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Louis C.K., Fatherhood and the Sexism of Lowered Expectations

Posted: 09/27/2012 7:09 pm

Louie, TV's best comedy, also happens to be pop-culture's best portrayal of fatherhood, maybe ever. The throughline of this semi-autobiographical series -- created, exec-produced, written, directed, edited and starring stand-up and single-dad Louis C.K. -- is a no-bullshit take on parenting that does to Bill Cosby what he did to the bumbling sitcom dads before him.

Louie isn't nearly the dad Cliff Huxtable was. He's divorced, doesn't own a house and is making it up as he goes. Sometimes his parenting sucks and sometimes it's amazing, but it always feels real, rather than a mere set-up to a punchline. And Louie always does his damnedest, right up to shepherding his daughter's stowaway duckling through a USO tour of Afghanistan.

In the first episode of season three, he buys a mid-life crisis motorcycle and promptly crashes it. But it isn't that he hurt himself, it's that he couldn't then pick up his kids -- that they might not have had a dad to pick them up at all if it had been worse. The scene has sight-gags, yeah, but the subtext of parental responsibility is serious.

The following ep opens with an adorable kitchen-table joke session between Louie and his two little girls, one of which Louie brings into his act. Her joke is amusingly odd -- "Who didn't let the gorilla into the ballet?" -- but what impacts the viewer is Louie's beaming pride at her creativity. There's a warmth and honesty to these quotidian vignettes with his daughters, whether they're discussing the vagaries of language (seriously, why are "tyrant" and "tyranny" pronounced differently?) or pushing him to get a girlfriend (resulting in that fantastic two-parter with Parker Posey).

But what makes C.K. so important is that he doesn't just break free of the stereotypical buffoonish father, he rails against the sexism of lowered expectations -- a phrase introduced to me by St Vincent's Annie Clark in reference to her guitar-playing, but which similarly applies to our societal devaluing of dads.

"You're doing fine, you're obviously a great dad," Louie is told by fellow PTA member Pamela during classic first-season episode "So Old/Playdate." Incredulous, he asks, "Well, how do you know I'm such a great dad? Just because I'm in the same room with my children, that's it?" "Yeah. Exactly," she replies. "Just by showing up you're father of the year. You're here. You're peeling a carrot. You're amazing."

C.K. is right. That's not amazing. It's our jobs as fathers to share the parental workload, even if that means, as it did for me today, waking up at stupid 5:30 a.m. because your stupid toddler is on a stupid early-morning kick and it's your stupid turn. It means helping pick them up, tuck them in and take them out, filling the laundry and emptying the dishwasher, playing with toys and putting them away. It means taking the pressure off moms.

In an interview with Slate last year, C.K. doubled-down. "If I do something for my kids, I get a medal, because most fathers don't. If a mother makes a tremendous effort for her kids and does incredible things, no one gives a shit, because she's a mom, and that's what she's supposed to do. It's like giving a bus driver a medal for driving straight ahead. Nobody's interested. And that's really not fair, but it is the way it is."

C.K. isn't just talk, either. He does his show on FX because they gave him complete creative control -- which includes shooting only half the week so he can single-parent the other half. He may do some writing or editing after his girls have gone to bed or are at school, but on kid-days his set shuts down.

It's admirable and, as C.K. would say, not praiseworthy. It's also, admittedly, a rare case of workplace flexibility that allows him to balance his work and family life so well. The general lack of such flexibility is the crux of The Atlantic magazine's mommy-wars flag-planter "Why Women Can't Have it All."

Much of Anne-Marie Slaughter's article engages in the usual working-mom mindfuckery -- albeit from the point-of-view of a 1 Percenter whose at-risk teenage boy "forced" her to leave a high-ranking State Department job to return to her lowly tenured professorship at Princeton. But flexibility in the workplace is a parenting issue, not exclusively a mothering issue -- and Slaughter almost completely dismisses dads, including her husband. (She's not alone. In Slate's infographic takedown, "The Atlantic's Guide to Womanhood," the man column just says, "Read. Relax. Enjoy.")

Apparently us guys can have it all because we don't care as much about our kids as women do. (Sidenote: nobody has it all.)

Is this because society has conditioned dads to care more about working than parenting? Yes, Slaughter says, but even more she argues it's biological. "When I described the choice between my children and my job to Senator Jeanne Shaheen, she said exactly what I felt: 'There's really no choice.' She wasn't referring to social expectations, but to a maternal imperative felt so deeply that the 'choice' is reflexive."

Guess what? There's a paternal imperative, too. I sure as hell feel it, and if some dads aren't responding enough, why give 'em an easy out for their half-assed parenting? If they're not doing their share, then they themselves are to blame. Don't let bad dads off the hook by saying their apathy or laziness is biological and sociological--and don't dismiss good dads through philosophies like Attachment Parenting, which make men mere adjuncts.

As C.K. said in a brilliant Father's Day bit: "I decided I'm gonna be a dad, I'm not going to be mom's assistant. Don't do that if you're a dad; [don't] just wait for her to write you a list. Be a man, make your own list. Fathers have skills that they never use at home. You run a landscaping business and you can't dress and feed a four-year-old? Take it on. Spend time with your kids and have your own ideas about what they need.

"It won't take away your manhood, it will give it to you."

Louis C.K. is currently appearing at Toronto's JFL42, and touring the United States.

A version of this blog was originally published by The Grid.

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