and consent. His TV show Louie returned multiple times to scenes of ambivalently coercive encounters between men and women, with Louie sometimes playing the aggressor and sometimes, as in a memorable car-sex scene with Melissa Leo, the victim. I remember laughing alone on my couch at that scene, loving how bold it was in its reversal of conventional gender dynamics, and how honest. How brave.
I was alone on my couch for a reason: My partner, who normally likes the same shows I do, couldn’t get into Louie, nor quite express why. He abandoned it a few episodes in, which I considered a lapse in taste I would generously overlook. But I continued watching on my own, saving up a few episodes to consume in a row as a treat. I’d be teased, on my way to watch “my Louies,” about my crush on Louis C.K., sometimes with variations on the theme of how, the more perverse his humor got, the more I liked him. And here’s the hard part to write now: That characterization wasn’t inaccurate. His willingness to visit what seemed like the darkest places of his own psyche (as it turned out, there were darker places) read as vulnerability. And vulnerability—God damn it, even this observation sounds creepy now—can be sexy.
Now that the stories of his pressuring women to watch him masturbate have come out, it sounds gross to talk about, but plenty of Louis’ fans had this kind of crush on him. I saw him do a live stand-up show in New York in 2011, just two seasons into his then-groundbreaking new series. It was a virtuosic hour of comedy, later released as the stand-up special Live at the Beacon Theater. Louis was on his game: raunchy, of course, but also introspective, surreally funny, and—once more, I thought at the time—honest. One of the bits he did involved miming masturbation to completion, in the context of talking about how demeaning and abject the act of male onanism was. What made this gag work was how long it went on. Rather than the two-second jerk-off motion often seen in casual conversation, this was a complete performance with a distinct beginning, middle, and … er … end.
In I Love You, Daddy, Louis C.K.’s latest and now probably last movie, which was pulled from release by its distributor the day after the allegations broke, a character played by Charlie Day performs the exact same gag, including the no-longer-comic extended duration. But Day’s character, Ralph, isn’t standing alone at a mic, re-enacting his private shame before an audience. He’s in a TV executive’s office with two other people in the room, the exec (Louis) and his producer (Edie Falco). For the most part, they ignore him and go on with their conversation, a high-stakes argument about the fate of the television series they’re producing together. That, it’s implied, is just the way Ralph is.
As the post-Weinstein Pandora’s box of abuse stories was beginning to open up in the past few weeks, I was kibitzing with some movie critics on Twitter about the impending release of I Love You, Daddy, which some of us—not including me at that point—had already seen. We knew rumors were swirling around Louis C.K., though not necessarily just what their content was, and we wondered whether the reporting would come out before the movie opened. Some of us, including, I un-feministly confess, me, were hoping against hope it would turn out not to be true. “I’m still waiting for the other shoe to drop,” I tweeted. One of the wisest critics on the thread replied, “The film is itself a shoe.”
And that’s all you need to know about I Love You, Daddy, really: If you were waiting for another shoe to drop, the movie is that shoe. I didn’t get to watch it until Friday, the day after Jodi Kantor, Melena Ryzik, and Cara Buckley’s exhaustively reported story about five women’s experiences with Louis C.K. broke in the New York Times and just hours after the decision not to release it. I watched it not as a critic preparing to summarize its merits or flaws to an audience of readers curious whether it was worth their time to see it, but as a sickened and disappointed fan, saying an unsentimental but still sad goodbye to one of her cultural crushes. Under those circumstances, I Love You, Daddy seemed less like a movie than like a series of symptoms presented, with shocking directness, for the viewer’s clinical consideration.
Every male character is a thinly cloaked stand-in for some ruinous aspect or other of male sexuality. John Malkovich plays a respected film director hounded by rumors of long-ago child assault—essentially Woody Allen with a goatee and a cravat—who appears to have his sights set on Louis’ character’s teenage daughter (Chloë Grace Moretz). The TV star played by Charlie Day is a gleeful horndog untroubled by social norms, as seen in the extended masturbation joke described above. (In a different time, I might have observed that Day’s kinetic, all-in performance somehow makes his character endearing despite his glaring faults. But watching him Friday, I couldn’t crack a smile.) And Louis, of course, plays Louis, his fictional name changed this time, but still the same bundle of ambivalence, neuroses, and unregulated desires. He never could really act the part of any character but himself. This was something he himself joked about, and it made up a part of his charm, back then.
Mallory Ortberg, who is now Slate’s advice columnist, wrote a maliciously funny sketch in 2013 for the Toast, sending up a very particular social type. In it, she imagines Louis C.K.’s beleaguered ex-wife finding herself at a party with a group of fans who conflate his TV persona with the real-life man. As she listens in eloquent silence, they gush on about how hot her famous ex is and how they’re sure he must be “such a good dad.”
I’m guilty even of that last assumption, though I like to think I’d be polite enough not to express it to his ex. I saw Louis C.K. a few years back outside the Standard hotel in Manhattan, where there’s a tiny, chalet-style ice rink we sometimes skate at over the winter holidays. He didn’t go out on the ice, just sat with some other parents at a table drinking hot chocolate and watching while his daughters and their friends hurtled around the rink, crashing into my daughter and her friends. It’s nice to see an artist whose work you admire out on the town, seeming to enjoy his well-deserved success. He looked happy, and I was happy for him. And today I’m really sad—not for Louis, but for his daughters, his ex-wife, and the women he hurt, the five who spoke up and whoever else may be out there. In a less acute but still painful register, I’m sad for the rest of us, too, anyone who got something from his comedy, whether it was laughter or insight or—for the many younger comics influenced by him—inspiration.
I’m not sure if this way of framing the fall of Louis C.K.—that I once found him both hilarious and hot, and when I think of that from now on, I will always feel dirty, compromised, and gross—is appropriate or ladylike or even professional. I know I’m supposed to assume the proper critical distance and evaluate his latest movie as a work of art, then ponder abstractly what the proper relation between a life and an artistic legacy should be. But like a lot of women right now, I’m sort of past caring how I sound. I haven’t noticed a lot of men suppressing what might generously be called their impulse for self-expression.
Louis C.K.’s Public Statement Unnervingly Misunderstands the Concept of Consent by Christina Cauterucci