Can Feminists Take a Joke?

by Alyssa Bivins

I love to watch Louie, the brash and hilarious TV show put on by Louie C.K. The show has feminist moments. In one episode, Louie walks out on a sitcom because it perpetuates the stereotype of the lazy, boorish husband somehow managing to keep a gorgeous, patient wife. However, the script also features moments of questionable misogyny. For example, in one episode Louie stalks a black woman at work. After she flatly turns him down, he waits for her outside of her workplace, follows her on her homeward commute, pesters her with lewd questions, and then stalks her all the way to her apartment door. The woman tries to ignore him in many ways. She is in no way unclear about her disdain for his advances, but Louie still follows her off the train. He follows her to her door. She calls him out for fetishizing the idea of having sex with a black woman. He can’t defend himself. The woman only loses Louie by escaping into the safety of her own apartment.

This episode could have almost turned into a lesson on how terrifying the forceful, “persistent” acts of overly forward men can be for women. It could have ended with Louie being rebutted at the woman’s apartment. It could have been an awkward yet eye-opening look at what women deal with throughout their whole lives. It could have even just simply made a joke at Louie’s expense for acting like a creep. But the episode did not have any of those provocative and insightful ends. Instead, the episode ends with Louie being rewarded for his creepiness: he is serendipitously propositioned by the woman’s next door neighbor. The unrelenting man got the sex he wanted. The victimized woman was just an easily replaceable object. Male stalkers were rewarded by the media once again.

As a female watching Louie, how am I to react to this scene? This scene which is reminiscent of so many of my own life experiences — a man following me off a train, a man following me around a foreign city, an Uber driver picking me up at my house and then asking me if I lived there. Is hemming and hawing antithetical to comedy? As a feminist, can I not take a joke? That’s the theory Louie himself posited, tongue in cheek, back in 2012.

My ability — or inability — to take a joke was further tested in the new movie “The Big Short.” In one scene, a woman in a bathtub is used as a backdrop for the explanation of an economic concept. The woman has no context, no role, and no character. Her sole purpose is to act as a sexual male audience attention holder so that the director can share a teaching moment on economics. Other female props are used throughout the film. Female strippers are the backdrop for other economic concepts. Selena Gomez is the prop for another. There is no “female gaze” variant of these props in the film. There is no “male prop candy” equivalent during any onscreen economics lessons — women are the props and men are the explainers and that was that. I wasn’t laughing.

In addition to using females as props, the movie has one other unforgiveable fault: none of its main, high-powered financial gurus are female. “Ah-ha!” one may say with misogynistic glee, “that’s because there were no females involved in the book the movie is based on or in the financial crisis itself! It simply would have been untrue to force a woman into the storyline.” This is where the movie committed its biggest anti-feminist crime of all: excluding Meredith Whitney. Whitney’s role in predicting the financial crisis rivaled that of Michael Burry, one of the main characters played by Christian Bale. And yet not a word of her in the film. We are left to believe the financial world is too confusing for females’ pretty little heads.

How does a feminist grapple with popular movies like “The Big Short” and TV shows like “Louie”? We are presented with many options. We can “vote with our wallet” and refuse to watch sexist shows or go see sexist movies in the theater. We could protest until shows that we deem sexist are taken off air, censored, and removed from public consumption. We could heckle Louie’s shows and write angry tweets to Steve Carrell. But to what end?

I am not so bold as to speak for all feminists, however, I will hold that there is value in maintaining exposure to popular culture’s misogyny. There is value in watching “Louie” and going to see “The Big Short.” The value comes from the discussion popular misogyny enables. When I first introduce my male friends to the concept of “male gaze” in the media, they can suddenly see it everywhere. After I watched the Louie episode mentioned above, I was able to talk with my boyfriend about the real life implications that episode had. After I watched “The Big Short” with friends from work, I was able to discuss the unnecessary use of women as a backdrop and the conscious omission of an important female character. Choosing to expose oneself to media misogyny is not something I would recommend to everyone. However, it has the value of making feminist talking points relevant, topical, and relatable to people who otherwise wouldn’t be inclined to listen. It is an opportunity for ally creation.

While I do not believe that it is my responsibility as a feminist to make people listen, to make Louie see my side of the story, or to make the director of “The Big Short” change his narrative, I do believe that creating allies is an invaluable part of maintaining the feminist movement. And it has worked in the past to at least open one comedian’s eyes: after a debacle over another comedian’s rape “joke,” Louie CK said he started listening to women’s stories about how fear of rape can “police women’s lives.” The ill-delivered “joke” provoked genuine interest and sympathy in an important public, comedic figure.

So as a feminist, I will “take” a misogynistic joke. I will “take” it and use it to a feminist advantage.