Sooner or later, someone you fiercely admire — as an artist, or even just as a human — will stand accused of sexual misconduct. For many fans of comedy, that someone turned out to be Louis C.K., a premier talent who, by dissecting taboos on stage (and in TV and film), had established for himself the status of a fearless auteur.
In the aftermath, as you’d expect, we’ve heard conversations about whether one can “separate the art from the artist.” This is what people do to rationalize their continued appreciation of work by problematic figures like Woody Allen or Roman Polanski. And no doubt the myth of C.K.’s genius, too, will outweigh his admitted predation among fans who would rather not think about the women he abused. “If people can still listen to Chris Brown, then I can still laugh at Louie’s jokes,” wrote one supporter on r/louisck, a subreddit devoted to the comedian. But many are going even further, describing C.K. as a victim, speculating about the damage to his career and worrying he may kill himself.
A few things are happening here. For one, C.K. inspired many to take a crack at comedy in the first place. Where Harvey Weinstein represented behind-the-scenes power, C.K.’s influence on entertainment was public, based on the empathetic connection and trust between a comic and their audience. Disavowing your legendary role model is a heartbreak no would-be standup is eager to face.
Secondly, C.K.’s comedic material delves into the self-loathing at the heart of his non-apology, as well as the sexual shame that would seem to have driven his deviant behavior, which creates an opening for defenders to claim he’s keenly aware of his problems, “working on it,” etc.
Lastly, there’s the nature of his masturbation in front of non-consenting professional peers, which in the context of other recent rape and assault claims has been framed as somehow not as bad, or potentially not criminal — which, for the record, it absolutely is.
Altogether, this noxious stew gives us bizarre takes in which misogyny is hedged with caveats and maybe an inkling of honest reflection. “How bad is it that I feel much worse for Louis than these women?” asked one member of r/louisck, clearly aware that there was something morally off about his reaction to the scandal. Nevertheless, he continued: “I really feel bad for him and I actually feel negatively toward the women he exposed himself to. I keep thinking ‘can you really not let that shit go? You have to ruin his life over it?’ I know many people will think I’m wrong because I’m essentially wanting to silence these women. I understand that a woman has every right to speak out against sexual harassment. I just wish these women didn’t.” Another commenter agreed, writing: “I doubt any of those women were traumatized or haunted in any deep way.”
It’s the pinnacle of Louis C.K. fandom to pretend that he’s your intimately knowable friend — because surely nothing of his act is performance, right? This assumption perversely extends to the women he exposed himself to, whose emotions are apparently A) uniform across every reported incident and B) easily inferred from a New York Times article that laid out their stories in clinical detail. It’s easier for men with an affinity for C.K.’s philosophical viewpoint to call him a troubled but essentially decent man and his accusers selfish nobodies than it is to say: “Wow, this is a huge disappointment — I really looked up to him, but not anymore, and these women were brave to come forward.” They believe C.K. is still their voice, irreplaceable and vulnerable and courageous, especially on thorny issues of gender.
When a r/louisck regular does attempt to redirect the troubling narrative taking shape there, they find themselves isolated and outnumbered. One thread questioned why “we care more about how Louis C.K.’s actions have affected him than the women he sexually harassed.” The user was told to “Ride off on the white horse you rode in” by a commenter who argued that C.K. hadn’t derailed the women’s careers or offered them a quid pro quo; another dismissed the “very stupid question,” as “Louis’ work has made a lot of people feel less alone in the world, and these women have not.”
Again, this recapitulates the “art above the artist” fallacy, making its callous stance toward victims all the more explicit: If I don’t know who these women are, they basically don’t matter.
But there is a new layer of denial to this kind of response. You pick it up in the woefully ignorant notions these guys have regarding consent and in their condemnation of anyone who criticized C.K.’s disingenuous, slapdash admission of guilt. You can feel their attempt to pry open up a wide, gray, muddled space at a moment when our culture has begun to see these matters in black and white. That C.K. made his name by confessing to crowds that he’s an irredeemable piece of shit would seem to absolve him of anything he’s done wrong, putting these loyal fans in a ridiculous bind: They’re standing up for a liar they imagine has always told the truth, no matter how uncomfortable, while disparaging the women who did.
What a depressing punchline.