It’s been a long haul, but we’ve finally gotten to a place in the world — or at least in the U.S. — or at least in the aspirational version of the U.S. that is depicted by mainstream media — where we acknowledge that physical intimacy always requires consent from both parties. This is important because in the not-so-recent past it was considered bad form for one of the parties to say yes, meaning a whole lot of confusion got built into what should have been a fairly easy vetting process. On some occasions no meant no, but on other occasions it meant not yet, or try harder, or I want to say yes but I was told I’ll go to hell so don’t actually pay attention to the words coming out of my mouth. Unfortunately, not only did this often lead to hurt feelings, it also made it difficult to prove guilt when a crime was perpetrated.
It is only a good thing that no now always mean no. This is not to say, however, that confusion can’t still take place, as happened Monday night on Louie when Louis C.K.’s quasi-eponymous onscreen persona unilaterally decided he was going to kiss a recurring character named Pamela no matter how she felt about the matter. (You can see the moment, and the confusion it caused in at least one viewer, here.)
Should we be concerned that Louie didn’t listen to Pamela when she repeatedly said no? Well, in terms of the characters and the plotting and the dialogue I think it’s pretty clear that Pamela is damaged and that anything that comes out of her mouth is being filtered through carnage we can only so far imagine. As a result, Pamela often sends conflicting signals — many of them delivered with the pointy end of a bayonet — making it very hard to understand what she’s really thinking. In that dramatic context I read the scene as honest as well as potentially destabilizing for some viewers precisely because of the interpersonal dynamics between the two characters, which reach back quite far in the show.
If you disagree with my reading that’s fine, but I do think you have to agree that Louie is a television show dramatizing things that sometimes happen to people, not a primer on how to conduct yourself in real-world situations. If you find yourself in a relationship with someone like Pamela (of either gender), and they are, for whatever reason, incapable of saying what they think or feel even as they pretend to be bold and honest in everything they do and say, and you’re absolutely certain they want you to kiss them, you can either A) make your move or B) ask permission, at which point the response you get is your answer. What you don’t get to do is ask again and again, as Louie did after he was initially rebuffed, failed to drag Pamela into his bedroom, and pinned her up against his door, because that’s what the real world calls attempted rape and false imprisonment no matter what you were thinking or feeling at the time.
That Louie didn’t accept Pamela’s first answer may be understandable in the context of the interpersonal drama that the writers created, but again, it’s a TV show, whereas you’re obligated to be a real human being even if you don’t want to be. Too, as a writer, Louis C.K. does makes some interesting choices, many of which would never happen in real life, so we already know we shouldn’t take the plotting on Louie too literally. These plot choices also include some pretty self-indulgent stuff, including perpetually writing Louie into bed with gorgeous and dramatically provocative women, which would also probably never happen, so again, we have strong reasons for not taking the plotting in Louie too literally.
On the other hand, now that Louis C.K. has progressed from dramatizing fleeting moments to full facets of life, he may be discovering that his plotting muscles aren’t toned for the long haul, as was clearly the case in the just-concluded arc between his character and the character of Amia. If you’re having trouble talking with your Hungarian girlfriend because she doesn’t speak a word of English, and you’re a reasonably bright guy, it’s probably not going to take weeks to figure out that maybe you should get someone to translate the important stuff between you, like, say, the bilingual woman your Hungarian girlfriend lives with. Even better, if you happen to live in the computer age, it’s probably going to occur to you — or any of your fifty friends who know about the problem — that you can omit that third party and instead sit on your couch with your Hungarian girlfriend and a laptop and use the interweb to translate your most intimate thoughts in what would have been a truly beautiful scene.
Did Louie cut a little too close to something dangerous Monday night? Maybe, but I take solace in the fact that the show’s quasi-eponymous creator did so in character, as well as in the audience’s ability to know the difference between what is depicted in drama and how we should behave in the real world. More to the point, any tension that was felt in that episode necessarily came from our awareness that things have changed and that playing hard-to-get is not a signal to get-harder. Today, if the person you’re interested in isn’t sober or is incapable of clearly stating reciprocal interest then the answer is no, even if you think that’s not what the other person really wants. This new standard doesn’t allow for abstentions or vague acceptance, it requires an assertion — knowingly opting in — which is what adults do when they’re interested in each other. If you want to explore situations in which that’s not the case you’re free to do so in drama, but in real life no means no, always, no matter what Louie does.
Speaking of Louie and of getting permission from people before we do things to them, I confess a certain amount of running discomfort about the degree to which the show, the show’s creator, and the show’s quasi-eponymous character — who is also played by the show’s creator — makes use of kids not only as characters, but also in the stand-up segments, and particularly so when mention of those children falls in close proximity with what we will euphemistically describe as adult content. I’m all for edgy, and I think it’s even okay to be edgy about kids and parenting, but the fact that Louis C.K. does have children and routinely seems to use their existence, if not their life experiences, as fuel for his career, ends up making me feel complicit in that taking.
Then again that’s not something we talk about much in this country, including on funny, edgy shows that cut through the politically correct crap and get to the heart of what it means to be a fallible human being. If you’ve got kids, you as a parent have the right to exploit them for entertainment or even profit, no questions asked. You acquire this right not because you’ve proven to have the best interests of your children at heart, or even that you’re a decent human being, but by default because children do not themselves have the cognitive capacity to make informed judgments about many choices even if someone has the decency to seek their permission beforehand. Whatever the crazy adults decide, as long as they’re your legal guardians, you get to go along for the ride and live with the consequences of those choices. Fortunately, most of those consequences will only be apparent after you grow up and realize what the hell happened, and maybe spend a decade or two trying to reconcile what you thought you knew with what’s on screen in front of you with whatever identity you manage to develop after having been volunteered into celebrity-by-proxy by someone who was morally obligated to think and act on your behalf.
Funny stuff. In an edgy way.
— Mark Barrett