He clearly said no.
And when Louie said no in last night’s episode as Pamela (in male drag) flipped him over, he was in distress. He had just reluctantly agreed to put on makeup in order to have “the greatest sex of his life” with his girlfriend, who violated him right before she dumped him. His face was close to the camera, full of dread, and he clearly screamed, “No!” as Pam, a blurry mess above him, writhed around with indistinct motions. It lasted for about five seconds. It was intimate. It was terrifying.
And then the show cut to a commercial.
When they came back, Louie looked satisfied. Pamela even asked if he was okay, and he said, “Yeah!” enthusiastically. But in that commercial break, you’re left with the violence of what just happened. Was Louie being raped? Is this role-play gone bad, or sexual exploration that’s gone too far? The relief comes as soon as the commercial break is over, but it’s almost a little too late.
I want to give Louis C.K. the benefit of the doubt here — he’s smart and realizes exactly how the dynamics of gender, power, and violence work to create a culture of fear around sex. He talks about it in his stand-up all the time, most recently in Oh My God, where he does a bit about how crazy it is for women to even go on dates with men, who are naturally their biggest threat. I know he gets it — Louis C.K. is not obtuse about how men and women are taught to take up space in the world. But I also know he’s self-admittedly perverse and likes to push the envelope on some of our greatest cultural taboos. The sex Louie has on this show is always slightly awful — accidentally punching an astronaut’s daughter in the face, or having Maria Bamford flat-out tell him he’s bad at sex.
He’s also had aggressive sexual situations that can easily be construed as assault — Laurie (played by Melissa Leo) once aggressively told Louie to “whip it out” in her truck right before she forced him to give her oral sex, and there was an uncomfortable situation last season with Pamela, when he clawed at her all over the apartment before forcing her to kiss him while she loudly said, “Let me goooooo!” The line between bad sex and abject assault shouldn’t be a blurry one, but somehow it is for Louie, and there’s a point where his interrogation of bad sex becomes an irresponsible representation of sexual assault. With scenes like this, he reinforces the idea that you can’t blame your sexual partner for rape if there’s any gray area, like if it starts out enjoyable but becomes uncomfortable.
It’s possible that this is Pamela’s revenge for his kiss-attack on her last season, but she doesn’t seem like a character who would be that vindictive, or even remember that far back. She is a pretty selfish character, though, so it’s not far out of the realm of possibility that she’d continue to do whatever sex moves she pleased even if Louie wasn’t into it.
This scene also follows another one of gendered violence, where Louie gets beat up by a woman for interrupting her as she yelled at another man. When these scenes are working in tandem, they do less to emphasize Louie’s passivity and more to showcase how that passivity is always feminized. He didn’t just get beaten up — he got beat up by a girl. He didn’t just get sexually assaulted — he was sexually assaulted by a girl. The person performing the violence is as much of a commentary as the fact that Louie is on the receiving end of it.
And when it comes to sexual assault, Louie is always being raped by women. He’s subverting the dominant ideology of rape by constantly placing himself in situations where he’s a male victim — but he doesn’t push it further to consider what effect that has on him, how it feels, or how to recover. The lack of a survivor’s story is remarkable; we’re certainly used to it, culturally, as a way to escape the tension of hearing the worst stories imaginable. Louie never seems to stop for a second to consider the ill effects of his sexual experiences on his psyche. Outbursts like the one he had last week with Lenny might be part of those ill effects; after being poked and punched by him all night, Louie loudly yelled, “I’m telling you that it hurt, you don’t get to deny that!” But he never tells the women harming him to stop, or that what they’re doing to him hurts.
I like that Louis C.K. is exploring the complications of adult relationships on his show in a way that isn’t always easy to define. Life is messy, and relationships are increasingly confusing as you build up your own emotional baggage. It’s okay to have depictions of relationships that have their fair share of muddy waters. But last night he clearly said no, and I just don’t think that’s a gray area.