Louis C.K.’s dark-humored sitcom Louie, which depicts the life of a single-dad comedian raising two daughters in New York City, has earned accolades from critics and devoted fans alike. In general, I think the show deserves its positive recognition–it’s funny and edgy and honest with considerable heart. (Watch “Duckling” and try not to tear up.) It’s also not afraid to take on controversial and uncomfortable issues, usually in a way that’s meant to engage in real–but not humorless–discussion. Which is why I was surprised by the way a recent episode, “Halloween/Ellie”, handled a character dressed in blackface.
In the first segment of the episode, Louie takes his daughters Lily and Jane trick-or-treating around the city. Lily, the youngest, is costumed as a fairy in wings, a wand, and a puffy vest (fall in New York is cold!). Jane, by contrast, is dressed in a tiny suit, a curly grey wig and beard–and blackface. “Who are you?” asks one storekeeper in a sweet but faltering voice. “Frederick Douglass,” Louie explains. She read about him in school.
As I watched the episode, I kept waiting for Jane’s costume to become an issue. Would another storekeeper, passerby, or fellow trick-or-treater challenge Louie to explain his daughter’s costume? Would the show find some other way of addressing the painful, racist history of blackface? The stand-up routine that precedes the segment helped set my expectations that the show would start a conversation about the costume. Louie explains, “I’ve got two little white girls in my house. When they complain, it kind of drives me crazy, because I know what the world is like around them. They have no idea.” As an illustration, he describes how his daughter complained about the bubble gum-flavored medicine she took to bring down her fever, and compares her situation with that of most kids in the world, who don’t have medicine at all. His point is that his daughters–by virtue of their race, age, gender, nationality, and class–have an enormous amount of privilege of which they’re unaware.
I also expected the show to address the issue of blackface in more depth because, as I mentioned earlier, Louis C.K. seems invested in considering bigotry and privilege from his standpoint as a comedian. As an example, check out his interview with Terry Gross, in which they discuss his conversations with Chris Rock about race and a scene from his show that centers around Louie’s usage of the word “fag” for comedic effect. In that scene, a fellow comedian who is gay explains the history of the word and how hearing it is likely to impact gay audience members. While I don’t agree with C.K.’s ultimate stance–he continues to use the word in his routines even after hearing his friend’s explanation–I do think that a show that devotes that amount of space to discussing homophobic language is clearly interested in talking about prejudice.
Given this context, why doesn’t “Halloween/Ellie” do more to engage with the issue of blackface and what it means for a “little white girl”–who, as Louie himself points out, has no idea how much inequality there is in the world–to dress as an African-American abolitionist leader for Halloween?
Of a piece with that question is the matter of where the comedy is supposed to come from. Are we meant to find humor in the puzzled reaction of the storekeeper and Louie’s mumbled explanation? In the sight of a little girl in a clearly inappropriate costume, dressed as a historical figure whose experience was so different from her own? In an interview on Conan, C.K. reveals the real-life inspiration for the costume–he wanted to dress as Frederick Douglass for Halloween when he was a kid, and his mother wouldn’t let him. But the interview, like the episode, doesn’t really engage with the meaning of the costume and the connotations of blackface. They’re almost out of time, Conan explains, so they’ll just roll the clip. So the racism of the blackface costume is implicitly acknowledged–by virtue of the fact that C.K.’s mother wouldn’t let him wear it, which Conan says was a good choice–without prompting a conversation about why the fictional Louie would let his daughter wear it, or why the real-life C.K. would use it on his show. The interview reiterates the strange silence of the episode, which simultaneously draws a big red circle around the blackface costume and seems to duck the issue.
Instead, the Halloween segment ends up being about a confrontation with two threatening men dressed as zombies, who back Louie and his daughters against a wall on a deserted street. It’s not clear whether their taunts would lead to real violence or if they’re getting their kicks through verbal sadism, but in either case it’s a scary situation. Interestingly, it’s Lily (the younger daughter) who makes the first defensive move. “It’s not nice to be scary!” she yells, jabbing her wand at the two men as they back away. Louie takes advantage of the distraction to toss a metal object through a storefront window, setting off an alarm and sending the two men running.
The scene relates to Louie’s monologue about his daughters’ privilege in two ways. First, their privilege doesn’t make them invulnerable; the safety and protection of their everyday lives can be shattered in a simple turn of the corner. Second, as Brian Raftery at Vulture points out, “[Louie’s] little white girls may not know much about the world, but while that naïveté makes them vulnerable, it also makes them fearless enough to speak truth to power.” Lily has the courage to confront the men both because she’s been taught to stand up for herself and others, and because she doesn’t have enough experience to know to be afraid.
Just as it’s a sign of privilege that Lily can challenge the men so fearlessly, perhaps it’s a sign of privilege that Jane can wear blackface in New York City without seeming to cause a ripple–and a sign of the show’s privilege that it can show a character wearing blackface more or less without comment, and apparently without depicting any of the pain, anger, indignation, or other consequences the sight of someone in blackface might well bring about in reality.
Given the kind of show Louie is, I’m sure the audience is meant to understand that it’s showing Jane in blackface self-knowingly or ironically. My guess is we’re supposed to laugh because the costume is so clearly inappropriate and offensive. But the idea that showing racist imagery, or using homophobic language, or making sexist jokes, etc. with the knowledge that it’s racist/homophobic/sexist somehow cancels out real discrimination and harm has never made sense to me. I think that it’s great that Louie wants to engage with controversial topics, but what the show does with blackface in this episode doesn’t seem like meaningful engagement at all.