Louis CK’s return raises questions of justice, sexism in comedy and #MeToo

Article by Paul Donoughue /
ABC News /
August 31, 2018  /
Click here to view original /

This week, 10 months after admitting to masturbating in front of female comedians, Louis CK returned to the stage — and to a standing ovation.

Within days, fellow comic Aziz Ansari, the subject of an article in January that suggested he pressured a woman into sexual activity, had announced another short run of stand-up dates.

A year after the fall of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein and the rise of the #MeToo movement, the news has prompted discussion about what justice looks like for the victims of this behaviour, particularly in comedy, a world long familiar with sexism and gender inequality.

Have they paid their dues?

Louis CK performed a surprise set at New York City’s Comedy Cellar, with owner Noam Dworman calling the material “typical” for the comedian (it was later reported the set included at least one rape joke).

Mr Dworman defended the decision to provide the comedian with a platform, telling The New York Times: “There can’t be a permanent life sentence on someone who does something wrong.”

“I think we’ll be better off as a society if we stop looking to the bottlenecks of distribution — Twitter, Netflix, Facebook or comedy clubs — to filter the world for us.”

Is Hollywood draining the swamp?

Lauren Rosewarne, who lectures in gender studies and political science at the University of Melbourne, said, culturally, there tended to be an attitude that no amount of apology would suffice.

“Does that mean [the abusers] need to go away?” Dr Rosewarne said.

“And if so, for how long? Equally, do we then deprive them of a livelihood?”

She said audiences must act with their feet.

“If the audience are willing to continue to purchase movie tickets [or] patronise comedy clubs with these people on, that’s the decision [about the entertainers’ career viability].”

Is restorative justice a way forward?

But many writers and comedians have pushed back against Louis CK’s return — and what it represents — because, they say, it does not take into account the financial and emotional impact of the behaviour.

They have referenced the experience of people like Rebecca Corry, who attracted “vicious and swift backlash from women and men, in and out of the comedy community” since she publicly accused Louis CK of abuse.

The prominent feminist writer Roxane Gay said that, among other measures, Louis CK should “attempt to financially compensate his victims for all the work they did not get to do because of his efforts to silence them.

“He should facilitate their getting the professional opportunities they should have been able to take advantage of all these years,” she said.

“He should finance their mental health care as long as they may need it.”

American comedian Jenny Yang took a similar tack, while Australian Zoe Coombs Marr voiced her own displeasure with the news.

Part of the reason for this push for restorative justice is that legal options are often few, given statute-of-limitation issues and the difficulty of prosecuting sexual harassment and assault cases.

Of the many powerful men accused of various kinds of sexual misconduct, only a small number have faced criminal charges.

“All the data shows that victims prefer restorative justice,” criminal barrister Greg Barns said.

“Most victims are not really concerned with whether or not an offender goes to jail. Most victims in sexual assault cases are concerned that their voice be heard by the perpetrator, and that they get an apology and they are able to do that face-to-face.”

He also said “there’s certainly no reason why a restorative justice process cannot include compensation”.

What Louis CK’s return means for #MeToo

When Louis CK was outed as an abuser, and consequently had his network deals cancelled and a feature film shelved, many saw it as a win for the worldwide movement.

So, what does his casual return to the spotlight say?

“I think #MeToo’s success lies in its being a consciousness-raising movement,” Dr Rosewarne said.

The case of Louis CK, however, “highlights that is is an going problem — both instances of harassment, but also our cultural inability to deal with it.”