This is why Louis C.K. can laugh off abuse

Holly Thomas is a writer and editor based in London. She tweets @HolstaT. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. 

“I have spent my long and lucky career talking and saying anything I want. I will now step back and take a long time to listen.”

So said stand-up comic Louis C.K. in November after allegations of his gross sexual misconduct emerged. He had taken women he worked with into private rooms, stripped naked and asked to masturbate in front of them. He had also masturbated while on the phone during work calls. After releasing a statement of admission, he largely vanished from the public eye.

That is, until Sunday night, when Louis C.K. returned to performing for the first time at New York’s Comedy Cellar. According to reports in Vulture and elsewhere, he made no reference during his set to the uncomfortable revelations, focusing instead on more familiar themes, such as racism and waitresses, with a rape whistle joke thrown in for good measure.

In his statement after the accusations of misconduct were made public, Louis C.K. admitted they were all true. He added: “There is nothing about this that I forgive myself for.” It seems forgiveness came a little easier than he anticipated, though. After nine months spent lying low, his comeback at the Cellar received a standing ovation. It also provoked complaints from audience members who would have preferred to have the option of avoiding him as well as a backlash both from other members of the comedy community and some of the public, who were appalled to hear of his return to the scene.

All things considered, it’s no wonder that Louis C.K., a rich, white, middle-class man who has spent the last several decades talking about himself, found the confidence to get back on the horse so quickly. Comedy Cellar owner Noam Dworman claimed that Louis C.K. turned up on the night unannounced, and that he didn’t hear about it until later. That being the case, it’s even more telling that Louis C.K. was so assured of a welcome. His entitlement was underwritten in the names of all the other comics on the entirely male bill. Mo Amer, another performer on the bill Sunday, told The New York Times that for the crowd, “it was like a wow moment.” Amer said he wasn’t aware the comic would return that night but praised his performance as “like, classic Louis, really really good.”

Louis C.K.’s nonchalant approach to his professional rehabilitation is emblematic of the relative value that has been attributed to men and women’s contributions to the world of comedy and society in general. Some have complained about the disproportionate attention paid to women since the advent of #MeToo, and the excessive noise they have made.

Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke has described the movement as “prejudice hysteria” and “man-hating Puritanism.” This is a reflection not of women’s omnipresence, but of the fact that in a world where the default experience is male, and men’s voices the familiar background noise, women’s sound remarkable. Male inclusion is taken for granted. As comedian Josh Wolf tweeted, in earnest: “Not sure why people are so surprised, or upset, that Louis CK is doing standup again.”

It is no wonder that men such as Louis C.K. feel they can get away with anything, when they largely operate alongside people who feel like their “tribe.” A 2016 report by San Diego State University found that a third of the 250 top-grossing movies employed either just one or no women. In 2017, women comprised just 24% of protagonists in the 100 highest-grossing films, and audiences were more than twice as likely to see male characters. Those male characters were likely to be older than female characters, with the majority of females being in their 20s and 30s, and most males being in their 30s and 40s.

Women fight harder to get into entertainment, and any position once achieved is more precarious. It’s been easier for Louis C.K. to stroll back to work than it has been for many who have been victims of assault and spoken out about it. Once tainted, women’s careers don’t tend to recover so easily.

When Winona Ryder was found guilty of shoplifting in 2002, her prospects nose-dived. Despite extraordinary early performances that had earned her two Oscar nominations, and the relative mundanity of her crime, she was no longer cast in major roles, and never quite achieved the same level of stardom thereafter.

In an exponentially worse scenario, Chris Brown viciously beat his then-girlfriend Rihanna in 2009. He released an album within months, sang at the BET Awards in 2010, and was applauded for his “vulnerable” performance by stars, including P. Diddy and Trey Songz. He has more than once had the opportunity to tell “his side” of the story publicly. In a world where male contrition isn’t taken for granted, it is given space and wins exaggerated praise.

Powerful people can act with near-impunity, and most powerful people are men. In late 2016, Johnny Depp’s marriage to Amber Heard came undone amid leaked videos of his drunken shouting, photos of Heard’s bruised face and eyewitness accounts of busted lips and bloodied pillows. When the divorce was finalized, Heard pledged to donate her $7 million settlement to charity. Depp, who opted not to comment publicly, but whose lawyers denied charges of abuse, signed on to the film “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.” These days, the press is most interested in discussing how he blows his staggering wealth, and his reputedly aggressive personal behavior makes only for a sentence or two of added flavor.

Louis C.K. may joke about rape now, but victims of sexual aggression who speak up about it do so in the knowledge that they will likely pay dearly. Rebecca Corry, one of the women who exposed the comedian, has described how she was initially hesitant to do so. She agonized over the decision while watching others who’d come forward be torn apart by those bent on defending him. Since going public she says she’s received death threats, and been ridiculed and shamed. People have called her a scumbag and worse, tweeting her: “All he did was ask if he could jerk off in front of you.” There is no victory — either remain silent, and the oppressor wins, or say something, and endure yet more abuse.

Consent is only sacred to abusers when it is their own. During an interview with David Letterman pre-#MeToo, Louis C.K. described how he habitually declined fans’ requests for photos with their idol. He’d tell them: “No I don’t wanna do it. It just makes me uncomfortable.” He didn’t extend the same empathy to the women he asked to watch him masturbate — women who worked for him, and were personally and professionally beholden to him. As he admitted in November, asking someone’s consent — to watching him pleasure himself — was invalidated by the fact of his status as a boss and influencer. Coercion was implicit.

Louis C.K.’s expressions of remorse might have sounded persuasive, but his behavior exhibits no shame. His return to comedy made a mockery of consent when the New York audience was given no warning of his performance at the Cellar. Louis C.K. has always sounded like an ally when it suited him, and fudged it when it pleased him to walk a riskier line. He has “called out” male hypocrisy throughout his career, and sometimes been lauded as a feminist for promoting women in the industry. But he also exploited a position of power to abuse women. Those women are still paying the price for that abuse, but he has chosen not to. He is still getting on stage, and saying anything he wants.