In my corner of social media, the reactions to the New York Times’ report that comedian Louis C.K. masturbated in front of multiple women, against their will, in professional contexts, have been understandably condemning. The reactions have also been jaded. Many people I follow have tweeted some version of the sentiment, Look at his work — he regularly jokes about this stuff. I’ve also seen comments about how such rumors have circulated for years.
Perhaps it’s because I live in St. Louis, not New York, but I’d never heard the rumors until this fall. More significantly, I’d allowed myself to imagine that C.K. had been channeling personally unsavory impulses into art. As a novelist (who happens to be a woman), I understand this tendency. Yes, one writes about — and jokes about — one’s preoccupations. Patterns emerge over time, and they’re hard to conceal. And, of course, if you’re a professional creative person offering up your work to the public in exchange for pay, you’re not really trying to conceal those preoccupations. But the fact that you think about things doesn’t mean you act on them.
I have admired C.K. as an entertaining story-teller and an alternately compassionate and brutal cultural observer. Together, my husband and I have watched his stand-up specials and all the episodes of Louie, and many moments from both have stayed with me: the scene when Louie destroys a doll he’s trying to fix for his daughter, which made me laugh so hard I cried; the stunningly vulnerable scene where he stands naked in a bathroom, not looking fit, and considers getting in the tub with his maybe-girlfriend; the many depictions of life with his kids, among them making dinner and walking to school, which are some of the most authentic portrayals of parenthood I’ve ever seen onscreen.
Even though C.K.’s Louie character was a divorced New York man in the stand-up world and I am a married woman in the Midwestern suburbs, I often identified with his outlook, especially about poop and sex. Which are both so weird! And humiliating! And central to our daily existence! I also was impressed by his ability to see situations from other people’s perspectives.
C.K. has been a touchstone for the idea that when it comes to attraction, people’s insides count more than their outsides. That is, he’s my number-one example of the phenomenon that a great personality can make you good-looking even if you’re schlubby and talk about disgusting topics, just as Paul Ryan serves as my number-one example of how a terrible personality can make an ostensibly handsome man repellent. All of which might be a pretentious way of admitting that, yes, I’ve nursed a little celebrity crush on C.K.
Yet strangely, it might be a mark of my investment in C.K. that I actually have been ambivalent about him all along — that at times his work has made me uncomfortable and angry. To take just one example, his show made fleeting references to kids with food allergies, presenting them as a normal part of modern life, which I appreciated, as the mother of a child with allergies. When Louie asked the mom of a child being dropped off at his apartment about allergies, I felt as grateful for this moment of prosaic inclusion as I would if a fellow parent in my life preemptively asked the question. But in a stand-up special, C.K. joked that maybe all kids with allergies are meant to die. I didn’t see the humor’s logic — why should food allergies receive less medical treatment than any other ailment? — and I understood when, last spring, I tweeted about watching C.K.’s most recent special, and another parent responded, “still can’t quite forgive him for his peanut allergy schtick.”
I officially decided at some point that I loathed C.K. 15 percent and admired him 85 percent. And I decided these were percentages I could live with as a fan. Because even when he made me uncomfortable or angry, wasn’t he doing his job? He was pushing the cultural envelope, and helping all of us identify where the line is by, at times, crossing it.
I no longer admire C.K. 85 percent. Masturbating in front of women without their consent is gross, creepy, and threatening. And it’s appalling in a different way that because some of the women told people about what he did, their own comedy careers suffered. As mentioned in the Times’ article, two of the women who met him early in their careers felt they could no longer pursue projects involving C.K.’s well-connected manager, Dave Becky, whom they said had warned them not to discuss C.K.’s sexual misconduct.
I pride myself on being able to see people in a nuanced way. I certainly don’t believe that (almost) anyone is all good or bad. But there’s no quantity or degree of hilarious insights about modern life that make it okay to show your penis to people who don’t want to see it, and there’s nothing funny about the professional punishment C.K.’s victims endured for speaking out. Telling the uncomfortable truth isn’t a privilege reserved only for successful and powerful men.