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Aziz Ansari and the struggle to trust the "feminist" men of Hollywood

His platform was built partly on the exploitation of feminism. He's not the first "woke" man to disappoint.

By Cate Young

Aziz Ansari is not a stranger to the nuances of sexual impropriety. Everything from his television show, Master of None, his book (now ironically) titled Modern Romance, and his public Identity as a feminist suggest that Ansari has spent more time thinking about the ethical nuances of dating and relationships than many of his contemporaries. That's what made the allegations against him, detailed last weekend on Babe.net, especially shocking and controversial. Ansari had planted his flag firmly on the side of women through his public interviews and creative work, and we believed him. Grace, the woman who shared her story (though that's not her real name), believed him. In his encounter with that young woman, he broke her trust and betrayed the public persona he had been building and profiting from for years.

When Babe published Grace's account, it opened the floodgates to a new, more difficult conversation around the #MeToo movement, namely "How do we talk about the smaller kinds of attacks women routinely endure that do not rise to the level of criminality?" While the way Babe handled the reporting of Grace's account has rightly been subject to criticism, the discourse that has been generated in response is a necessary next step in interrogating our culture of systemic sexism and misogyny. Coercive sex is still harmful even if no physical violence is involved, and it is uniquely harmful coming from men who make public claims of feminist allyship.

In a widely praised interview with Letterman in 2014, Ansari used his signature wit to explain how his then girlfriend had helped him identify as feminist, and why feminism wasn't as scary as most people thought. "If you look up 'feminist' in the dictionary, it just means someone who believes men and women [should] have equal rights," he said. "You're a feminist if you go to a Jay-Z and Beyoncé concert and you're not like, I feel like Beyoncé should get 23 percent less than Jay-Z." The segment earned him a lot of press and praise, and he went on to use those sentiments in his stand-up act, including his 2015 Netflix special, Live at Madison Square Garden. In the same special, he incorporates bits about street harassment and internet trolling, examining the big and small ways men make women's lives more difficult and dangerous. Later that year, his Netflix comedy, Master of None, debuted to critical acclaim.

In season one of Master of None, the episode "Ladies and Gentlemen" deals with Ansari's character, Dev, slowly realising that sexism is a constant concern for the women in his life, and that, as women, they are forced to operate with an overabundance of caution when dealing with men. In the opening scenes, Dev and his friend Arnold's casual jaunt home from a bar is contrasted with the increased sense of danger felt by his cast-mate Diana as she's followed home from the same bar by a creep who wouldn't take a hint. The rest of the episode explores how even these smaller acts of intrusion contribute to a wider sense of risk for women. It makes the point eloquently and smartly, and not once does it condescend to the audience by clarifying that these things are "not as bad as rape."

Ansari presciently tackles the current moment even more directly in Master of None's season-two finale, "Buona Notte," when his character approaches a former coworker to find out if she quit because she was sexually harassed by their colleague Chef Jeff. She confirms that she did and relays the many minute ways in which Chef Jeff was sexually inappropriate with her and made it untenable for her to do her job. She never alleges anything "worse" than inappropriately sexual verbal interactions and yet Master of None treats her story with the severity it deserves. When Lisa later pens a blog post going public with her allegations and other women come forward as well, the stories they tell are recognised for what they are: a clear and repeated pattern of sexually exploitative behaviour by a man in power. At no point are their stories diminished as "not rape."

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These two episodes (the latter of which was written by Ansari and co-creator Alan Yang) demonstrate that Ansari has a fairly nuanced understanding of how power dynamics work. The argument that Ansari's only transgression is in "not being a mind reader" is moot when he has spoken and written extensively about how body language and interpersonal cues are central to building strong romantic connections in the digital age. Ansari need not have been a mind reader to know that Grace was not enjoying their encounter, he only needed to pay attention, listen to what she was saying, and prioritise her comfort over his own sexual desires. And yet the statement Ansari released in the aftermath of Grace's allegations contains neither the words "apologise" or "regret." He takes responsibility for nothing.

The backlash against Grace's story is so severe in part because it forces us to reflect on our own sexual pasts and recognise that far fewer of those encounters were consensual than we initially thought. For men it is visceral: many recognise themselves in Grace's description and are aghast that what they consider "good game" is widely perceived to be predatory. For women it is horrifying: Grace's story reflects a reality many have lived and accepted as normal, tamping down their own instincts in the name of civility and "the rules of the game." Grace's story asks us to not only acknowledge Ansari's behaviour as unacceptable, but to recalibrate our own experiences to fit this new understanding. It is a difficult thing to do but it's not impossible, and Ansari's own work makes that clear.

The enraged defenses of Ansari recall the reaction in some corners to the allegations against another famously feminist-leaning comedian, Louis C.K. To some, the lack of physical violence against C.K.'s victims classifies their encounters as ones unworthy of the #MeToo conversation. But as the details in that story have illuminated, C.K. used his public support of women as a cover for his private abuses. It's notable that the men shared the same manager, and that Ansari refused to comment on the allegations against C.K. It's also notable that Ansari elevated the work of actress and producer Lena Waithe, enabling her to create her own show, Showtime's The Chi, not unlike C.K., who helped raise the profiles of Pamela Adlon and Tig Notaro. Notaro has since spoken publicly about feeling used as way to "cover his tracks." While Ansari's behaviour did not rise to the level of C.K.'s it still crossed an unacceptable boundary.

These men are not the first to align themselves with feminism as a way to infiltrate women's spaces or provide themselves the benefit of the doubt. As women have developed defences against men's transgressions, men have in turn developed more sophisticated ways of getting us to lower them voluntarily. They manipulate the language of feminism to their own advantage and the effect is that we are made to feel complicit in the harm we endure at their hands for ever trusting them in the first place.

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So what comes next? How do we reconcile our desire for more men to take up the work of feminist activism with the now documented pattern of men using feminist rhetoric to undermine our sense of safety? Are we simply doomed to be suspicious of every famous "woke bae" like Matt McGorry or Justin Baldoni who claim to be filling in the gaps that do actually need to be filled by male feminist allies? How can we trust that famous men who embrace feminism are not simply engaging in a performance that helps their brands or obscures their private transgressions? For now, we can't. It might be unfair, but the only practical solution seems to be for men to become more comfortable with accepting female suspicion in stride. History has shown us that even the men who appear to be putting their money where their mouth is may be complicit; after all, even Harvey Weinstein pledged $5M to fund an endowment at USC to provide scholarships to female directors. Such actions alone are no longer proof of safety. And while it's easy to condemn the Weinsteins of the world, it is much harder to recognise that much of the very fabric of what we have been taught about what should constitute sex and dating is harmful to women and always has been. There is a wide spectrum of harm between "creepy dude" and "violent rapist" and examining those shades of gray with nuance is the only way to move the #MeToo movement forward.

Famous men can contribute to this effort by continuing to do the work of dismantling systemic sexism knowing that there may be no personal or professional benefit. Performative work like wearing a Time's Up pin or supporting the UN's HeforShe campaign are lovely but ultimately useless gestures in the long term. We need more male celebrities to do the work of making noise and disrupting norms in Hollywood. Just once it would be nice to read a story about an actor threatening to walk away from a project because his female costar does not have pay parity, instead of the other way around. The problems women face in the industry are by and large caused and perpetuated by men, and it's their job to fix them. It's as important, however, that these men model feminist values in their real lives by living the values they preach, and taking them into the personal spaces they inhabit. It's all well and good for Aziz Ansari to believe Beyoncé and Jay-Z deserve financial parity, but what does that mean for the women whose personal boundaries he has eroded? Even Jay-Z had to learn that lesson.

Via: Cosmopolitan US