Yes, what Aziz Ansari did was wrong, but is it #MeToo?
In the wake of the #MeToo movement, we now have another star to add to the blacklist of men who have been accused by women: Aziz Ansari. It is a huge disappointment to say the least, not only to South Asians excited by positive representation in media or fans of Ansari’s comedy, but also to feminists and advocates of the #MeToo movement, of which Ansari, a self-proclaimed feminist, is part of.
Ansari, who wore a Time’s Up pin at the Golden Globes as he accepted an award for his show, Master of None, counted himself amongst the people supporting women to tell their stories without fear of being judged or condemned. Ironically, it was the sight of this pin which compelled the woman to come forward with her story.
However, something is inherently different when one reads the story of “Grace” (not her real name), who connected with Ansari at an Emmy’s after party, because they were using the same vintage film camera. Grace, who had lobster for dinner with him, psyched that she was going out with a star comedian. Grace, who then went to Ansari’s apartment after dinner but left in an Uber, crying the entire way home.
What makes Grace’s story different from the other stories we’ve heard thus far – which has mainly been men using their power or influence over women to coerce them, and in some cases, masturbate in front of them – is that she met Ansari of her own free volition, on a date, and they met as equals. This is precisely what makes the reality of sexual assault, and more importantly, the way men practice and perceive sex, so pernicious. It does not have to be a clear-cut sexual attack to constitute not only a violation of the woman’s body, but also her mind. What is at stake is something deeper than the physical body, but something that can’t be physically touched – the hope of intimacy, connection and understanding, the hope of something meaningful.
Throughout the encounter, Grace struggled to say ‘no’. While there were moments when she verbally expressed her discomfort and wanted to stop, which Ansari listened to, he kept being persistent in his pursuit of sex, which made her feel pressured into doing something she didn’t want to do, but she ended up doing anyway. Throughout the encounter, whenever the cues were non-verbal, Ansari failed to sense Grace’s discomfort. This story, and many others like it, whether they’ve happened to us, our friends or people we know, isn’t just the failure of the individuals involved. It represents the failure of the culture we are all part of.
It is the failure of a culture where hyper-sexuality dictates the relations between men and women, where women are expected to go on despite their discomfort, because saying ‘no’ would be an abnormality.
It is the failure of a culture where women are not seen as sentient beings worthy of respect, conversation and also worthy of their own sexual pleasure, but simply sites of sexual satisfaction for men.
And it is the failure of a culture where men aren’t taught to be receptive to women’s emotional cues, where emotion and intimacy have been torn away from sex, because today it is pornography that dominates the sexual imagination, and pornography isn’t always kind to women. Today, it seems as if a date isn’t a chance to get to know someone you like, but an invitation to have intercourse without any intimacy.
In Ansari’s case, this isn’t only the failure of American culture. Ansari is a brown man, who grew up and currently lives in America, and he is also a Muslim man, who was probably affected by the conservatism surrounding sexuality that is rampant in South Asian communities and culture. While the public isn’t familiar with Ansari’s entire sexual history, it is fair to assume that these dimensions of religion, community and identity affected his sexual growth, just as they do for all Muslim-American youth in the US today.
Without an outlet to express himself sexually – where sex and even a discussion surrounding it becomes taboo – Ansari probably suffered in silence and discovered his sexuality in the dark. The added factor of an American society desexualising South Asian men, emasculating them in the shadow of the wholesome white American male, probably led Ansari to feel like he had to overcompensate in order to ‘prove’ his sexual mettle.
The facts are still hazy, and it’s important to note in light of this ambiguity that we haven’t heard Ansari’s side of the story, only that he was “surprised and concerned” when the alleged victim first told him she felt uncomfortable the day after.
The nature of the story, however, has prompted a backlash, with many taking Ansari’s side. People have argued that this exposé has and will further damage the credibility of the #MeToo movement, simply because this was initially a consensual encounter, and Ansari wasn’t in a position of institutional power over Grace. However, #MeToo is now a trend more powerful than just one story or case, and whether or not Grace’s story even qualifies for the hashtag is something that the culture will ultimately decide. After all, it was Ansari’s Time’s Up pin that incensed Grace to tell her story, making her angry enough to inform the public that while he may be ‘woke’ in his public beliefs, he is perhaps not as much in his private actions.
On the other hand, however, the backlash to the story was prompt and significant. Why did Grace reveal her story anonymously, in a movement where now millions of women have bravely come forward with their story to accuse their perpetrators? And is this promoting a culture where women increasingly think of themselves as victims, rather than as beings with agency? And shouldn’t we also be promoting a culture where more women have the confidence to say no and leave, instead of being pressured and regretting their actions after such encounters?
Moreover, it is important to scrutinize the role played by Katie Way, the writer who narrated Grace’s story for Babe. The writer reached out to Grace, not the other way round, and the subsequent manner in which the story is presented brings into question what the publication hoped to accomplish by airing such a story. It also brings into question the ethics of journalism and the responsibility of journalists when reporting cases that are this nuanced, involving the sexual experiences of vulnerable young women with famous men.
Throughout the article Way is seen putting herself into the story, and at some points it reads more like an unravelling yarn of gossip, rather than a nuanced report of a famous man’s alleged sexual assault of a 23-year-old young woman. Moreover, Way responded to criticism of her piece by Ashleigh Banfield, a seasoned journalist, by shaming her for her appearance. Does all of this damage the credibility of the story? Perhaps that too, is now up to the culture to decide.
In any case, this is a startling reminder that even men with the best intentions will end up acting on their base impulses, with the old adage during the the feminist movement, “The personal is political”, ringing true here. As James Baldwin, a gay black man and a critic of American race relations as well as sexuality, noted back in his day, the challenge for people in America is to achieve a viable yet organic connection between their public stance and their private lives.
Until the personal becomes political, and until we implement our ideas and ethics into our actions, more stories like this will emerge and we will be left throwing up our hands in confusion, unsure of how to proceed.
Time’s Up doesn’t just mean that women simply hold men accountable, though that is a certainly part of it. It means that not only do men need to change their behaviour to respect women, but that women, too, need to take better hold of their own agency.
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