In an interview on Conan O’Brien, Louis C.K. defends the candidacy of the 2016 Democratic Party’s nominee, Hillary Clinton. Her legitimacy as a candidate, he argues, lies in her experience as a mother. “A mother’s just got it,” He says, “She feeds you and teaches you, she protects you, she takes care of shit…a great father can give a kid 40 percent of his needs, tops. Tops out at 40 percent. Any mother, just a shitty mother, a not-even-trying mother? Two hundred percent.”
On the surface, Louis C.K.’s comments are fairly benevolent towards women. Some may even label them as “feminist” (to which the question in response must always be: “which feminism?”). He defends and advocates the election of the first female Presidential nominee, and portrays motherhood not as a weakness in her candidacy, as several major news outlets did during her campaign, but as a strength.
Under the surface, however, we have an explicit outlining of sexual difference that is slightly suspicious. Not only does C.K. not mention her positions on U.S. issues or past accomplishments, but he also seems to be equating her legitimacy as a candidate with her reproductive and mothering capabilities. With the statement “any mother, not just a shitty mother, a not-even-trying mother” always gives “two hundred percent” comes the implication that women are “naturally” skilled and compassionate mothers. This benevolent appreciation for women’s mothering capabilities sugar-coats an essentializing of sexual difference, and, we might say, a benevolent sexism.
To review (see post: “Humor, Gender, and Play: An Overview”), benevolent sexism has been described by psychologists Susan Fiske and Peter Glick as “a subjectively favorable, chivalrous ideology that offers protection and affection to women who embrace conventional roles” (Fiske et. al. 109). It is characterized by the following:
- Protective paternalism (e.g. “ladies first”)
- Sexual difference (e.g. “women are naturally purer than men”)
- Heterosexual intimacy (e.g. “every man needs a loving woman to support him”)
Benevolent sexism, according to Fiske and Glick, coexists with hostile sexism, or “antipathy toward women who are viewed as usurping men’s power” (109). Fiske and Glick are concerned about benevolent sexism because it is “disarming”: “to the extent that women depend on men to be their protectors and providers, they are less likely to protest men’s power or to seek their own independent status.” (111) Therefore, the benevolence “sneakily” establishes sexual difference and essential weakness to secure heterosexual partnership and ensure male power, disguised as “protection” of the “weaker sex.” The prevalence of benevolent sexism as a phenomenon in popular culture allows for the creation and repetition of such a system in which women are seen as subordinates, and men are seen as protectors (in this system, no other genders are acknowledged).
What I’m interested in is not placing blame on a singular comic for perpetuating traditional notions of essentialist sexual difference. In fact, in terms of treatment of women as a concept in his comedy, C.K. is more benevolent than several other male comics. It is this very excellence at navigating prejudice and benevolence – at navigating entanglement – however, that makes me suspicious. What I’m interested in is the benevolent acknowledgement of sexual difference as a popular phenomenon that tends to land well with audiences. Why has this type of benevolent prejudice become so popular in routines, why does it land so well, and what tone, body language, and venue allow for its public acceptance and reinforcement?
In order to understand this, of course, we must first understand how C.K. establishes himself in the comic arena (see “The Semiotics of an Opening with Louis C.K.”). In her enlightening article “Laughter in the Final Instance: The Cultural Economy of Humor (Or why women aren’t perceived to be as funny as men),” Rebecca Krefting argues that audiences tend to support comics whose categories of identity correspond to the “ideal” American citizen. This is because there is cultural capital available to be acquired in listening to the “ideal” citizen:
Comics occupying privileged social locations in the national imaginary, i.e., white, heterosexual, male, advance a position and bear identity markers audiences recognize as dominant in the shared national imaginary and thus bear the promise of incentive, e.g., if I can understand dominant modes of being I will increase my chances of gaining access to the power and prestige of the dominant class or ideal citizens. Heterosexist, sexist, racist, classist, and ableist ideas of nationhood work to create a cultural economy that supports these beliefs. It comes as no surprise then, that most comics touring the national circuit are heterosexual men” (Krefting).
We can consider the comedy space, therefore, as a “shared national imaginary” – as a temporal community of people who have come together for the purposes of laughing. The audience’s willingness to laugh at a joke signals a community of shared culture. Not laughing in a group of laughers sends the message: “You think this is funny, but I disagree with you.” Refusal to comply in laughing at a joke signals disengagement from the affective community, positioning oneself as vulnerable. Furthermore, the comic, positioned on the stage with a view of the audience, has the ability to call out an audience member for not laughing, as to guarantee that the non-laugher is rendered as abject.
C.K. is what Krefting would label as “the ideal candidate for humor production” – white, heterosexual, and male. The comedy space, historically dominated by this demographic, does not threaten to other the white heterosexual male comic. There is cultural incentive for an audience in listening to a white heterosexual male up on a stage; the white, heterosexual, male body, as the “ideal candidate,” is trusted to be funny and knowledgeable on the comedy stage, and is even more accepted in vocal confirmation and reassurance of his hegemonic identity in his material (affirmations of heterosexuality, masculinity, etc.). The white heterosexual male experience is already positioned as norm in dominant American culture and on the American comedy stage, and is further affirmed as normative in the re-telling of his male experiences and the audience’s agreement to laugh with him.
What makes C.K. likeable is the combination of these ideal characteristics – white, heterosexual, and male – with characteristics that are considered to be less than ideal, but relatable to audiences. He is, for example, relatively heavy-set, but allows his appearance to become a part of his persona – what humor scholar Linda Misejewski has labeled as his “bumbling, schlep persona.” This makes self-deprecatory humor available to C.K., allowing him to establish himself as an ideal, but non-threatening subject to identify with. Furthermore, C.K. is divorced, and has two kids, opening up a series of jokes in which he expresses cynicism about marriage and children. As someone who has “been around the block,” as we might call it, and who has a combination of threatening and nonthreatening characteristics, C.K. is positioned as a wise social interpreter (or even, we might say, an anthropologist) whom the audience respects, finds non-threatening, and is able to trust.
How does C.K. subtly reaffirm his white male heterosexual identity, and what is the cultural incentive for listening to him? In establishing himself as norm, C.K. must position something else as the non-norm: the “not-me.” This “not-me” is what feminist scholar Julia Kristeva describes in her book Powers of Horror as “the abject,” or what is “cast off”. Abjection is the experience of subjective horror toward an Other; it is the mental, emotional, and even physical breakdown between the self what the self finds the need to declare as Other. Kristeva goes into great detail in her comparison of emotional abjection to physical ejection from the body:
…nausea makes me balk at that milk cream, separates me from the mother and father who proffer it. “I” want none of that element, sign of their desire; “I” do not want to listen, “I” do not assimilate it, “I” expel it. But since the food is not an “other” for “me,” who am only in their desire, I expel myself, I spit myself out, I abject myself within the same motion through which “I” claim to establish myself. That detail, perhaps an insignificant one, but one that they ferret out, emphasize, evaluate, that trifle turns me inside out, guts sprawling; it is thus that they see that “I” am in the process of becoming an other at the expense of my own death, During that course in which “I” become, I give birth to myself amid the violence of sobs, of vomit. Mute protest of the symptom, shattering violence of a convulsion that, to be sure, is inscribed in a symbolic system, but in which, without either wanting or being able to become integrated in order to answer to it, it reacts, it abreacts. It abjects (Kristeva 2).
A large part of abjection, then, is ejection from the body, like vomit. This, of course, does not always (and does not usually, except in cases of very extreme disgust) result in the act of vomiting food, but rather in the act of “vomiting” (as we might call it) words and expressions that separate the self from the Other. Abjection is very closely related to phobia, and a large part of it implies a fear that the self will merge with the Other. Men, for example, in an act of misogyny, may need to position the woman as repulsive “abject” in order to cope with the fear of becoming a woman (and thus becoming less privileged in the social hierarchy).
The opposite of the abject is the “deject,” which is the role C.K. will play in order to situate himself as the respected white, heterosexual man. Kristeva even implies that the deject often plays a comic role: “The one by whom the abject exists is thus a deject who places (himself), separates (himself), situates (himself), and therefore strays instead of getting his bearings, desiring, belonging, or refusing. Situationist in a sense, and not without laughter— since laughing is a way of placing or displacing abjection” (8). The deject lays out the terms of what the abject will be; in positioning himself as the deject and the Other as the abject, he not only separates himself from abjection, but also situates himself as the one in power.
There is a difference as well between an object of desire and an abject. “Man fucks woman,” for example, as Judith Butler touches on, is laid out in this format: subject, verb, object (Butler 110). In his comedy, C.K. positions the “young girl” as abject – the “not-me” – and the mature woman as object – what he desires. He does this by explicitly laying out what he perceives as the differences between girls and women, going so far as to even spell out why he finds himself more attracted to women than girls.
This shot is an intimate one, from shoulders up. “That’s what I like, man. I like women. Women-women. Girls, man, I’m done. A long time ago. Twenty-two year old girls, God bless you. Go do a…shot,” He throws his arm up and emphasizes the word “shot,” as if the word is foreign to him. “Whatever the fuck you do with your time?” He imitates a woman, throwing his arms up again and throwing out a feminized “Wooo!” He lowers his voice again, back to himself. “That’s not me anymore. I like women. And I know that’s offensive to twenty-two year old girls, like,” He puts his hands up in mock surrender, and suddenly launches into a feminized, nasally, lispy voice: “‘I’m a woman! I’m twenty-two, I’m totally a woman!’ When C.K. performs this monstrous, feminized voice, he sticks his tongue out and barely emphasizes his words, ejecting them from his body almost like vomit. It is as if, like Kristeva points out when she describes abject nausea, that he is ejecting the voice of the “abject girl” from this body. He wrinkles his nose and shakes his head.
He talks in a regular, more masculine toned voice, lecturing now with one hand out. “Not to me, sorry. To me you’re not a woman ‘till you’ve had a couple of kids and your life is in the toilet. That’s really…when you become a woman is when people come out of your vagina and step on your dreams.” The audience laughs and starts clapping, but he keeps a straight face. “That’s…if you’re still standing after that shit, you are a woman! If you’re still going to clubs,” His voice becomes feminized again, and he bounces comically from side to side, eyes wide, “And you have a ponytail and a little dress, and you’re standing outside of a club waiting to get in and it’s two degrees out, you’ve got no jacket, a little dress, ‘It’s gonna be great in there!’” His voice becomes heightened and feminized again. He stands to the side, hunched over and shivering, shaking the microphone with eyes wide.
His voice then returns down to his normal tone, and he shouts, “You’re a girl! I wanna give you a sweater and a ride home, I don’t wanna fuck you. I’ll jerk off to ya,” He quickly mimes jerking off, “But I don’t wanna fuck you and get involved…” C.K. keeps an appropriate distance from the abject, refusing to become one with “it” through sexual intercourse; this further establishes the young girl as the “anti-me” in C.K.’s comedy. The benevolence toward the abject, which we might originally interpret as a benevolent entanglement or an act of kindness, actually further establishes the young girl as abject through its attempt to “cure” the girl of her “abject”ness. This sweet condescension toward the “lower” woman is actually what Kristeva outlines as being the foundation for several religions. She writes:
The various means of purifying the abject—the various catharses—make up the history of religions, and end up with that catharsis par excellence called art, both on the far and near side of religion. Seen from that standpoint, the artistic experience, which is rooted in the abject it utters and by the same token purifies, appears as the essential component of religiosity. That is perhaps why it is destined to survive the collapse of the historical forms of religions (Kristeva 16).
Furthermore, in establishing his kindness towards this abject creature, C.K. paints a picture of himself as the benevolent savior of a “naturally” slutty girl. We must remember that this “sluttiness” and utter lack of complexity is completely imagined by C.K. himself. His next special, Hilarious, similarly plays on this theme of the “slutty abject girl,” replacing “girl” alone with “the hot girl of the bar.”
The bit occurs about ten minutes into the special, and opens with a side shot of C.K., who is pacing slightly. He is wearing his signature “laid-back” outfit that complements his persona: a black t-shirt and jeans. He holds his right hand out to the audience in an “explanation” position. “I just don’t look at a woman as a pair of tits anymore…and there’s the women, the hot chicks,” He punctuates this last phrase, “The hot girl of the bar. You know when you see them, that’s just,” He stands upright with his chest out, holding an imaginary glass. “She’s the hot girl of the bar. She’s got the shirt and the skirt and the boots, those three lines.” He draws imaginary “cut off” lines for the shirt, skirt, and boots on his body, going so far as to bend over fully. “There’s like, some perfect ratio that they hit with those three lines and you…” He grunts incoherently, wide-eyed. The audience laughs. “And they’re all standing there, like that.” He scrunches up his face and puffs his chest, launching into the feminized voice again. Here he has painted descriptions of two different imaginary beings: one, the caricature of the hot girl at the bar, whom he seems to already be criticizing, and two, the incapacitated, incoherent, grunting man spellbound by her power. Already we see a characteristic of hostile sexism, which addresses power relations between men and women regarding sexuality: “men often resent women’s perceived ability to use sexual attractiveness to gain power over them,” and therefore express that “many women get a kick out of teasing men by seeming sexually available and then refusing male advances” (Fiske, Glick et. al. 111).
We cut to a full body shot of C.K. He is smiling slightly at the ridiculousness of the bit. “And I used to look at somebody like that and I’m like, ‘Wow, she’s an angel. What could I ever say to make her like me?’ Now I look at her,” He imitates this imagined girl at the bar again, raising the pitch of his voice and puffing out his chest, “And I’m like, ‘What is that? Is that even a person? What the fuck kind of person is that?’ Is that an identity even?” He shrugs, furrowing his eyebrows. “Who would want to be that? I have two daughters. I pray they don’t grow up to be the ‘ehhh,’” He imitates the abject girl at the bar again, sticking his tongue out slightly, “The hot girl at the bar. Like ‘Hey, what do you do?’ ‘People wanna fuck me.’” The audience laughs, more loudly than usual. “Really, that’s it? ‘Yeah. I go to this club and they wanna fuck me over here. Ha-ha. Not you. Ha-ha.’”
In opening with “I just don’t look at a woman as a pair of tits anymore,” C.K. dissociates himself from the male gaze. The bit he launches into, however, contradicts this earlier statement, where he enacts the very gaze that he condemns. In fact, his “younger self,” which exalts and objectifies the “girl at the bar” on a pedestal, at least considers her worthy of a human interaction. His older self, however, explicitly rejects the “hot girl at the bar” as an overly sexualized, monstrous being. Her lack of complexity, once again, is imagined by C.K. himself. This seems to be a transition from benevolent sexism to hostile sexism; the hot girl at the bar, in C.K.’s mind, has become an “un-woman.” He entangles this hostile sexism with benevolence in mentioning that he has “two daughters” and prays “they don’t grow up to be the…hot girl at the bar,” protecting them from the non-complexity and sluttiness that he has imagined for his own pleasure. He does not see this imaginary abjected girl as a person; she is a monstrous non-person; a “pair of tits”; “the three lines.” The “girl at the bar” is our monstrous non-subject: our monstrous abject.
Should we see this as irony or parody of himself? After all, C.K.’s statement, “I just don’t look at a woman as a pair of tits anymore” is completely antithetical to his gaze at the imagined “hot girl of the bar.” However, even if C.K. is parodying himself, the established message of the bit still positions girl as abject. As Judith Butler reminds us: “Parody by itself is not subversive, and there must be a way to understand what makes certain kinds of parodic repetitions effectively disruptive, truly troubling, and which repetitions become domesticated and recirculated as instruments of cultural hegemony” (113).
What does C.K. do in order to balance the young woman as abject in his comedy? Alone, these bits appear sexist, even if they are entangled with statements of benevolence (i.e., wanting to protect his two daughters). Kristeva says that the abject is not the object of desire, so C.K. also must position what he believes is an “object of desire” if we are to respect his dominance as a heterosexual male. If we recall, C.K. mentions in his earlier bit that “to me you’re not a woman ‘till you’ve had a couple of kids and your life is in the toilet. That’s really…when you become a woman is when people come out of your vagina and step on your dreams.” Here, he seems to be admiring women for their sexual reproductive capabilities; it is in his mind, a struggle, and the ability to deal with this struggle is a desirable strength. As a feminist interpreting this comic material, there is an entanglement in wanting to interpret C.K.’s appreciation of reproductive capabilities as positive, and wanting to interpret the bit as a negative essentializing of gender, in which a woman is defined by and made desirable by the existence and usage of female reproductive organs. This is such a sharp turn from the hostility directed toward the abject girl that the desire for the traditional domestic woman can actually be seen as a certain benevolence. It is her ferocity, created through heterosexual marriage and the bearing of children, that makes her a desirable partner.
To demonstrate this, C.K. continues the bit, elaborating on the difference between girls and women (as perceived through his own sexual desires and fantasies). He raises his voice, in a lecture tone again, and waves his hand up and down to indicate a return to seriousness. “But, there’s just a difference between girls and women, and it’s not about age. Like that’s – this – there’s a reason why they call it ‘girls gone wild.’ You notice there’s not ‘women gone wild.’” He hunches over and widens his eyes again, smiling slightly, and then throws up his arms in mock surrender. “‘Cause no one would fuckin’ buy the ‘Wild Women’ DVD. Because when girls go wild, they show their tits to people. When women go wild, they kill men,” He says this in a matter-of-fact way, counting on his fingers and pausing for dramatic effect, “And drown their kids in a tub. That’s what wild women do. They don’t show their tits to nobody. They fuck with their bras on. It’s a whole other thing.” He nods and raises his eyebrows slightly throughout this to punctuate his aphorisms. “Try taking your forty-year-old wife’s picture when she comes out of the shower. ‘Fuck you! Get the fuck out of here!’” He yells this in imitation of his wife, fake-clutching his breasts. “It’s not fun – she’s not – you thought it would be cute, like ‘Don’t!’” For the word “don’t,” he uses the feminized voice again, imitating what he has labeled as a “girl.” “She’s like ‘FUCK OFF!’” He cringes. “Sorry. ‘Cause she doesn’t have tits anymore. She has breasts,” He says slowly, emphasizing every word, “That need to be checked and maintained. I get bills for my wife’s breasts. That’s some grown-up woman shit right there. Girls have the titties with the little perky nipples. And that’s awesome. But you’re not a woman till you’ve got long, chewed-up nipples.” He then pauses for dramatic effect, and then points at the audience. “And you’re not a man till you’ve sucked one of those fucking things either, by the way.”
What’s interesting to note is that in positioning the married, post-child woman with “chewed-up nipples” as desirable (this bit is considered so humorous that not only does C.K. end his special with it, but he titles his special Chewed Up), C.K. may actually be combatting the concept of the Madonna-whore complex. This complex, outlined by Freud, describes a phenomenon in which “where such men love they have no desire and where they desire they cannot love” (177). In other words, while men may love the woman they marry, they cannot desire her; and while men may desire a prostitute, they cannot love her. Indeed, positioning “chewed-up nipples” as attractive is perhaps subversive in its re-creation of the ideal woman as the woman that he is married to. Of course, C.K. repeatedly mentions in his special that his marriage is disintegrating, and even that “my wife will never fuck me again. I know that now.” While C.K. may desire her, he does not love her; in a strange paradox, he finds her aged domesticity and ferocity sexy, but his tender love for her disintegrating, as demonstrated in the “FUCK OFF” bit. His wife’s domesticity is useful and desirable, but not necessarily loveable; she is positioned as more rational and desirable than the “girl” abject, but still as limited to an object.
Furthermore, beyond positioning girl as abject and woman as object, C.K. repeatedly establishes and reestablishes the “essential” differences between men and women in his comedy. In what we might call “comic categorizing”, now that he has created the differences between “girls” and “women,” he moves on to naming the differences between “men” and “women.” This spelling out of differences between sexes does not merely describe sexual difference, but rather, as Judith Butler may argue, creates this difference in the social community of the comedy venue. Butler describes gender as a performance that is continuously repeated and enacted, re-creating itself:
Because there is neither an ‘essence’ that gender expresses or externalizes nor an objective ideal to which gender aspires, and because gender is not a fact, the various acts of gender create the idea of gender, and without those acts, there would be no gender at all. Gender is, thus, a construction that regularly conceals its genesis; the tacit collective agreement to perform, produce, and sustain discrete and polar genders as cultural fictions is obscured by the credibility of those productions – and the punishments that attend not agreeing to believe in them; the construction ‘compels’ our belief in its necessity and naturalness (Butler 114).
Gender, to summarize, is a series of repeated performances that lack an internal “essence.” In enacting gender, we create gender. Disguising this performance of gender as a phenomenon that is internal and essential rather than external and performed, Butler argues, is how institutions of masculinist domination and compulsory heteosexuality maintain power and continue to subordinate the non-masculine subject. To deconstruct gender is to deconstruct the history of patriarchal power:
That gender reality is created through sustained social performances means that the very notions of an essential sex and a true or abiding masculinity or femininity are also constituted as part of the strategy that conceals gender’s performative character and the performative possibilities for proliferating gender configurations outside the restricting frames of masculinist domination and compulsory heterosexuality (115).
In outlining the “essential differences” between men and women, therefore, C.K. is further establishing stereotypical characteristics of men and women as “essential,” and his own masculine power as dominant.
In Chewed Up, he elaborates thoroughly on what he perceives to be the essential difference between boys and girls, and men and women. “That’s, that’s the difference between boys and girls,” He sighs out the line, shaking his head and raising his eyebrows, almost as if to communicate, “I don’t like it, this is how it is.” These body movements, which communicate a laid-back confidence in what he is saying, but also a certain objective detachment from the material. The camera has zoomed in on him; this is an intimate shot that shows only his face and shoulders. He looks upward and to the right, as if he is trying to figure out what to say next. C.K. has acknowledged that subtle tics like this are actually very calculated and planned. In an interview, he says, “I try to make it seem like I’m just getting all this out, but I know all the moves. I know every little piece of it.” These facial expressions and body movements, subtle as they are, present the “difference between boys and girls” as a situation that is out of C.K.’s hands, rather than an essentialist presumption about gender that he has made the choice to perpetuate. The bit needs to seem unplanned and improvised; even if the audience “really” knows he wrote most of the material, stumbling over words creates a casual, improvisatory attitude that makes the material more spontaneous, and therefore passable. Since the live audience has agreed to be complicit, then they have also agreed to listen to and laugh at whatever C.K. decides to say about gender next, whether they agree with these sentiments outside of the comic arena or not.
As for the audience of the comedy special, the stakes are much less high. Someone who decides to turn off the special in the middle of watching can do so freely at the click of a button; they don’t have to get up from their seats, squeeze past other audience members, and stumble out of the dark theatre, all at the risk of being heckled by the comedian on their way out. The audience member of a live comedy show is as much a part of the show as the comedian. The audience of a Netflix special, on the other hand, does not have to worry about the reactions of others if they choose to disagree with or turn off the special – unless they are watching the special with a group of friends and family, in which they may run the risk of seeming “too sensitive.” Consider my positioning as an audience member: a college student in a dorm room, watching Netflix in bed in the dark, able to laugh as loudly as I want to, or turn off a special out of boredom or disagreement without the fear of being seen.
However, the framing of a Netflix special is much more controlled than the framing of a live comedy show. A comedy special is directed with the purposes of establishing the comedian’s likeability. If we return to how C.K. establishes what I’ve labeled as a laid-back, gruff, masculine persona in 2017 (see “The Semiotics of an Opening with Louis C.K.”), we have introductions, camera angles, shots of audience members, and edited-out material to consider, in addition to the additional “live” factors that establish likeability, including but not limited to venue, body language, and rhetoric. This particular bit about “girls versus boys” is placed towards the end of the Chewed Up special (about forty-five minutes in), so if the audience is still watching, then they have already committed themselves to watching the special, meaning that they have accepted a majority of the comedian’s material (otherwise, they would have turned the special off already). Even if the audience does not agree with this particular bit, they have already agreed to watch the material. And watching, to some extent, means absorption of that material into the psyche, whether one is aware of it or not.
C.K. continues the bit, expanding upon his earlier point. “And it becomes the difference between men and women, really.” He furrows his brow slightly, and puts one hand out to emphasize what he is saying. “Because a man will like, steal your car, or burn your house down, or beat the shit out of you…but a woman will ruin your fucking life.” His eyes widen in surprise, and the audience laughs. We get a side shot of him; he is hunched over slightly, and starts laughing himself. “Do you see the difference?” The camera cuts to a full frontal shot of C.K., that includes his body from the waist up. “Like a man will cut your arm off and throw it in a river,” He mimes carelessly doing so, ironically undercutting the extremity of the act, “but he’ll leave you as a human being intact.” He won’t fuck with who you are.” He furrows his eyebrows again, smiling almost wickedly. He continues, raising his voice as if making a statement. “Women are nonviolent, but they will shit inside of your heart.” He points repeatedly and urgently to his own heart, widening his eyes again to emphasize the pain of this.
And, further, not only does C.K. essentialize the inner emotional qualities of men and women; he also essentializes the sexual qualities of men and women as “given” and natural. In Chewed Up, he posits: “Because…I think it’s hard for women to have sex if they don’t feel like it. It’s not a skill they have generally. Men have it, that’s just given. We have different sexual skills.” In Live at the Beacon Theater, C.K. elaborates on the inevitability of the intense male sex drive:
It’s really a male problem, not being able to control your constant sexual impulse. Women try to compete. They’re like, ‘Well, I’m a pervert. You don’t know. I have really sick sexual thoughts.’ No, you have no idea. You have no idea. ‘Cause you get to have those thoughts. I have to have them. You’re, you’re a tourist in sexual perversion. I’m a prisoner there. You’re Jane Fonda on a tank. I’m John McCain in the hut. It’s a nightmare. I can’t, I can’t lift my arms. And for men, sex is just such a constant thing. We just, it’s not even sex to us. It’s just pussy. That’s what we call it. Pussy. It’s just such a, it has nothing to do with women. It’s not about girls, or chicks like it was in the fifties. There’s no guys anywhere in the world going like, ‘Let’s go meet some chicks! And kiss them on the mouth, and see what happens.’ There’s none of that. ‘Mm, I sure would like to have a girl! My arm around a girl! There’s, mmm, Vanessa, I love’ – no, it’s not. It’s just…pussy!
Here, C.K. parodies his own intense male sexual desire toward “pussy” as ridiculous. In portraying this intense sexual desire as a “nightmare,” he expresses a benevolence toward women as being less gross and more pure; however, in this parody, he still portrays this intense sexual desire as essential to the experience of “being a man” – as natural. The woman, according to this bit, is naturally more pure than the man, who is imprisoned and condemned, inevitably and tragically, in his own sexual desire. Furthermore, the bit does nothing to deconstruct the implications of oversexualized male culture; C.K. highlights it and condemns it, but poses no real challenge to this culture or to the essentializing of gender. To quote bell hooks, “exposure does nothing to intervene on this evil, it merely graphically highlights it” (60).
The “women trying to compete” portion of the bit, in which he returns to the monstrous feminized voice when he says, “Well, I’m a pervert. You don’t know. I have really sick sexual thoughts,” illegitimizes an intense women’s sexuality. The use of the abject “girl” voice, juxtaposed with his lower, masculine, more rational, “No, you have no idea,” places him as trusted deject and girl as untrusted abject. It portrays the “constant” male sex drive as a part of men which is out of their control; he is a prisoner, unable to control his intense sexual impulses. On the surface, C.K. may partially deconstruct the heterosexual institution by implying that women are not always interested in sex with men. But by essentializing this interest, he implicitly essentializes and perpetuates the concept of the male sex drive as “out of control,” and with that, he perpetuates the inevitability of rape culture.
In addition, what is the effect on women watching this bit? Even though C.K. parodies men’s intense desire for “pussy” as ridiculous, he still accepts and perpetuates this strong sexual desire as fact. C.K.’s bit isn’t a description. In this bit, because of C.K.’s positionality as a man spouting the tenets of male desire, the characteristics of women other than “pussy” are devalued. This bit is not a description. Rather, it’s a challenge: “I dare you to fuck me.” It plants, perhaps, an anxiety within the woman that men want sex constantly, and that a woman’s “natural” aversion toward sex is something she must prove wrong to appease male desire and combat the stereotype of the non-perverted woman. C.K.’s comedy, therefore, plays a part in constructing the cultural propaganda of heterosexuality and male desire.
To sum up, Louis C.K.’s are not deconstructions or descriptions, but rather constructions and inscriptions of gender and sexuality that confirm his masculinist dominance in the comic arena. If, as Michel Foucault writes in “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” the body is “the inscribed surface of events (traced by language and dissolved by ideas), the locus of a dissociated self (adopting the illusion of a substantial unity), and a volume in perpetual disintegration,” then on his own body, put on display in the comic arena, C.K. inscribes rational masculinity (Foucault 83). On the imaginary female bodies that he describes in his bits, he inscribes a feminized Otherness that the audience comes to see as non-rational, non-subject, and even non-human. These categories create a hierarchical order of dominance and rationality, with man (rational, subject being) at the top, woman (object of desire) in the middle, and girl (abject, anti-human) at the bottom. This becomes socially acceptable on the comedy stage with the entanglement of this hierarchy with “benevolence” towards the women he describes, and with the establishment of his non-threatening, “schlep” persona.
Butler, Judith. “Bodily Inscriptions, Performative Subversions.” The Judith Butler Reader. Ed. Sarah Salih. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004. 90-118. Print.
Foucault, Michel. 1977. “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History.” In Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews, edited by D.F. Bouchard. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Freud, Sigmund. On Creativity and the Unconscious : Papers on the Psychology of Art, Literature, Love, Religion. New York, Harper, 1958.
Glick, Peter, and Susan T. Fiske. “An ambivalent alliance: Hostile and benevolent sexism as complementary justifications for gender inequality.” American Psychologist 56.2 (2001): 109.
Krefting, Rebecca. “Laughter in the Final Instance: The Cultural Economy of Humor (Or why women aren’t perceived to be as funny as men).” The Laughing Stalk : Live Comedy and Its Audiences. Ed. Judith Batalion, Anderson, South Carolina, Parlor Press, 2012.
Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. New York, NY: Columbia U, 2010. Print.
Louis C.K. Is All In For Hillary – CONAN on TBS. Prod. CONAN on TBS. Perf. Louis C.K. and Conan O’Brien. YouTube. Team Coco, 1 Nov. 2016. Web.