The Mixed Message of Louis CK’s Apology to Sarah Palin

Louis CK slammed Sarah Palin with some particularly vulgar, obscene, anatomy-focused tweets back in 2010. They helped explode his Twitter popularity and resulted in Greta Van Susteren threatening to protest if he was named host of the Congressional Correspondents’ Dinner.

But the comedian experienced a moment of remorse just this year: when he saw the politician at the SNL 40 event, he felt bad and apologized to her, and then went on Howard Stern to explain why he did so (some of the commentary, obviously, is NSFW). “Something came over me emotionally, and I said, ‘well, I owe you an apology,'” CK told Stern.

But after this, the two men, each known for his sometimes line-crossing commitment to honesty, went on a tangent about their confusion over despising yet being simultaneously attracted to conservative figures like Palin, Michele Bachmann and Fox News’s Megyn Kelly. Louis CK thoughtfully sourced that feeling, calling Palin a stand-in for the girls in high school who rejected him: “Unattainable, athletic cheerleader types, athletic and smart and really conservative, they looked at me like a piece of a garbage.”

This is a fascinating mini-development on several cultural fronts. First of all, in the wake of Trevor Noahgate, it demonstrates that it would be a difficult feat to find a comedian who hasn’t at some point said something ranging from off-base to genuinely offensive. CK is beloved by some progressives as one of the smartest, most self-aware people working in comedy today, yet he hardly has clean hands. Secondly, it seems like CK has at least partially absorbed the message that you can hate a female politician as much as you want, but crude sexism doesn’t actually strike a blow for your ideals. In fact, it only continues to advance sexism as a legitimate tool to silence and shame powerful women.

And yet a moment later, there CK and Stern were, dissecting Palin’s sexual attractiveness. Two steps forward, one step back.

Back in 2008, a particular debate raged about Palin. It was incredibly hard to get progressive and conservative men and some progressive women to differentiate sexist commentary about Palin from legitimate critique of her. Feminists (myself included) went on the record with our anger at Palin as a candidate, as someone who would usher in extremely harmful policies for women while allegedly advancing equality by her presence. And yet, we said, for many of our so-called allies to call her gendered names, to use sexualized or otherwise diminishing slurs, hurt all women too. More shamefully, it proved how hypocritical many on the left side of the aisle could be, pretending to decry sexism against our own candidates but not against “theirs.”

Now, there’s no question that Palin is a fraught public figure with her own history of noxious comments, and her gaffes are laughable at times. Yet we absolutely can poke fun at her ideas and expression without resorting to this absolute mania about her body. The discussion CK and Stern had about their desire for Palin and Bachmann had one thing going for it: it was honest rather than vindictive, explaining that the reason these women get under progressive men’s skin is a mixture of political hatefulness and the sexual power they have over male observers. I appreciated CK acknowledging that this came from his own feelings of inadequacy. And yet, this is only a step or two removed from the way so many conservative and liberal pundits constantly speak about Hillary Clinton. “I have often said, when she comes on television, I involuntarily cross my legs,” said Tucker Carlson. “When Barack Obama speaks, men hear, ‘Take off for the future.’ And when Hillary Clinton speaks, men hear, ‘Take out the garbage,'” pundit Marc Rudov said.

CK and Stern are entertainers, not pundits, so they’re less professionally obligated to refrain from sexism. But their discussion of how Palin and Bachmann affect them sexually is still eerily reminiscent of Carlson’s snide comments about Clinton for comfort. In both instances and so many more, why do we need to hear about the ways that female politicians make men feel personally inadequate?

It’s going to be a brutally long 18 months if no one has learned the difference between even the most vicious political critique of a woman politician and attacks using aggressively gendered language. CK’s apology to Palin is a positive sign, but in the context of his discussion with Stern, it’s a rather small glimmer of hope.