Date Rape and Last Night’s ‘Louie’

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"Date Rape and Last Night’s ‘Louie’"

I loved last night’s episode of Louie, starring Melissa Leo as a woman Louie is set up with on a blind date and ends up having a hilarious, insane, uncomfortable discussion about sexual reciprocity with, which I thought did something brilliant: gave an uncomfortable but important idea the least effective spokesman of all time for it, and validated it anyway. As I wrote about the episode at Slate:

Louie claims that Laurie has suckered him into an unfair bargain. “If you doing that for me hinged on me doing that for you, you should have said something,” he grouses, inadvertently proving her point. Louie’s default assumption is that he can get something he wants without having to give anything up or think about the other person’s needs in return. There’s something refreshing about the blast of rage Laurie sends back to him. “You know how many dicks I sucked that I didn’t want to suck, because I’m a good kid?” she asks, her voice echoing with years of pent-up indignation. Laurie may be a scary, irritating pain. But Louie doesn’t have an answer to her question, or a defense against the accusation that he’s let a lot of women go unsatisfied even as he’s judged them for being attentive to his desires. Once they’re over the shock of Laurie, I doubt anyone in the audience has a good justification for that double standard either.

To other people, though, what was powerful—and in some cases overwhelming and uncomfortable—about the episode was its depiction of a man getting coerced into sex. As Zach Dionne wrote at Vulture in a piece I read after writing my own:

Laurie sears through a handful of stages — anger, Obama-blaming, bargaining, accusing Louie of homosexuality — before finally arriving at the logical endpoint, which is rape. Argue this if you want, but a woman smashing a man’s head into a car window, climbing upon his stunned head and growling “lick it or I’ll break your finger!” with a bloodthirsty war face … is female-on-male rape, making a rare televised appearance. The shock is so strong it raises the question of why Louie is cool with going out again.

I pinged a bunch of my TV critics buddies to talk it over, and I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about this scene. One of them raised the question of whether Louie, in the context of the show, thinks he’s been assaulted, and whether that’s different from the show’s perspective. Is he afraid to get out of Laurie’s car? It sure seems like she’d be willing to run him over on that motorcycle. Or is he staying because he wants to prove her right even though he knows the entitlement he’s displayed is fundamentally untenable?

I think the ultimate point of this episode of Louie though, is that Louie’s feelings and motivations, and our reactions to them are confusing. The show is a sharp rebuke to the idea that all sexual encounters are marked by clarity, that not knowing what you want to do in a fraught moment and feeling guilty and ambiguous about it later are the products of women’s weak wills or ill intent towards men they later resent. Laurie’s behavior is frightening and coercive and violent and inherently ridiculous, and confusing in part because one of the arguments she’s making is appealing to Louie, that if he gives her what he wants, he’d be doing the equality-oriented, fair thing, and make her happy. And at the end of the day, that’s what date rape often looks like: it’s violent, and scary, and coercive, and upsetting, and the rapist in question holds out something the victim wants, the ability to validate the victim’s behavior and whole person. Laurie may be a wild character, but her behavior is not actually more ridiculous, illogical, or effectively coercive than the way male date rapists behave towards women. Her actions recast a common event and make it freshly upsetting. Louie is upset and confused because anyone would be confused in that situation.

I can’t think of another show that could do what Louie did last night, demolishing two double standards at once by giving credence to both a victim and an attacker. Laurie has a right to be angry, in both a specific and a global sense, about the fact that she’s both expected to and shamed for pleasing the men she’s with. And Louie has a right to be angry, confused and frightened about what Laurie is doing to him. Unlike most conversations about sex and fairness and consent, the episode doesn’t force you to side solely with one of them. Both of these points are correct, and both of them are vitally important.

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