Louis C.K.’s Controversial Grammy Win Shows Us How Fickle ‘Cancel Culture’ Can Be

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Photo credit: Laura Cavanaugh - Getty Images
Photo credit: Laura Cavanaugh - Getty Images

Louis C.K. is one of the last people you’d have expected to win a Grammy award on Sunday night. Well, perhaps not if you’re the comedian, who’d already won two Grammys. Or the Recording Academy voting board, who decided to award him the Best Comedy Album gong. But the rest of us have been left with mouths agape that less than five years after the comedian admitted to numerous acts of sexual misconduct, he has not only been celebrated by his peers, but for a comedy special in which he joked about his misdemeanours. Far from the Shakespeare-worthy banishment we expected of Louis C.K. from Hollywood, he was been welcomed back with open arms, like a disgraced uncle waltzing through the door at Christmas and being handed a sherry on arrival.

Unsurprisingly, the Recording Academy has been criticised for giving C.K. the award, with many people saying it’s a sucker punch to victims of sexual misconduct and normalises abuse. Guardian journalist Moira Donegan asked whether the careers of the women comedians Louis C.K. victimised have 'recovered from the stigma of coming forward'. Sarah Ann Masse, a writer-producer-director, who was one of the women to accuse Harvey Weinstein of sexual misconduct, thanked the entertainment industry ‘for once again telling us that survivors don’t matter’.

In awarding C.K. for his art - regardless of how ground-breaking, or hilarious it may be to some - the Academy has shone a light on just how fickle, and discriminatory ‘cancel culture’ can be.

In a similar vein to convicted rapist Weinstein and disgraced comedian Bill Cosby, rumours of sexual misconduct had followed C.K. for years during his career. When pressed about the allegations, which included him either asking women to watch him masturbate or forcing them to do so, he routinely dismissed them as nothing more than unsubstantiated backstage gossip, telling Vulture in 2016: ‘I don’t care about that. That’s nothing to me. That’s not real.’

Yet a year later, when the New York Times released a report about five women’s allegations of sexual misconduct, spanning from the mid 1990s to 2005, C.K. immediately changed his tune. In a statement released to the Times, the comedian stated that the allegations were, in fact, true. ‘There is nothing about this that I forgive myself for,’ he said in his statement. ‘And I have to reconcile it with who I am. Which is nothing compared to the task I left them with.’ He ended his apology by saying he would step back and ‘take a long time to listen’. But his step turned out to be no more than a sideways shuffle.

Photo credit: Ben Gabbe - Getty Images
Photo credit: Ben Gabbe - Getty Images

After his admission of guilt, C.K.’s deals with numerous television networks and streaming platforms like Netflix and Universal Pictures were terminated. At a time when the #MeToo movement was building momentum, it appeared Hollywood was finally holding individuals guilty of misconduct accountable. But it was short-lived. In 2018, C.K. surprisingly cancelled his own cancelation, returning to the comedy scene with performances at the Comedy Cellar in New York, and later announcing a 30-city comedy tour. In 2019, he released his now award-winning stand-up show, Sincerely Louis C.K., in which he joked about consent and his sexual quirks. ‘Obama knows my thing — do you understand how that feels?’ he jested. Instead of taking time out to learn from his mistakes, C.K. used them for his punchlines.

C.K.’s Grammy win has come at a time when many of us are left questioning how society should hold individuals guilty of wrongful acts to account.

Days earlier, actor Will Smith hit the headlines after slapping comedian Chris Rock on stage following a quip about Smith’s wife Jada Pinkett Smith’s shaven head (the Matrix star suffers from alopecia). Minutes after the altercation, Smith was controversially awarded the Best Actor gong for his performance in King Richard. ‘Love will make you do crazy things,’ he said in his acceptance speech, providing what many have deemed to be a half-considered apology to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and his fellow nominees.

Photo credit: Neilson Barnard - Getty Images
Photo credit: Neilson Barnard - Getty Images

Despite the Academy claiming it asked the actor to leave the Oscars, to which he refused, the fallout from the slap ended almost as quickly as the ceremony curtains fell. The same night, the LAPD chose not to investigate Smith over the altercation and videos circulated online of the award winner dancing at the Oscars after party to the cheers of his contemporaries. Other than stepping down from his role on the Academy, Smith walked away from the night with a bruised ego and reputation, but still with an award in hand.

Of course, not all wrongful acts are comparable. There are nuances to consequences, which should take into account the severity of a person’s transgressions, their admission of guilt and the illegality of their misdemeanours. But in rewarding individuals like C.K. and Smith in the aftermath of wrongdoing, Hollywood sends a message to the world that bad actions can be forgiven, and quickly, if the transgressor's art is popular or impressive enough. And this message is deeply damaging for the victims.

When Louis CK was handed his Grammy, how much thought was spared for the women he abused? Or the female comedians whose careers have stagnated after they pivoted to the role of whistleblower for C.K.'s misconduct? Now is the moment to call Time’s Up, not a time out on perpetrators of sexual misconduct and assault.

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