Laughing all the way to the bank (Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for The Bob Woodruff Foundation)

April 8, 2022   6 mins

Recall the early days of #MeToo: the excitement, the promise, the sense of a tectonic shift reshaping the culture from the roots. There was a time, in the movement’s first fecund months, when powerful men were falling like dominos. It felt, then, like sweeping social change was finally here to stay — and like cancellation might actually be forever. Scalps were being collected, careers were being blown to smithereens, and the Harvey Weinsteins of the world, finally held to account for a lifetime of bad acts, were banished at last. If they weren’t locked in a literal prison, they were at least locked out of polite society by the newly empowered activists who now guarded every door and held every key.

In all this, the fall of filmmaker and comedian Louis CK was a blockbuster moment. The comedian’s predilection for masturbating in front of his peers had been an open secret for ages. But now the tide seemed to be turning. A massive story in the New York Times alleged that he had harassed five women, most of them fellow comedians, in the early 2000s. The response was outrage, and more importantly, consequences: Louis CK confessed, apologised, and dutifully vanished from public life for nearly a year.

“These stories are true,” the comedian acknowledged in a statement. “At the time, I said to myself that what I did was okay because I never showed a woman my dick without asking first, which is also true. But what I learned later in life, too late, is that when you have power over another person, asking them to look at your dick isn’t a question.”

The damage was not just reputational. It was quantifiable. His new movie, I Love You, Daddy, was abruptly shelved, never to be released. His management company cut him loose; his contracts with FX and TBS were cancelled; his past work was pulled from streaming services. Forbes estimated that the comedian’s immediate losses counted in the tens of millions. And that was before you counted all the income he’d never make now that, as the writer boldly predicted, his career was permanent toast.

It was enough to make even the most coolheaded feminist start to imagine a time, surely not too far off, when the movement would rise to absolute power and the patriarchy would lie in ruins. But this week, Louis CK punched a Grammy-shaped hole right through that little fantasy, by winning the music industry’s biggest award for Best Comedy Album. “Sincerely Louis CK” was the comedian’s first release since 2017, when the story of his sexual misconduct broke.

At the time of its release, the reaction to the new special was as much a microcosm for the divide between elite tastemakers and ordinary consumers as it was a response to the content itself. Critics mainly complained that Louis CK didn’t do enough to address and apologise for his inappropriate behaviour, while those who bought the album mainly laughed until they couldn’t breathe — a reaction for which they, too, were mercilessly indicted. (Slate’s review of the special scolded that these jokes might have been funny if told by a less repulsive entertainer to a less repulsive audience, before condemning both Louis CK and his fans in a single breath: “Everyone involved in that transaction deserves one another.”) At the time of writing, the show’s Rotten Tomatoes rating from viewers is a stellar 93%.

And yet, those same tastemakers still managed to be shocked, and to take it deeply personally, when the Grammy win was announced. “[Thanks] so much to our industry for once again telling us that survivors don’t matter,” tweeted writer and producer Sarah Ann Masse. To outraged critics, Louis CK’s comeback was like five years’ worth of progress undone.

But looking back, it’s hard to believe we were ever so confident in our ability to permanently separate a massively successful entertainer from an audience that still clamoured for his work. Even when Louis CK began popping up at comedy clubs in late 2018, the response from media folks and comedy scene critics was a chorus of “too soons” — as if their opinions mattered, when audiences at these events greeted him with wild applause.

Meanwhile, not only did those who’d cancelled the comedian continue to act as if his redemption request was theirs to reject or approve, they also adamantly refused to sketch out a framework for how a #MeToo’d man might return to normal life. When pressed — if not now, when? if not like this, then how? — the answer was a shrug. Who knows? And more importantly, who cares? Eventually, this question would be turned back on the asker: how could you even ask about redemption for cancelled men when their victims were still reeling from the trauma? “How do you come back from having your mentor destroy your career? How to you come back from having your boss ask for sexual favours?” scolded an NPR interviewee. “Those are the questions I think we should be taking up, not how guys get to come back and have the next stage of their careers.”

In fact, in 2018 Louis CK was already showing signs that he’d reached the limit of his willingness to play this particular game of rhetorical Calvinball. He was done apologising when there was no forgiveness on offer, done asking permission to live from people who not only weren’t going to grant it, but were clearly getting off on rejecting his pleas for clemency. In one of his first appearances on stage after the scandal broke, he asked: “What, are you going to take away my birthday? My life is over, I don’t give a shit.”

This line was dismissed at the time as mere bitter raving from a washed-up nobody. Now, it feels like a pretty incisive indictment of the hubris that had taken hold amongst the movement’s most strident activists. After all, #MeToo had already managed to radically dilute the concept of sexual assault to include not just the Weinsteins of the world but also things like ghosting, cheating, or preferring that one’s partner wear a certain type of eye makeup during sexual activity.

Aziz Ansari was #MeToo’d for being too pushy while seeking consent during a hookup and failing to intuit that his date wasn’t enjoying herself. Al Franken was forced out of public life after what has since been widely acknowledged as a politically-motivated smear campaign by a Right-wing talk radio host. Ansel Elgort continues to be dogged by allegations of “grooming” based on a handful of years-old, flirtatious snapchat exchanges by the then 20 year-old with teenaged fans.

So you could be forgiven, as man after man was toppled for increasingly esoteric violations of the rapidly-evolving norms, for thinking that you could cancel pretty much anyone for anything.

But in truth, the power of #MeToo to hold a cancelled man’s feet to the fire was already on the wane, diminishing with every renewed demand for more grovelling, more apologies, a few more slivers of flesh atop the pound that had already been collected. At the height of the movement’s influence, a choice was made: to be relentless, to rejoice in punishing those who not only transgressed but questioned the orthodoxy, and to scoff at the idea that these excesses might ever come back to haunt us. Had the movement gone too far? No! It hadn’t gone far enough!

It took a while to realise that we had created a toxic culture in which contrition was seen as pointless. And it was, ironically, the greatest gift the movement could give to its enemies: the courage that comes from having nothing to lose.

And now, we reap what we sowed. For all its influence over the discourse, and for all the scalps it’s collected from men who lacked the comeback capacity of someone like Louis CK, #MeToo cannot ultimately stop a popular entertainer from making money off his art — nor has it managed to persuade a plurality of people that the punishment for every weird sexual transgression should be permanent professional death.

One by one, the men we cancelled are coming back — if they ever left. Aziz Ansari is back on the comedy circuit. James Franco is still making movies. Christiano Ronaldo settled a lawsuit after a rape allegation and promptly returned to the soccer field. Ansel Elgort just starred in Spielberg’s West Side Story. The market, not the movement, still holds the power here.

But more importantly, the refusal of #MeToo gatekeepers to even imagine that the men they toppled might not stay gone forever is exposing the movement itself as something far less groundbreaking than its most fervent adherents might have hoped. The promise of a better, fairer, more ethical framework for women’s workplace equality simply never came to pass — not least because we couldn’t bring ourselves to abandon the fantasy of throwing transgressors into the bin and letting them rot. And in our focus on punishment above all, we abandoned the principles that any real, working system of justice requires: of proportionate punishments that fit the crime. Of fairness and humility. Of a path back into grace for those who’ve transgressed but atoned.

Instead, the movement has been reduced to a revenge-seeking apparatus that takes grievances at one end and produces the instant gratification of an internet outrage cycle at the other. We were promised sweeping social change. What we got was a ritual spanking machine. And while some people might be sustained by this, riding the outrage rollercoaster from one cancellation to the next, it’s depressing to see it come to this — even as Louis CK and his Grammy award laugh all the way to the bank.

Kat Rosenfield is an UnHerd columnist and co-host of the Feminine Chaos podcast. Her latest novel is You Must Remember This.