One of several times I will discuss masculinity in Louie (Kristina)

Last week in class, Mary suggested that I read the Honeymooners chapter in The Sitcom Reader to find words relevant to Louie. I did, and I did. Thank you Mary.

The chapter, as we all read, explores both working-class masculinity and somewhat-subtle messages of domestic violence in postwar sitcoms like The Honeymooners. Steven Sheehan details that the undermining of the “head of the household” form of manhood heavily relies upon the ability (or inability, in Ralph Kramden’s case) to provide materialistic items, which results in the apparently hilarious spousal disputes that ensue. Kristina Gupta’s interview reveals the complexities of studying masculinity in media, like the real and fictional expectations we hold for different types of men and male characters.

Louie as a series explores masculinity in several ways, and one of the most interesting episodes that does so is one I recently watched from the 5th season, titled “Bobby’s House.” The episode begins with Louie and his brother Bobby mistakenly attending a stranger’s funeral, followed by an awkward exchange between the two in Bobby’s apartment. Bobby laments about the upsets in his life (low income, dingy apartment, sterility) and says that Louie should be looking out for him. Louie doesn’t know how to respond, and when he asks how to specifically help Bobby, Bobby shuts down.

The next scene shows Louie trying to stop a woman who is attacking a man at a bus stop, but she turns her anger to him and physically assaults him. Later, Louie’s two daughters beg him to explain where the bruises on his face came from and he reluctantly tells them that “a very strong woman” beat him up. To his dismay, they laugh at him.

The episode immediately cuts to a scene of his sort-of girlfriend, Pamela, hysterically laughing at and teasing him about the situation, which he now appears to have a lighter attitude about. He asks her to cover his bruises with makeup for his comedy shows that night, and when he refuses to let her apply lipstick, she begs him to let her fully make him up. The scene that ensues is essentially a sexual role-reversal, where Pamela emulates a male character by putting on a baseball cap and speaking in a low voice – all while implicitly urging Louie to take his role seriously, which he ends up doing by taking on the female character of “Jornetha.” After the unusually intimate sexual encounter, Louie tries to talk about it to Pamela and she ends up breaking up with him. He cries. She laughs again.

capture

(Badly-cropped still from “Bobby’s House,” S5E4; Courtesy of my parents’ Netflix account.)

In this episode, there are three very different expectations of Louie: the financially generous older brother, the strong father who should not be beaten up by women and the sexually adventurous and experimental lover. The first resembles the working-class masculinity that the Honeymooners chapter talks about, while the second mirrors the expectations for masculinity that Gupta discusses, but in counteractive ways; Louie is NOT financially providing for his (extended) family, and is NOT a strong man who can physically defend himself. The last expectation is easily the wildest, but when it is placed beside to the previous two, it provides an overall picture of Louie’s outward struggle with masculinity. This episode proves that his form is unconventional and ambiguous, which is perhaps a better way to represent it that forcibly fitting into the molds of masculine expectations. The episode ends with Bobby hysterically laughing at him for 30 or so seconds, which is a final reminder that to Louie, every real struggle presented in the show can still be funny.

Kristina Kokkonos

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5 Responses to One of several times I will discuss masculinity in Louie (Kristina)

  1. mediaphiles says:

    I think part of what makes Louie’s engagement with masculinity so successful, and what makes the show so hilarious in general, is Louis C.K.’s self-deprecating sense of humor. He has absolutely no problem making himself the butt of any and every joke, no matter how bad it makes him look. Generally speaking, masculinity is incredibly fragile, in both television and real life. Products used by both sexes are needlessly gendered with men’s versions (usually indicated by a grey or brown color scheme and a bold font with the word MAN in all caps), like MEN’S sunscreen, MEN’S chapstick, and MEN’S q-tips. Stuff like that is kind of inane and silly and can be laughed at because of how ridiculous it is, but fragile masculinity can also have much more severe outcomes, like if a woman says no to a man who then feels his masculinity is being challenged or undermined. It can lead to very real violence. And television often adds fuel to the flame. For decades, pretty rigid gender roles and definitions of masculinity and femininity have been pushed in TV. When a man’s masculinity is challenged, it’s depicted as one of the most insulting and embarrassing things that can happen to a guy, but usually it’s resolved by the end of the episode, the man’s masculinity is restored, and whoever or whatever challenged it has been overcome or put in its place. Louie is not like that. In the episode you described, he fails to meet three different standards of masculinity. And that happens in a lot of episodes. At least in part due to CK’s self-deprecating sense of humor, he has no problem depicting himself in a way that routinely fails to meet conventional definitions of masculinity. And yet, he never seems to be that fragile or insecure about it. So in a way, when Louie fails to meet those masculine norms, the joke is not completely on him, but on those who would find that failure embarrassing.

    –Kevin Pabst

  2. mediaphiles says:

    I love Louie so I’m really happy to see you write about it — I don’t think it gets the appreciation, acclaim, or what have you that it so rightly deserves. I really like how you distinguished three types of masculinity in just one episode! Usually it takes entire seasons for so thorough an analysis. I haven’t seen this episode, but it sounds like there is also a vulnerability component to Louie’s masculinity, specifically in the role play scene. Not only is he more metaphorically becoming more womanly by dressing as one, but he is also forfeiting his masculinity in an act of strength to prove he is willing to make himself uncomfortable to appease his girlfriend. The fact that she refuses to address it after entrenches Louie more in this vulnerability. I wonder if this is a feminist portrayal of masculinity?

    – Reece Guida

  3. mediaphiles says:

    I agree with Reece ^ this is awesome. I definitely agree that it usually takes a sitcom a whole season to develop these types of gender representations, and it’s amazing that you identify three in one episode. This makes me wonder why that is for sitcoms… Do they feel as though they have to “ease it in” to the audience? Are they worried about the reputation of their show early on? This may be an interesting topic to uncover. Awesome post, though! – Corey

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