“Louie,” the auteurist comedy from Louis C.K. that airs on FX, has always been concerned with how sex and gender roles play out in the life of its middle-aged, divorced male protagonist. It has even addressed sexual assault before, in an episode in which the titular character was assaulted by a woman who insisted that he reciprocate oral sex. But in the most recent season of the show, which finished airing this week, “Louie” has become a flashpoint, both for its shift in tone from comedy toward drama, and for its portrayal of Louie committing what appear to be two very different sexual assaults.
For some critics, these storylines, one of which leads the two characters involved into a romantic relationship, have been disturbing. “What we learn in this season of ‘Louie’ is that if you press a woman hard enough, she will eventually be romantic with you in the capacity that you want,” Claire Lobenfeld wrote in Gawker. For others, they have been an illuminating exploration of male privilege and female exhaustion.
While it has been uncomfortable to watch these storylines, one of the things I have enjoyed most about watching “Louie” is observing the relationship between the titular character and his daughters. One definition of feminism is “the radical notion that women are people.” And although Louie’s interactions with adult women in all their complexity and ugliness often fail to meet that standard, there is something radical and lovely about the ways he applies that standard to the two little girls in his life. But rather than being an excuse for Louie’s sometimes-dreadful behavior to adult women, his performance as a father actually heighten’s the show’s sense of tragedy.
Instead of viewing his children as objects of condescension, control or pure doting, Louie tends to treat them as people who are capable of learning things and handling big emotions. This is particularly true with his youngest daughter, Jane, played by the marvelous, and marvelously whiny, Ursula Parker.
In the episode “Country Drive,” for example, Louie’s response to Jane’s boredom on a car trip to meet an elderly relative was not to distract her, but to encourage her to observe the world around her.
“You live in a great, big, vast world that you’ve seen none percent of,” Louie told Jane. “Even the inside of your own mind is endless; it goes on forever, inwardly, do you understand? The fact that you’re alive is amazing. So you don’t get to be bored.”
When the elderly relative who was the object of the trip turns out to use racial slurs, rather than trying to make his daughters forget the incident, Louie actually struggles through an attempt to explain to them that the older woman, who lives in rural isolation, has missed out on changing norms. “They’re young for it,” he says in a bit of standup later in the episode about Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, “but they catch up to it.” What matters is the girls’ capacity, not their actual age.
During Louie’s relationship this season with Amia (Eszter Balint), a Hungarian woman staying temporarily in New York, it was clear that he was attracted to her in part for how she interacted with his daughters. In one tender scene, Amia encourages Jane in her violin practice while playing chess with Lilly (Hadley Delaney): Louie, moved, rests his hand on her shoulder.
The same is true when Louie starts dating Pamela (frequent collaborator Pamela Adlon), a relationship that is more disturbing for beginning after a clear attempt at sexual assault. Where Amia brought out the talents of Louie’s daughters, Pamela, who is blunt and silly and aggressive, opens up Jane and Lilly to the possibility of teasing their father. She is the kind of woman who gets rid of all of Louie’s furniture, then plays games with the girls in the now-empty living room.
With Amia, Louie’s ex-wife Janet (Susan Kelechi Watson) is anxious that Louie has introduced their daughters to a woman with whom there is no possibility of a long-term relationship. “You have this woman hanging around with the kids, and you’re getting close to her, and then she’s leaving?” Janet demands.
Louie’s response may not be conventional, but it does show a great deal of trust in his daughters’ maturity and emotional capacity (in keeping with his preference for keeping them in public schools in part for the experience). “They’re going to be sad,” he tells Janet. “So am I. We’re enjoying her company while she’s here, and then we’re going to miss her. You know, Janet, sometimes you’re supposed to be sad.”
Both Janet and Louie are ultimately proved somewhat right. Amia breaks up with Louie after they spend a night together. The fact that the pair do not speak the same language left some viewers with mixed feelings about whether Amia really wanted to have sex with Louie, or whether she just acquiesced to please him. In the aftermath of the relationship, it is Louie who proves less resilient than his daughters.
Just because Louie gets it right more often with his daughters than with grown women does not mean he is always a confident father. Sometimes, he is reluctant to set limits, as in the 2011 episode “Halloween,” when Louie lets himself get talked into letting Lilly and Jane continue trick-or-treating after dark because they tell him their mother lets them.
The same big brains that mean his girls can absorb at least some of the contradictions of the United States’ racial past also mean that they put their own fanciful interpretations on things. Earlier this season, Jane, led astray by her imagination and convinced that she was still dreaming, stepped off a subway car just before the doors closed, staying behind in the station while her father and daughter were whisked away. She followed the “subway rules” that Louie established for her, but in a scary situation very much of her own making.
At the Los Angeles Review of Books, Lili Loofbourow suggests that Louie’s relationship with his daughters is a kind of cheat for the show: “It’s a card Louie plays a lot when it comes to garnering a sympathetic viewership: whatever his faults (and there are many), he is a good father to two angelic blonde white girls and gets along with his ex-wife. That makes us like him. A lot.”
Certainly, plots like Louie’s rescue of his family from a hurricane have a cheesy, fantastical self-valorizing streak. But the idea that Louie’s daughters are just there as an out so that the character can step close to the boundaries of acceptable behavior with adult women seems to treat them as instrumental to the show, rather than integral to it.
Instead, I think Jane and Lilly are a critically important part of what this season felt like a tragic core to “Louie.” The same man who trusts so much in the minds of his daughters and tends them so carefully shows none of the same concern and respect for grown women’s brains and bodies. Louie may be raising Jane and Lilly to be smart, independent, even strange women. But he is also exactly the same kind of man who might make Jane and Lilly’s lives difficult and painful when they grow up.