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Louis CK is a reminder that enlightened jokes alone don’t make you Top Feminist

Men benefit from extremely low standards when it comes to feminism.

Selfish, but the first thing I thought when the Louis CK story broke yesterday was “there goes the bear riff”. I love the bear riff. I’ve seen CK do it live – at the O2 in 2013 – and let me tell you, it was very funny. The bear riff is about dating, and I’m now going to murder it by writing it out. Think of it as a long way round to Margaret Atwood’s axiom, “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them”, only with more punchlines.

“It takes courage to go on a date, for both sides,” says CK. “The male courage, traditionally, is that he decided to ask… And the courage it takes for a woman to say yes is beyond anything I can imagine.” Here, he starts to ramp up: “Globally and historically, we’re the number one threat of injury and mayhem to women. We’re the worst thing that ever happens to them. That’s true!” At this point the audience discomfort breaks into laughter, but CK’s got further to go with the joke: “If you’re a guy, try to imagine that you could only date a half-bear, half-lion. ‘Oh, I hope this one’s nice. I hope he doesn’t do what he’s going to do.’”

As someone who’s spent a hefty chunk of her professional life trying to get people to take seriously the idea that men are a threat to women, hearing a crowd of 16,000 get on board with the theme was a pretty great moment. I didn’t enjoy the bear riff so much when I looked it up on YouTube for this piece. Somehow it’s lost its shine since the New York Times published five women’s corroborating accounts of CK’s “sexual misconduct” – which is a nice dry way of describing an alleged predilection for slapping out his penis and masturbating in front of women.

CK has responded to the allegations confirming them as true, and apologising for his conduct. But the contrast between his stage show rhetoric and the news reports is a reminder of an idea, curiously widely held, that men only commit sexual offences because they don’t know any better. Either they’re dinosaurs lumbered with 70s-sitcom attitudes after the meteor of feminism, and so deserve our pity. Or, if the men in question are too young for that defence, then they’ve been miseducated in the subtle ways of women, and what they need is a crash course of consent classes to help them grasp the perilous difference between yes and no.

For as long as there have been rumours about CK (and they’ve been circulating for a long time), there has also been disbelief, which came in part from the fact that he wrote material with such an incisive sense of patriarchy’s workings. One Slate article even labelled it “feminist comedy”.

It’s typical of the low standards men benefit from that simply describing how men are bad for women could be enough to get CK lauded as a hero of the women’s movement. In the same way that a male primary school teacher who simply shows up to work for long enough can find himself glass-elevatored to the headship, just dropping some chat about sex and power can be enough to see a man appointed Top Feminist. And if, like CK (who wove references to a pathetic masturbation habit throughout his comedy), he seems to be admitting to personal foibles as he goes? Then he can be praised all the more for his honesty.

There are men, for sure, who mouth feminism as a social nicety with no thought for how it ties up with their private actions. But I want to give the men who commit sexual harassment more credit than that. I’m sure that most of them “get it”. Actually, it’s kind of hard for a man to effectively harass and abuse women if he doesn’t “get it” – “it” being the relative standings of men and women in society. Knowing you’ve got the power doesn’t in any way imply a commitment to give it up. Right now, as we pick up the post-Weinstein pieces, the last thing I want is to hear men being coruscating about how bad they are. Fuck your bear riff, shut your mouth, and zip your dick up for a long, long time please.

This article was updated on 10 November 2017 to include Louis CK's response.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

Photo: Getty
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Commons Confidential: Tories turn on “Lord Snooty”

Your weekly dose of gossip from around Westminster.

With the Good Friday Agreement’s 20th anniversary rapidly approaching, Jeremy Corbyn’s office is scrambling to devise a celebration that doesn’t include Tony Blair. Peace in Northern Ireland is a sparkling jewel in the former prime minister’s crown, perhaps the most precious legacy of the Blair era. But peace in Labour is more elusive. Comrade Corbyn’s plot to airbrush the previous party leader out of the picture is personal. Refusing to share a Brexit referendum platform with Blair and wishing to put him in the dock over Iraq were political. Northern Ireland is more intimate: Corbyn was pilloried for IRA talks and Blair threatened to withdraw the whip after the Islington North MP met Gerry Adams before the 1997 election. The Labour plan, by the way, is to keep the celebrations real – focusing on humble folk, not grandees such as Blair.

Beleaguered Tory Europeans call Brextremist backbencher Jacob Rees-Mogg – the hard-line European Research Group’s even harder line no-dealer – “Lord Snooty” behind his back. The Edwardian poshie, who orchestrates Theresa May’s taxpayer-funded Militant Tendency (members of the Brexit party within a party are able to claim “research” fees on expenses), is beginning to grate. My irritated snout moaned that the Beano was more fun and twice as informative as the Tories’ own Lord Snooty.

Labour’s Brexit fissures are getting bigger but Remainers are also far from united. I’m told that Andy Slaughter MP is yet to forgive Chuka Umunna for an “ill-timed” pro-EU amendment to last June’s Queen’s Speech, which led to Slaughter’s sacking from the front bench for voting to stay in the single market. The word is that a looming customs union showdown could trigger more Labexits unless Jezza embraces tariff-free trade.

Cold war warriors encouraging a dodgy Czech spy to smear Comrade Corbyn couldn’t be further from the truth about his foreign adventures. In Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium, Corbyn recalled spending a night in Burundi pumping up footballs. The club offered to donate shirts for an aid trip but he asked for the balls to be shared by entire African villages. He was War on Want, not Kim Philby.

Screaming patriot Andrew Rosindell, the chairman of an obscure flags and heraldry committee, is to host a lecture in parliament on the Union Jack. I once witnessed the Romford Tory MP dress Buster, his bull terrier, in a flag waistcoat to greet Maggie Thatcher. She walked past without noticing.

A Tory MP mused that Iain Duncan Smith was nearly nicknamed “Smithy”, not “IDS”, for his 2001 leadership campaign. Smithy would still have proved a lousy commander.

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia